The locker room was sullen. Three weeks ago, after a humiliating loss in New York, defensive tackle Jonathan Allen’s profane rant captured players’ exasperation that they weren’t, in fact, better than the terrible Giants.
But Sunday night, the defense reiterated this is just what it is. It lacks attention to detail and has a knack for being lesser than the sum of its parts. Despite the fight the offense put up, the defense allowed three straight scores in the fourth quarter and pushed Allen’s frustration higher. Last year, Allen said, a coach told him: “People love to shout out God when things are going great. But you never hear it when things are going bad.”
“I’d just like to take this time to shout out God,” he said, and he ended his postgame news conference without taking any questions.
In each of the first three seasons under Del Rio, the defense started slowly but rebounded in time to help make a midseason playoff push. The slight uptick in recent weeks suggested this unit might follow suit. But after Sunday, there’s little reason to believe the defense can recover. Every relevant metric and eye test says it’s one of the worst in the league — and even if Coach Ron Rivera fired Del Rio, there’s no clear successor or path to improvement.
Points allowed per game, Weeks 1-6
Points allowed per game, Weeks 7-18
Sure, the Commanders (4-6) could look better next week at home against the abysmal Giants (2-8), which started undrafted rookie quarterback Tommy DeVito on Sunday and were outgained by Dallas by 468 yards. But the following weeks will feature elite offenses, including Miami, San Francisco and Dallas twice.
One Achilles’ heel is explosive plays. Washington has allowed 7.9 per game this year, the fifth-worst rate in the NFL. In past years, the defense has improved by greatly reducing its explosives allowed. But the Commanders gave up 11 on Sunday, their highest single-game total since 2021.
Initially, Washington still limited the damage. Seattle scored just three field goals in its first seven drives. Then running back Kenneth Walker III caught a check down. Commanders corner Danny Johnson slipped, safety Percy Butler missed another tackle and linebacker David Mayo was too slow to catch Walker as he sprinted down the sideline for a 64-yard touchdown.
Veteran corner Kendall Fuller pointed out it was particularly embarrassing because, in zone coverage, defenders should have gotten off blocks and broken to the ball faster.
“A three-yard pass shouldn’t go 64 yards,” he said.
Last week, the same sort of breakdown led to a 66-yard touchdown for New England running back Rhamondre Stevenson. And the week before — well, you get the point.
Explosive plays allowed per game
Another Achilles’ heel is the end of halves. Washington has been terrible at stopping opponents as the clock has wound down; with four or fewer minutes to go, it’s allowed 75 points this year, the most in the NFL.
Sunday was a perfect example. Late in the first half, Seattle kicked one field goal and would’ve kicked another if not for an intentional grounding by quarterback Geno Smith. Then, with less than five minutes remaining in the second half, Seattle was driving when the defense could’ve had a signature stop on fourth and five. St-Juste said he expected Seahawks receiver DK Metcalf to run a quick route, maybe a hitch, out or slant, so he played inside technique.
According to St-Juste, he jumped the slant route so fast it forced Smith to hesitate, which made Metcalf run into him, and a referee threw a flag for pass interference.
“I read the play before him, so I got there early,” St-Juste said. “So I guess I got penalized for being too good at the play.”
After Seattle scored, Washington quarterback Sam Howell led a gutsy, game-tying drive. This offseason, the Commanders poured resources into the defense because it was supposed to carry the team. It was supposed to insulate a young and developing quarterback — not the other way around. And yet it had one more chance to prove it could stand up in the big moment.
Seattle got the ball back with 52 seconds left and two timeouts. The game turned into one-on-one between St-Juste and Metcalf, and Metcalf won two critical routes, one on third down and one to set up the 43-yard field goal. If St-Juste had broken one of them up — or if rookie safety Quan Martin hadn’t missed a tackle — maybe Washington would’ve had its stand.
Later, Rivera was asked why the Commanders struggle at the end of halves.
“We stopped them on the two minute just before the half,” he said, referring to Smith’s intentional grounding. “We stopped them. So, sometimes you stop them, sometimes you don’t, okay?”
As Seattle lined up for its game-winning field goal, rookie defensive end KJ Henry asked the ref what would happen if the defensive line could draw the Seahawks offsides. Would there be a 10-second runoff, forcing overtime? The referee, Henry told him, said no; the clock was already stopped. It was just another small detail the Commanders had overlooked in a game full of them.
Washington’s great hopes for this defense dimmed considerably long ago. But after its performance in Seattle, there might not be any hope left at all.