Last week, I said that the key matchup in the Washington Commanders-Detroit Lions game tilted heavily in the Commanders favor. Yeah – I was wrong. On paper, the interior of the Washington defensive line, led by Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne, should have dominated a Detroit offensive line which started three backups at guard and center. But Allen was not at full strength, and without Phidarian Mathis, the Commanders made Evan Brown, Logan Stenberg, and Dan Skipper look like Pro Bowlers.
This doesn’t bode well for this week’s matchup against the Philadelphia Eagles. Because this week, the key matchup definitely favors Philly.
The Washington Commanders have one strong unit right now. It is not the defensive line, as it was supposed to be. It is not the offensive line, as it has been over the past two seasons. It sure as hell isn’t the secondary, linebacking corps. Or special teams.
The Commanders only strength comes at wide receiver. Terry McLaurin, Curtis Samuel, and Jahan Dotson have done exactly what we all hoped they would do. Together, through two games, they have accounted for 28 catches and six touchdowns. Including a few scattered rushing plays, they have amassed exactly 400 yards from scrimmage. They are not, as yet, the best trio of receivers in the league. But they are on their way.
Unfortunately, the Eagles are well-equipped to deal with the threat. Philadelphia does have the best trio of cornerbacks in the league. They already had a premiere defender in Darius Slay. They also had the emerging slot corner, who showed last year what he is capable of when he stays healthy. And they gladly scooped up James Bradberry – the hottest name on the free agent market two short years ago – when the New York Giants’ financial mismanagement forced them to release him.
Here’s what they did against Kirk Cousins, Justin Jefferson, and the Minnesota Vikings last week: 10 tackles, seven passes defended, three interceptions.
These are all above-average players at their positions. And here’s what makes them extra difficult…
Can the Commanders’ receivers contend with the Eagles’ secondary?
Their coaches actually play to their strengths. Bradberry has always been an outstanding zone corner, and Slay can pretty much play any style. Maddux has developed into an excellent zone slot player. So, wonder of wonders, the Eagles coaches, led by defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon and supplemented by defensive backs coach Dennard Wilson, call for a lot of zone.
This is not an all-out Rex Ryan-style blitz ‘em all the time defense. This is a patient defense. They have excellent pass rushers, who can generate pressure without resorting to blitzes. They have an improving linebacking corps (what a concept) that has actually gotten better under these coaches. (Just watch TJ Edwards progress.) And they have corners and safeties who know how to play zone, how to close fast and tackle.
Want to talk results? The Eagles in 2021 gave up the fifth-fewest explosive plays in the league. (I think the Commanders may have surpassed that total last week against Detroit). They gave up the eighth-fewest passing yards per attempt. Despite not blitzing, Philly scored the second most defensive touchdowns in 2021.
If you are old enough – and masochistic enough – you might remember Super Bowl XVIII. In that game, played in the Pirate Ship in Tampa, Washington entered a 3-point favorite over the Raiders. They lost by 29, biggest blowout in Super Bowl history at that point. Washington was 14-2 that year. Receivers Art Monk and Charlie Brown both averaged more than 15 yards per catch and combine to score 13 touchdowns.
In the Super Bowl, they ran into Mike Haynes and Lester Hayes. Hayes was in the middle of five straight Pro Bowl seasons. Haynes was one of the five greatest corners in the history of the NFL. They took Monk and Brown completely out of the game. They weren’t the only reason the Raiders dominated, but they were an integral part of it.
The Commanders enter the Philly game with a depleted offensive line. We don’t know who will be snapping the ball to Carson Wentz. And they are coming off a week in which they struggled mightily to run the ball against a mediocre Lions defense. I’m sure Scott Turner will still try to run the ball. But it’s hard to imagine the Commanders having any success if those wide receivers don’t come up big.
It’s not likely to happen. Then again, I never though Dan Skipper and Logan Stenberg would control Washington’s interior last week. It’s the NFL, and anything is possible. Here’s hoping Washington finds a way to win the most important matchup of the day.