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Commanders deliver on defense again, but Ron Rivera is far from satisfied

Commanders defensive end Casey Toohill recovers a fumble by Colts running back Jonathan Taylor in the red zone during the third quarter Sunday. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

INDIANAPOLIS — For the fourth week in a row, the Washington Commanders’ defense asserted itself as the strength of the team. The latest example, a 17-16 victory over the Indianapolis Colts, highlighted the group’s ability to adapt to the absence of a key player, middle linebacker Cole Holcomb (foot), and erase mistakes with timely turnovers, which it hadn’t done since the season began.

Coordinator Jack Del Rio replaced Holcomb by using more formations with “5-1-5” personnel — five linemen, one linebacker and five defensive backs — and dropping a safety into the box alongside linebacker Jamin Davis. Washington used a five-man front on 22 snaps Sunday, the third-highest total by any team this season, and often in run-likely situations, such as first down and second and long.

Despite Coach Ron Rivera saying he “loved” the approach — and it mostly working — the defense still gave up six explosive plays, which nearly cost the Commanders the game and left Rivera visibly frustrated during the postgame news conference. He seemed agitated by players not operating within certain play-calls or schemes but didn’t offer specifics.

“There are some things we should have done,” he said. “Play the game within what things are coached and designed, and if you do it the way we ask and we win, they get the glory. Do it the way we ask, and we lose, it’s my fault. It’s on me. But when you do your own thing, you can’t do it that way. That’s what we’re trying to stress. We’re trying to get these guys to make sure they understand it’s important to do it the way we ask because, trust us, it’s all part of coming together as a team.”

In the first half, Washington limited the Indianapolis offense led by quarterback Sam Ehlinger, making his first start, and running back Jonathan Taylor, the NFL’s 2021 rushing leader. The Commanders’ front held up at first, limiting the Colts to a field goal, but seemed to wear down just before halftime. The Colts ran the ball five straight times for 68 yards and seemed poised to punch it in. But then, as Ehlinger tried to avoid the pass rush, end Casey Toohill appeared to poke it out of his hands and the Commanders fell on the ball.

In the second half, the Colts surged. They pushed deep into Washington territory twice — to the 21-yard line, then the 2 — but were held to field goals each time. The only touchdown the Colts scored came early in the fourth quarter, after Taylor Heinicke threw an interception deep in Commanders territory and the Colts took over with only 24 yards to go.

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Late in the third, Indianapolis had seemed prepared to mount another scoring drive. Colts receiver Alec Pierce beat cornerback Benjamin St-Juste off the line of scrimmage for a 47-yard gain. St-Juste said Pierce set him up with an outside release on the previous drive, then used it as a fake to an inside release on the long bomb.

“I should’ve just [thought]: ‘Be a little bit more patient. He might try something different,’ ” St-Juste said.

Late in the fourth quarter, after a Washington field goal cut its deficit to 16-10, the Commanders needed a stop. The Colts got the ball with 4:55 remaining. They needed at least one first down in the hopes that it would force the Commanders to burn some timeouts at the least.

“They [weren’t] going to do anything crazy in terms of passing,” St-Juste said. “They were going to run it with their running back. That’s who took the workload today.”

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On first down, the line stopped Taylor after two yards. On second, Coach Frank Reich later said, the offense “thought about throwing it” but decided to use a run-pass option. Ehlinger handed off to Taylor up the middle, and the Commanders again dropped him quickly.

On third and five, the line got pressure on Ehlinger but escaped. The quarterback stepped up and to his left and took off, appearing to have room to run for the first down. But Davis and tackle Daron Payne recovered and converged, forcing Ehlinger to slide. The referee ruled him down just short of the first-down marker, and after an Indianapolis challenge, the call on the field stood.

Washington had its stop. Indianapolis punted the ball away, then Heinicke and wide receiver Terry McLaurin took care of the rest.