On Sunday, Washington played a second consecutive complete game to beat the Carolina Panthers, 27-21. Coach Ron Rivera and a few players said this surge feels similar to the one they rode to the NFC East crown last season, and the resilience at the heart of this turnaround certainly echoes that late push. Washington, at 4-6, at least has given itself a chance.
“Two wins in a row is huge,” the usually understated defensive tackle Jonathan Allen said. “You could go as far as to say it saved our season.”
Here’s what has changed:
Building an offensive identity
Like most things in football, Washington’s resurgence started with the quarterback. Taylor Heinicke has been hyper-efficient in the past two weeks, completing 42 of 54 passes (77.8 percent) for 462 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions.
He said he’s no longer overthinking, as he did earlier in the year, and that has helped highlight a scrambling ability that makes him special while avoiding the bad interceptions he once threw because of it.
Efficiency affords offensive coordinator Scott Turner flexibility. Against Tampa Bay, Turner could stick with the run despite averaging 2.8 yards per carry because Heinicke made up for it. On Sunday, against a Panthers defense that is elite against the pass, Washington picked its moments to throw but leaned on the run, using all three running backs to total 40 carries and 190 yards. That combination has led to an improved finishing rate in the red zone.
Effectiveness bolsters Rivera’s confidence. He twice went for it on fourth down, once before halftime and once midway through the fourth quarter, and both paid off — though Rivera admitted Heinicke’s scrambling on the second one, a fourth-and-three conversion to tight end John Bates, “scared the hell out of me.”
“We definitely know who we are as an offense now,” said DeAndre Carter, who has established himself as the No. 2 wide receiver. “We’re physical, tough, physical. We’re going to run the ball. We’re going to make plays when the ball’s up in the air — receivers or tight ends — and we trust Taylor.”
After the loss to Kansas City in Week 6, Rivera was most discouraged by how his team let mistakes snowball. Minor adversity derailed Washington after that — red-zone interceptions, blown defensive coverages — but against Tampa Bay, the team had few self-inflicted wounds. In Carolina, when the mistakes reappeared, Rivera was pleased by how his team responded.
There were several glaring miscues — the defense committed a 15-yard penalty on all three of Carolina’s scoring drives — but perhaps the biggest was by running back Antonio Gibson. When Washington had the ball at Carolina’s 13-yard line late in the first quarter, the 23-year-old fumbled for the fifth time this year, and his team lost possession for the third time on those miscues. Rivera benched Gibson for the rest of the half as the offense relied on J.D. McKissic and Jaret Patterson, who were effective.
Gibson bounced back. In the second half, he surged to finish with 19 carries for 95 yards. Even at the end of the game, when Gibson seemingly blundered by running out of bounds when Carolina had no timeouts left, wasting a chance to drain 40 more seconds off the clock, Rivera excused him by insisting he “got freaking horse-collared around the neck and thrown out of bounds.”
Even in situations Washington can’t control — such as losing backup center Tyler Larsen (knee) and right tackle Sam Cosmi (hip) — Rivera liked his team’s response. Wes Schweitzer and Cornelius Lucas stepped in even though Schweitzer, a guard, hadn’t played center since 2019. Rivera praised the offensive and defensive lines, both playing without key pieces, for setting a physical tone.
The coach pointed to both lines as examples of the resilience he sees when he compares this year’s team with 2020′s.
“They are starting to play together,” he said. “They are becoming resilient. They do the things that they need to. They rely on each other. The thing I am really pleased with is it is all starting up front on both sides of the ball. … Those guys are playing some very solid and sound football. They are just doing the things they need to do to give us a chance.”
The little things
During his postgame news conference, Rivera said he was thrilled by his defensive line’s rush-lane discipline. Small details such as these have bothered the coach all season, and he has pointed out when they’ve caused big problems, such as when the Packers scored a touchdown because of poor rush-lane discipline.
On Sunday, even without standout edge rushers Chase Young (torn ACL) and Montez Sweat (fractured jaw), Rivera saw improvement. He pointed out that the linemen, who “sometimes get a little carried away with themselves,” stayed in their lanes and played as a unit. The defense is undeniably better with Young and Sweat, but it’s also easier for defensive tackles Allen and Daron Payne to dictate the rush plan to less-heralded edge rushers.
“I always defer to them,” said 2020 seventh-round pick James Smith-Williams, who started in place of Young. “They’re older, they’ve been in the league for a long time, so whatever they say they want, that’s what I try and do.”
Rivera pointed to the benefits of rush-lane discipline on Carolina’s last play. The coverage forced Panthers quarterback Cam Newton to hold the ball and step up, allowing Payne and Smith-Williams to record the game-sealing sack.
“I will tell the guys, ‘The play doesn’t care who makes it,’ ” Rivera said. “The plays are there to be made. And that is what they did.”
This is, for two games, how a team comes together. Allen said offensive consistency has been a huge help for a defense that, at the least, has stopped hurting itself. He believes this can be the start of another run.
“As a younger team — and I know we keep saying that — I think it takes a little bit to get on the same page and for everybody to find their role,” Allen said. “The better teams can do it quicker, but better late than never.
“Good two wins in a row. We got to keep it going.”