The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Commanders’ defense is decent in Dallas, but penalties ruin effort

Washington Commanders cornerback William Jackson III disrupts a pass intended for Cowboys wide receiver Michael Gallup. Jackson was whistled for pass interference on the play. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

ARLINGTON, Tex. — In the visitor’s locker room, Washington Commanders cornerback William Jackson III sat in front of his stall, staring at the floor, muttering about the officials in a low voice. Jackson had been flagged three times for 70 yards — single-handedly racking up more than half the team’s total penalty yardage — and he blamed the NFL’s rule changes, which he felt had gone too far in favor of the offense.

“I just feel like you can’t do nothing no more,” he said. “We hand-fighting, we going down the field, and the [receiver] jump into you, and they throw a flag. I mean, receivers in this league, they know how to get a flag. They know how to flop. At the end of the day, you just got to keep playing, and hopefully it’ll go my way.”

Which penalty upset him specifically? The holding that wiped out an interception by safety Kam Curl? The pass interference on a key drive that bailed out the offense on second and 17? The other pass interference in the fourth quarter that cost the defense 27 yards as the Dallas Cowboys drained the clock?

“I mean, just all the deep balls,” he said, capturing a broader frustration from the Commanders locker room after the team was flagged 11 times for 136 yards in the 25-10 loss.

While notable figures around the locker room complained about the officiating Sunday — including Coach Ron Rivera and defensive tackle Jonathan Allen — nearly everyone said the refs weren’t the reason the Commanders lost. The blame largely fell on the anemic offense, which couldn’t help a defense that kept it in the game for three quarters.

For all the worry the defense inspired through two weeks, it rebounded the last two weeks against decent offenses to be … decent. Week 4. This was the first time Washington was competitive because of the defense. The unit wasn’t perfect — it allowed six explosive plays and a long touchdown drive just before halftime — but at the end of the third quarter, Washington trailed just 15-10. The Commanders limited Dallas’s offense to just 235 yards and had a window to steal one on the road against a division rival.

But the offense couldn’t find a spark and the defense couldn’t help it. The only time Washington had better starting field position than its own 39 was because Dallas shanked a punt, and penalties erased two turnovers. The Commanders rank last in the NFL in turnovers created with just one.

“It’s frustrating,” Curl said of not generating turnovers. “But we still have the opportunity to go stop them again. We just got to keep working on getting off the field.”

Is it frustrating the offense can’t help?

“It’s our job,” cornerback Benjamin St-Juste said. “We can’t complain and not go out there. We can still score points on defense. … It’s another opportunity to get some momentum, give some juice back to our offense.”

Early on, Washington’s defense looked solid against backup quarterback Cooper Rush. The Commanders forced two three-and-outs, and when the Cowboys hit explosive plays, they stopped them outside the red zone and forced field goals.

But just before halftime, Dallas marched 75 yards in 15 plays, and on third and seven, a familiar struggle reappeared. The right side of the defensive line fractured, leaving a hole for Rush to roll out and find wideout Michael Gallup in the back corner of the end zone for a touchdown.

Early in the second half, Dallas hit another explosive play and threatened to pull away. But at the 10-yard line, the defense tightened up and forced a field goal. Washington responded with a field goal of its own to keep the game close.

On the next drive, Washington limited running back Ezekiel Elliott for a short gain. Then Rush targeted Gallup, and Jackson drew the second of his three penalties.

Two plays later, Washington did what it has done so many times since the start of last season: It blew a coverage. On the first play of the fourth quarter Washington appeared to line up in a shell with four defensive backs deep, meaning each would have been responsible for a quarter of the field. After the snap Washington seemed to rotate into a scheme with Bobby McCain as the lone deep safety. Either way, Jackson said he was expecting to have help over the middle — help that wasn’t there when Cowboys wide receiver CeeDee Lamb broke inside for a 30-yard touchdown.

If Washington was supposed to have two safeties deep, Jackson was probably counting on Curl. If it was a single-high coverage, McCain.

When Curl was asked what went wrong on the play, he said: “I don’t know. I was covering my man.”

“Honestly, I’m going to have to look and see exactly what that route was,” Rivera added. “It was right in front of [Jackson]. He didn’t squeeze it.”

No matter who was at fault, the score signaled that for any progress the Commanders’ defense might have made, it wasn’t going to be enough.