Ron Rivera did not sound like a coach enjoying a comeback win after his Washington Commanders did, in fact, beat the Arizona Cardinals in front of a sellout crowd at home.
“I want to thank the fans for coming out,” Rivera said. “We really do appreciate them coming out, and we’ve got to be a better football team for them.”
The joy of a celebrating a 20-16 victory and handing Josh Harris his first meaningful football game ball since taking over as controlling owner was tempered by all sorts of problems that portend concerns moving forward, particularly on offense. Running back Antonio Gibson, whose fumble was one of three Washington turnovers, called the unit’s play “horrible,” and from quarterback Sam Howell to the offensive line, there’s plenty of room for improvement.
“It was just ourselves shooting ourselves in the foot,” wide receiver Terry McLaurin said. “Penalties, turning over the ball is not a great recipe for an offense. … We’ve just got to be better taking care of the ball.”
The Commanders won because their highly touted defense came to life and took over late. Even with that, it wasn’t a masterpiece.
Defensive tackle Jonathan Allen, who had a key sack in the fourth quarter, acknowledged, “Fans of this team know that in past years that’s not a game we would win.” That’s true: It was just the second time in the past decade Washington won a game with three or more turnovers.
Howell, who threw an interception and lost a fumble that immediately became a Cardinals touchdown, knows limiting those mistakes is where the work begins, with a visit to the Denver Broncos up next.
“I’ve got to make sure I protect the football,” Howell said. “Turnovers, penalties, sacks — just a lot of things I think I can do better.”
The defensive line led inside by Allen and Daron Payne and on the edge by Montez Sweat looks as good as advertised. The Commanders bolstered the defense by drafting cornerback Emmanuel Forbes in the first round to help with coverage, and the immediate returns are strong.
Washington held Arizona to just 210 yards — fourth best in the NFL through the first 15 games — and no touchdowns. Sweat strip-sacking Joshua Dobbs late in the third quarter changed the course of the season opener.
“The way the unit played as a whole on defense, I thought that was outstanding,” Rivera said. “They played hard, they made plays when they had to. They gave us opportunities, created field position, put us in scoring position — did the things that you’re going to do right now.”
The remade offensive line allowed Howell to be sacked six times. While some of that is on the second-year pro for holding on to the ball too long, a few were definitely the result of protection breaking down.
“Plain and simple, we’ve got to do better,” right tackle Andrew Wyllie said. “We take that very personally. We love keeping our guy clean. We didn’t necessarily do our best job of that.”
Cut by the New York Giants, former Washington wide receiver Jamison Crowder rejoined his first team last week on the practice squad and was elevated to the active roster for the Cardinals game. Crowder was sure-handed on three returns and is getting a spot on the 53-man roster as a result.
Gibson’s fumble will do him no favors as new offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy decides how to split the carries. Brian Robinson Jr. already is the clear No. 1, getting 19 of the 25 designed handoffs to a running back.