Commanders heed Ron Rivera’s message, snap skid with ‘ugly road win’ vs. Falcons

ATLANTA — The Washington Commanders did their job.

Something had to change for Ron Rivera’s team. That’s more than simply saying the team badly needed a win after losing three in a row, but, yes, that. Arguments about the many weeks remaining in the regular season would lose potency if the defense continued to give up splash plays in bulk and the offense sacked its progress with the inability to keep quarterback Sam Howell upright.

Following the unsightly 40-20 home setback against the previously winless Chicago Bears, Rivera placed a sign with a message on the door entering the locker room in Ashburn, Va.: “Do your job.” This straightforward note wasn’t some Knute Rockne attempt at generating inspiration, and it required no decoding. The pieces weren’t clicking together, and there was no better time to lock in as a group than a borderline must-win Week 6 game.

Starting with the Bears and concluding Oct. 22 at the Giants, the Commanders are in a three-game stretch during which oddsmakers would favor them or project a tight outing in each matchup. Falling to Chicago led to calls for immediate fixes. No firings followed, and limited depth meant no wild lineup shuffles. Play better, scheme better and do their jobs better.



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So, they did. Bye bye, losing streak. Hello, 24-16 victory over the Atlanta Falcons. Rivera called it an “ugly road win” but said he loved seeing significant contributions from all phases and throughout the roster.

The team that trailed at halftime four times through the first five weeks led 17-10 Sunday at Mercedes Benz Stadium, where a raucous Washington fan contingent in the stands meant onlookers could not gauge what transpired on the field based solely on noise.

Howell, making his seventh NFL start, established a new career best with three touchdown passes. Offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy dialed up quick-hitting and creative play calls on the opening four drives, three of which ended with points.

Each of Howell’s scoring passes came on short fields, twice thanks to a defense that intercepted Atlanta quarterback Desmond Ridder three times, including on two of the Falcons’ final three possessions, and forced two turnovers on downs. That all-hands energy started with Jamison Crowder’s 61-yard punt return to the Atlanta 10-yard line.

Three plays later came the 1-yard TD pass to running back Antonio Gibson for a 10-7 lead, which Washington (3-3) would never relinquish.

“It gives you a little bit of a spark,” Rivera said of Crowder’s return. “A spark can come from anywhere. … Offense, defense, special teams, we did what we needed to do.”

Crower, in his second stint with Washington after signing shortly before the regular season commenced, said he “saw an opening in the middle of the field and was able to it was able to hit the hole” after his blockers created a seam.

“I’m kicking myself,” Crower said. “I should’ve scored, but it was a spark for us.”

Curtis Samuel’s 7-yard first-half touchdown catch followed a fourth-down stop at midfield. Brian Robinson’s 24-yard catch-and-run TD came after cornerback Kendall Fuller’s interception on the second half’s opening possession.

“Protecting the ball, (and) we took the football away,” Rivera said. “That gave us the opportunity more so than anything else.”

The defense, which had allowed at least 30 points in each of its previous four games, held Atlanta’s run-first attack to 106 yards on 37 carries (3.7 average), including 37 on 13 carries by prized rookie Bijan Robinson, and allowed just three scoring drives. Homework by cornerback Benjamin St-Juste prevented a fourth. He intercepted Ridder in the end zone with 5:11 remaining, preventing Atlanta’s hope for a touchdown and a game-tying two-point conversion.

With Washington sending extra pass rushers, St-Juste waited outside for tight end Kyle Pitts in the flat or another receiver along the back of the end zone.

“(Ridder) lobbed it up,” St-Juste said. “I made him pay for it.”

As Falcons backup QB and former Washington starter Taylor Heinicke watched from the sideline, the Commanders prevented any late-game miracles.

Linebacker Jamin Davis wouldn’t rank high on the list of guesses for whose interception sealed the win with 31 seconds remaining. The 2021 first-round pick is an athletic presence whom teams often try to beat in coverage.

“I think (Jamin) was more surprised than I was,” defensive end Chase Young joked.

Atlanta kept targeting Robinson as a receiver. The effort continued with 31 seconds left at Washington’s 34. Davis caught them on the Falcons’ final offensive play.

“They kept trying to isolate me with (Robinson),” Davis said. “He’s a dangerous guy. He’s real shifty. Just trying to anticipate what I knew was coming … let instincts take over.”

Washington’s defensive line has game-wreckers in the starting lineup. Defensive tackle Jonathan Allen swallowed up running back Tyson Allgier’s two-point run attempt to keep the score 24-16 early in the fourth. But it was reserve defensive end Casey Toohill who had two of Washington’s three sacks.

Cornerbacks Danny Johnson and practice-squad call-up Tariq Castro-Fields played ahead of first-rounder Emmanuel Forbes, who was benched late in the Week 5 loss to the Bears after consecutive rough outings.

Rivera said he hopes the “reset” will help Forbes moving forward. Johnson had a key pass deflection in the fourth, and Castro-Fields also helped on Sunday.

So did seldom-used linebacker Khaleke Hudson (one snap before Sunday), who played as a third linebacker/”Buffalo” nickel, as the Commanders used a rare three-linebacker package. Second-round safety Quan Martin was all smiles postgame after his first defensive snaps of the season.

Bieniemy also got star receiver Terry McLaurin established, as he finished with six catches for 81 yards. That sounds like an obvious strategy, but McLaurin finished with a season-high 11 targets, including six in the first quarter, a total he had exceeded only once over a full game this season entering Sunday. Similar to the Week 4 overtime loss at Philadelphia, finding McLaurin early opened the field for others. 

All of this occurred without a mainstay up front. Reserve Cornelius Lucas held up at left tackle instead of Charles Leno Jr., who was officially a game-time scratch for personal reasons. His wife posted on social media that the couple, who have three children, suffered a miscarriage over the weekend.

“Obviously, thoughts and prayers are with Leno and his family,” the 23-year-old Howell said. “It’s just super tough to hear something like that happen with one of our teammates, one of our brothers. So we’re all we’re all behind him and support him and his family. … At the end of the day, there’s a lot of things that are bigger than football.”

No doubt. When it comes to life and football, details matter. On the field, Washington fell short of minding them in the three losses. Hokey or not, Rivera’s “do your job” message helped get the entire team back on track.

“That’s always my mindset,” Toohill said, “but (Rivera’s message was) a good reminder. Sometimes, if things aren’t going right, you try to do too much. … If you’re executing what you know to be your job, then that should turn out pretty well. I think we … collectively did a good job of that today.”

Now, Washington can turn its sights to the reeling New York Giants in Week 7, looking to get back over .500.

“It was definitely needed,” Crowder said. “We showed we can play good football as a unit. I think that now going forward we just have to be consistent in all phases of the game.”

(Photo of Jamin Davis, 52, Cody Barton, 57 and Danny Johnson, 36: Todd Kirkland / Getty Images)

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