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Commanders’ issues on both sides of the ball exposed against Chiefs

Commanders quarterback Carson Wentz gets off a pass against Chiefs defensive tackle Tershawn Wharton. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
6 min

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Heading into Saturday’s preseason game at the Kansas City Chiefs, Washington Commanders Coach Ron Rivera said ideally he would be able to play his starters a full half. “Now is the time,” he said.

The time for the starters to get reps, to work out the kinks in the offense and eliminate the mistakes on defense and soon shift focus to Week 1 of the NFL season.

But the Commanders, in a 24-14 loss that seemed to expose all of their shortcomings, failed to figure out their own rhythm.

Their issues from previous weeks (even previous seasons) remained in all three phases. And with injuries depleting their roster, their concerns might not ease anytime soon.

Instead of his ideal scenario, Rivera kept in his starters for 19 plays, roughly a quarter and a half. The offensive line was without three of its starters as well as two key reserves, and the tight end corps was down to two healthy players. Playing quarterback Carson Wentz any longer could have risked his health with the Sept. 11 season opener approaching, so 19 plays were all Rivera was willing to allow.

And for most of them, the offense appeared out of sync, with wasted third downs and another slow start. A few chunk plays in between provided some hope but not much.

The Commanders were 3 for 10 on third downs; meanwhile, Patrick Mahomes carved up their defense and helped the Chiefs go 9 for 15 on third downs. In the first quarter alone, the Chiefs were 4 for 4 on third downs to accumulate 69 of their 150 yards in the period.

Through two preseason games, the Commanders have allowed their opponents to convert 60.6 percent of their third-down attempts (20 of 33).

Defending Mahomes is a tall task for any defense. But he and backup Shane Buechele totaled nine completions that went for 14 yards or more, three of which were on third downs, leaving Rivera upset his players failed to stay in their pass-rush lanes to limit the quarterbacks’ chances to escape the pocket and make plays.

“A big disappointment in the third downs,” Rivera said. “We gave them good situations, had a couple of third-and-longs, and we lose our rush disciplines. With this quarterback, you cannot give him time to find people downfield. We got to be more disciplined. We got to understand our responsibilities.”

The numbers flipped in Washington’s favor in the second quarter, when its offense went 2 for 3 on third downs, totaled nine first downs and gained 117 yards to Kansas City’s 39.

The slow starts Rivera hopes to shed this year continue to hinder the Commanders — on both sides of the ball. Midway through the second quarter, after a false-start penalty put Washington at third and 10 from the Kansas City 34-yard line, Wentz lined up in the shotgun and took an unnecessary sack for a loss of six yards.

The starters ended their afternoon after that play.

“I got to make a better play, better decision,” Wentz said. “I mean, we were in field goal range. That’s a decision I got to be smarter on. Glad it’s preseason and I can learn from that one.”

Wentz completed 6 of 9 passes for 64 yards, including a couple of chunk plays to rookie wideout Jahan Dotson and veteran Terry McLaurin. He has yet to throw an interception but hasn’t thrown a touchdown pass, either.

Washington’s lack of discipline cost it points on both sides of the ball.

Early in the third quarter, the Commanders’ defense gave up crucial yardage when rookie safety Percy Butler sprinted down the field and clobbered quarterback Buechele on a scramble. Butler was penalized for unnecessary roughness, allowing the Chiefs to pick up a total of 23 yards including the 15-yard penalty. The Chiefs kicked a 36-yard field goal four plays later.

“It’s preseason,” defensive end Jonathan Allen said. “… There are some things we want to do better, and we’ll do that.”

But a third and 10 in the second quarter really irked Rivera. Mahomes threw his second touchdown pass of the game when he hit Jody Fortson on a crossing route in the corner of the end zone. Washington’s pass rush came undone.

“We got one guy coming off the edge, and we got someone that’s not setting the edge, so the quarterback steps aside,” Rivera said. “... That was a big disappointment, the second touchdown pass that Mahomes threw. … The defensive end gets up field, doesn’t get good level and washes up and over. Mahomes just steps where he was, buys time and is able to stretch a little bit away from [defensive end Montez Sweat]. Montez was coming off the back side. You have to stick to the process. You have to do your job.”

Many preseason games are dedicated to evaluating the players, but Washington game-planned for Kansas City, treating the matchup with a sense of importance. The Commanders have one preseason game remaining — next weekend at the Baltimore Ravens — but teams typically don’t play starters in the final exhibition.

Washington has played with a light linebacking corps this season, opting to use more nickel and Buffalo nickel sub-packages, as well as five-man fronts.

The group lacks depth. But its starters, Cole Holcomb in the middle and Jamin Davis outside, struggled in coverage while trying to contain Kansas City’s tight ends. That group accumulated 72 yards and two touchdowns Saturday.

“We just got to put it all together,” Holcomb said. “We can’t rush without coverage; we can’t cover without a rush. We have to play off each other.”

Washington’s most notable positive in Kansas City was rookie Brian Robinson Jr., who took the first series at running back. The 6-foot-1, 223-pounder has impressed coaches with his powerful running style and consistency, and Saturday he ran for 31 yards on eight carries. In two preseason games, he is averaging 4.1 yards per carry.

Washington’s day all but ended on a sack of third-string quarterback Sam Howell, whose opportunity for a late-game rally fizzled as soon as it started.

The Commanders, with one more preseason game before the initial 53-man roster is decided, are still searching for consistent play. Maybe next weekend at Baltimore will actually be the time.

Said Allen: “We’ll be ready Week 1.”