The Washington Commanders have a winnable game in Week 2 against the Detroit Lions. Coming off an encouraging opening day victory over Jacksonville, the hope is that Washington builds on that momentum against another of the recent bottom-feeders in the NFL. Over the past two seasons, the Commanders first two opponents combined to win fewer than 20% of their games.
It’s a trap game, if ever I saw one.
Now, to be fair, every week is basically a trap game. One of the best things about the NFL is that you can never be certain of any outcome. There’s no way the Giants should have beaten the Titans or the Bears topped the 49ers in week 1. How did Houston tie Indy? But it happens.
And the place where the Washington Commanders need to be most concerned is one of its greatest strengths – the middle of the defensive line.
This shouldn’t be a huge shock. In November, 2020, Washington traveled to Detroit and suffered a demoralizing loss to the moribund Lions by giving up a last second field goal after mounting an impressive 4th quarter comeback. In that game, running back D’Andre Swift carried 16 times for 81 yards. He also caught five passes for 66 yards and scored Detroit’s final touchdown. Most importantly, six of Swift’s 21 touches resulted in 1st downs.
His backup, BTW, some old guy named Peterson, also produced 1st downs on two of his five touches.
If anything, Detroit’s offensive line is better than it was two years ago. And so is D’Andre Swift. He is coming off a mammoth game against the Philadelphia Eagles – 15 carries for 144 yards, along with three catches for 31. If backup Jamal Williams hadn’t vultured a couple of short touchdown runs, Swift may well have challenged Saquon Barkley for Player of the Week honors.
These Commanders will be pivotal to beating the Lions in Week 2
Detroit has been quietly building one of the best offensive lines in the NFL. It begins in the middle with center Frank Ragnow, and also features the bookend tackles Penei Sewell and Taylor Decker. All three are first-round draft picks who have mostly played up to that pedigree. And left guard Jonah Jackson is coming off a Pro Bowl season.
Ragnow is also coming off an injury that cost him most of last season, and he did look shaky against the Eagles. But there is no reason to assume he won’t quickly return to form. Decker had a disappointing game as well, but again, he should be fine.
Detroit’s big problem is at right guard, where they lost starter Halapoulivaatai Vaitai in the pre-season. His replacement, the steady-if-unspectacular Tommy Kraemer, also missed week one, leaving Logan Sternberg to fill in. The results were not good, and there has not been much indication as to Kraemer’s status for this Sunday.
But Washington will nonetheless have its hands full. The strength of the defense, as evidenced against Jacksonville, is at tackle. Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne are studs, able to get great penetration on both running and passing downs. But they can’t play every down, and they can’t make every tackle. The loss of rookie Phidarian Mathis seriously depletes the depth in the middle. Daniel Wise is a good player, but he does not have the bulk you might want against Ragnow, Jackson, and Swift. To replace Mathis, the Commanders signed Donovan Jeter this week, and look for the 325-pounder to get some reps on Sunday.
Allen and Payne need to come up big again. Wise, Jeter, and perhaps Efe Obada need to give them some rest. And this is definitely a game for Cole Holcomb and Jamin Davis to step up. They combined for just eight tackles on 135 snaps against Jacksonville.
Detroit had one of the worst defenses in the league last season, and they gave up 38 to the Eagles on Sunday. But despite a mediocre receiving corps and the maligned Jared Goff at QB, they can score. They put 35 on a pretty good Eagles defense. They do it by relying on Swift and their offensive line. They want to control the ball and keep your offense off the field. If the interior of Washington’s defense – led by Allen and Payne, but supported by their backups and the linebackers – do not shut them down, it could be a long day at Ford Field.