Analysis | How the Commanders’ ‘alarming’ defense upended the Broncos’ momentum


The Washington Commanders were punch-drunk, about to be knocked out, when linebacker Jamin Davis spotted what he called a “loose loaf of bread.” All week, he’d studied film of Denver Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson and seen how, if receivers weren’t open right away, he liked to tuck the ball and run. Late in the second quarter, on second and 15 just over midfield, Davis stepped up to defend play action, paused and recognized what was happening. Wilson started to scramble left; Davis shadowed him.

Early in his career, Davis played slow. His brain couldn’t unlock his body, the elite athleticism Washington coveted when it drafted him in the first round in 2021. But on Sunday afternoon in Denver, when the Commanders were down big, Davis showed off closing speed rare for a 6-foot-4, 234-pound linebacker. And he was extra motivated because earlier he’d been flagged for what he considered an unfair roughing-the-passer penalty.

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“I was a little [mad],” he said.

Near the sideline, Wilson saw Davis and tried to transfer the ball from his right hand to his left. Davis noticed the looseness and punched down at the ball with his right hand.

If Davis hadn’t forced a fumble right then, it’s unlikely Washington would’ve pulled off its comeback, which resulted in a 35-33 victory. The Commanders’ offense had gone three-and-out on two straight drives. Special teams had just given up a huge punt return. The defense had allowed three touchdowns in three possessions. But instead of Denver effectively putting the game away, Davis put the ball on the ground, linebacker Cody Barton scooped it up, and everything changed. The offense erased a 21-3 deficit, the defense won another turnover battle (2-0), and the team completed the second-largest comeback in franchise history.

“A spark?” safety Darrick Forrest said, chuckling at the word’s inability to capture the significance of the forced fumble. “That was a game changer.”

Several defenders acknowledged it had been easier to maintain hope despite the unit’s disastrous start because they believed the offense could pick them up. In his second game with Washington, coordinator Eric Bieniemy put up a higher total of offensive points (35) than his predecessor, Scott Turner, did in his 50 games (34).

“The last two years … it was very hard to get more than 21 points,” cornerback Benjamin St-Juste said, adding, “[The offense] kept us motivated as a defense, like, ‘Okay, we’re one or two stops away.’”

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Early on, Denver gashed Washington with perimeter runs and deep passes. The Broncos sandwiched a one-play, 60-yard scoring strike between two grinding touchdown drives. On that quick score, Commanders defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio called a corner blitz, so the coverage was what’s known as “2-Man,” two deep safeties splitting the field with man-to-man coverage underneath. Denver called a great counter with two vertical routes, one up the seam and one up the left sideline, challenging the safeties to choose. Forrest, the safety to the left, hovered above the sideline receiver as Marvin Mims Jr. flew up the seam and away from safety Percy Butler for an easy touchdown. After the play, Butler looked, seemingly exasperated, at Forrest.

“It was just a great call for that coverage,” Forrest said later, though he quickly acknowledged he could’ve been better, too: “I played it terribly.”

After the fumble, the secondary kept the roof on its coverages, and the line started to dominate. Del Rio started using more five-lineman fronts, and the penetration prevented Denver from getting to the edge as consistently. The first drive of the second half, defensive tackle Daron Payne caused a three-and-out by himself with a sack (minus-11), a tackle-for-loss (minus-two) and batted screen pass at the line of scrimmage.

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For the rest of the game, defenders took turns stepping up. Rookie cornerback Emmanuel Forbes nabbed his first interception. End Montez Sweat set the edge to force runs back inside or pressured the quarterback. End Chase Young stopped a drive in the red zone with a sack on third and two — and he equaled his nine-game sack total from 2021 in his season debut (1½). Once, Sweat and Young met in the backfield to split one on Wilson.

“It’s like a g—— Olympic gold medal race,” Sweat said of racing linemates to the quarterback. “It’s alarming. But I love it, because it turns the next man up, and it makes the next man know that you can’t lack. You can’t rest.”

After Young’s sack, Denver kicked a field goal to trim the deficit to 35-27, and after forcing a punt, it got the ball back at its own 13-yard line with 48 seconds left. The Broncos couldn’t move the ball, and on fourth and three, safety Kam Curl recognized Wilson tucking the ball to run and ran all the way across the field to make a critical tackle. Wilson had converted the first down, but Curl kept him in bounds and drained about 10 seconds off the clock.

From the 50, with three seconds left, Wilson heaved a Hail Mary toward the end zone. In 2021, Del Rio’s unit allowed the New Orleans Saints to hit a Hail Mary just before half, but back then, it looked like an effort problem as defenders didn’t jump. This time was different; the ball bounced off helmets and outstretched hands until, miraculously, it wound up in the arms of rookie receiver Brandon Johnson.

When Denver lined up for the two-point conversion, St-Juste looked right across the tight formation and saw a receiver and tight end lined up next to each other. He said he recognized the play from Wilson’s days in Seattle. He knew the receivers were about to run crossing routes.

After the snap, St-Juste dropped, pointed to Forbes and shouted for him to “cut,” or switch assignments, which meant St-Juste would pick up Broncos receiver Courtland Sutton, who was running to the back right corner of the end zone. St-Juste got to Sutton just before the ball did, forcing an incompletion, and could have been called for pass interference, as the Denver crowd screamed that he should be.

Later, St-Juste just grinned.

“I just made a play,” he said. “Friendly neighborhood Spider-Man saving the day.”

In the locker room afterward, defenders relished the high of the miracle comeback. They praised Davis, Forbes and St-Juste for coming up with a goal-line stop. Sweat celebrated the return of Young, his close friend.

“Do you feel like you reminded the NFL world just exactly what you are as a player today?” a reporter asked Young.

Young grinned and then, without meaning to, captured what it felt like for the defense on a roller coaster day.

“When you up, they going to praise you,” he said. “When you down, they going to hate you. I’m right in the middle.”


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