The stats seemed to defy logic. Washington moved the ball, produced chunk plays and had chances to score. But two negative plays on its opening drive killed one opportunity, a missed field goal spurned another, a fumble wasted what could have been three more points (at least), and all the while the defense allowed two big plays for touchdowns.
In what has become a frustrating trend for Washington this year, it needed almost all of the second half to make up for its first-half mistakes and ultimately fell short. Those early “missed opportunities,” as Coach Ron Rivera called them, proved too much to overcome.
“Getting a lead helps your chances to win. It’s pretty simple,” offensive coordinator Scott Turner said. “The last four games, in particular — you go back to the first Giants game, our drive stalled, you have a field goal attempt, you’re not going to make all those, okay. The next game against the Cowboys, we didn’t get it on fourth and inches. The negative, obviously, is we didn’t score, but their offense had to start from their own 1 and they ended up getting a safety. The next game we had a 20-yard gain and we fumbled. Got to protect the ball. And this past game, we took two negative plays.”
When Rivera benched second-year quarterback Dwayne Haskins four weeks into the season, he cited the team’s impending stretch of winnable games as the impetus for the change. He saw a chance to win the NFC East and earn a playoff berth, and based on the state of the division, doing so seemed plausible.
But over its past four games, Washington has gone 1-3 and lost those three games by an average of 2.3 points. Those mistakes — the negative plays, the missed field goals, the stalled drives inside the 30 — add up quickly.
This season Washington owns the league’s worst first-quarter scoring differential (minus-41) and is the only team that hasn’t scored on any of its first possessions. It has allowed more than twice as many points (148) as it has scored (72) in the first half, has gone into halftime with a lead only once — against Dallas, which Washington beat, 25-3 — and has committed 11 of its 16 turnovers in the first half.
In the past four games in particular, Washington’s defense has given up 15 of its 20 big plays (at least 20 yards passing or 10 yards rushing) and five of its seven touchdowns in the first half.
“It’s been a tale of two halves. We play a terrible . . . first half, and we come out and play a better second half,” defensive end Jonathan Allen said after Washington’s loss in Detroit. “The thing is, when people think why that is, they think we’re doing something different, we’re doing some magical plays, and it’s really not any of that. We’re doing our job at a higher level. It’s doing the little things right. That’s ultimately what’s killing us. We’re not doing the little things right, and that’s me included.”
Like Turner, Smith pushes back on the notion that the offense started slowly against Detroit. The production has been there. The improvement, too. But the difference in a win and a loss can come down to a play or two.
“I know we had the one three-and-out, but the rest of those drives, we moved field position; we got down in positions to score,” Smith said. “Really, I think every drive was different in the sense of how we didn’t finish it off, but if you looked at the time of possession, if you looked at the yardage totals, the first downs, the third downs, I mean, we came out and executed. Certainly we had some lapses in key and critical moments that really allowed us to only score three points. But I distinctly [remember] going into halftime and even when we came out and they scored, thinking that we had played pretty good on offense and we were down at that point 24-3.
“Sometimes that happens, and I think it’s a great lesson to how important situational football is . . . because the margins are so small in this league.”
With so many variables in play, it’s impossible to pinpoint just one as the cause for Washington’s early deficits. It’s not one play or the fault of one player or one unit. But Washington (2-7) has two winnable games coming up, against the 2-6-1 Bengals at FedEx Field on Sunday and against the 2-7 Cowboys on the road on Thanksgiving Day, before beginning a difficult stretch: against the 9-0 Steelers in Pittsburgh, against San Francisco’s top-10 defense in California and against Russell Wilson and the Seahawks at home.
To have a chance against any of them and to keep its slim playoff hopes alive, Washington must avoid a repeat of its recent first-half mistakes.
“Don’t turn the ball over,” Rivera said when asked of his message to his team. “Take advantage of your opportunities to score and stop your opponents from scoring. It’s that simple. … For whatever reason, we come out in the second half, we take advantage of those opportunities, we protect the football.”
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