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Six plays against the Dallas Cowboys that define the Commanders defensive struggles

Six plays against the Dallas Cowboys that define the Commanders season-long defensive struggles

NFL: Washington Commanders at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

The Commanders defense surprised so many with the level of regression that has occurred throughout the 2023 season. Against the Dallas Cowboys in their Thanksgiving day matchup, the majority of Washington’s problems reared their ugly heads against one of the most potent offenses in the NFL. Here are six plays that encapsulated the season-long problems for the Commanders defense.

The Commanders have seen its issues with edge contain throughout the season. In this specific instance, as Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott faked the off-tackle run, nobody on the first or second level accounted for the quarterback. Edge defender Casey Toohill crashes down on the running back without hesitation, leaving the sideline available to Prescott with room to run. Receiver Brandon Cooks runs a stair-step technique on his crosser that freezes and creates separation against cornerback Benjamin St-Juste. Prescott threw an off-target pass to Cooks.

Like the previous play, the edges are unsecured by Washington. The Cowboys run duo, which consists of multiple double teams on the first level by the offensive lineman. This specific run play typically puts the onus on the running back to make the right read based on the actions of the second-level defenders. The Cowboys used a seven-man blocking surface in the box against Washington, who is in their 4-3 base defense, and no safety in position to help in run support. In turn, Dallas took advantage of Washington’s alignments and Tony Pollard successfully bounced the run for a healthy nine-yard first-down gain.

The Cowboys challenged the Commanders secondary early and often on Thursday, and early in the game, Dak was slightly off-target on a potential touchdown that would have started the scoring on the night. In quarters coverage, each of the cornerbacks and safeties is responsible for a deep zone. On the boundary (short) side of the field, Benjamin St-Juste is playing off-coverage against receiver CeeDee Lamb. Over the top of St-Juste is safety Kam Curl, and he is responsible for a certain receiver based on Washington’s coverage rules. Prescott did an excellent job with his eyes, staring down the field side up until the point of the throw. Prescott’s eyes influenced Kam Curl to open his hips to the field side, essentially making the pass to Lamb a true 1-on-1 situation for Dallas because St-Juste was likely expecting inside help. Fortunately for Washington, the pass was overthrown.

Washington also has had issues with their defenders processing route patterns properly. In this instance, the Commanders are essentially playing quarters coverage to the field side, and veteran Danny Johnson is in the slot over the top of Lamb. Johnson allows Lamb to carry him too far upfield allowing Cooks’ underneath route to come open as he crosses Johnson’s face. Further, a good reason why this play was successful is that the defender did not have a good feel for the potential route concepts available to the Cowboys at this moment.

The safety play in Washington has been mediocre all season, and this touchdown for Brandon Cooks was one of the easier scores of his career. St-Juste is lined up as the slot showing press coverage against Cooks. Cooks’s foot quickness and acceleration at the snap easily allow Cooks’ to stack and separate from St-Juste. However, what hurts St-Juste even more is the lack of help that he received from Butler, whose eyes were in the backfield as the ball was thrown and he was unable to see Cooks cross his face for the Post route.

Lastly, Washington’s rush plans have not been impressive since trading away Montez Sweat and Chase Young. The line’s rush plan on this rep allowed Dak to escape the pocket and make a play when his receivers were initially covered. Along the line, Allen is aligned in a 4i, slightly to the inside of the left tackle. Allen rushes upfield, but edge rusher Andre Jones takes his rush inside of Allen, leaving no contain to keep Prescott in the pocket. Fuller, who is initially in a good position to cover Cooks, instantly loses Cooks’ to a scramble drill the second that he peeks into the backfield. Butler, like in previous videos, had his eyes locked solely on Prescott but also showed no zone feel for Cooks who was breaking back outside toward his zone until the football reached the catch point.

Alongside the fact that Washington has not been able to generate a turnover in nearly a month, the defensive discipline that Washington lacks has exacerbated the team’s inability to turn the football over. If mental processing is the main problem on all three levels, it will be interesting to see how Rivera simplifies things for his defensive unit that has nowhere to go but up.