Washington Commanders highlights and lowlights from win over Broncos

A look at the good (Hail!) and bad (Fail!) from the Washington Commanders’ 35-33 win over the Denver Broncos on Sunday.

The last time Washington opened the season 2-0, Eric Bieniemy was in his first year as the offensive coordinator at his alma mater, Ron Rivera was in his first year as an NFL head coach and Sam Howell had just celebrated his 11th birthday, probably with a nice basket of chicken tenders or a 20-piece nugget meal. It was Sept. 16, 2011, when Graham Gano’s late field goal lifted the Burgundy and Gold to a 22-21 win over the Arizona Cardinals at FedEx Field. “You’ve got to find a way to win,” second-year Coach Mike Shanahan said that day, after Washington won despite two Rex Grossman interceptions and a blocked field goal.

The Commanders found a way to win Sunday, overcoming a 21-3 deficit to pull off their largest comeback on the road since Jeff Rutledge led a comeback from 21 points down against the Lions at the Silverdome in 1990. (A 2-0 start guarantees nothing, of course. Just ask that 2011 Washington team, which was 3-1 after four weeks and finished 5-11. Still, it sure feels good now.)

Sean Payton should dial up Hail Marys against Washington more often. In 2021, when Payton was still coaching in New Orleans, Saints quarterback Jameis Winston connected with Marquez Callaway on a 49-yard prayer against Washington as time expired in the first half at FedEx Field. Afterward, safety Landon Collins said the defense “wasn’t prepared for that.” On Sunday, with three seconds remaining in the fourth quarter and the Broncos trailing by eight, Russell Wilson uncorked a high-arcing pass from midfield that deflected off at least two hands before wide receiver Brandon Johnson snatched it out of the air in the end zone.

“We were in position,” Rivera, who called timeout before the play, said afterward. “Unfortunately the ball bounced the wrong way. We’d have loved to have seen it go the other direction, and kudos to one of their guys for being alert enough, and we just gotta understand that we gotta get in our box-positions a little bit better.”

The Commanders were lucky Benjamin St-Juste wasn’t flagged for defensive pass interference on the ensuing two-point conversion, which resulted in an incompletion.

Hail: Jamin Davis, Daron Payne and Chase Young

There was no shortage of defensive standouts for the Commanders, who limited the Broncos to 12 points on their final eight drives after Denver scored touchdowns on its first three possessions. Davis sparked the turnaround with a sack-fumble of Wilson that was recovered by fellow linebacker Cody Barton midway through the second quarter. Payne was a force for a second straight week, never more so than on the Broncos’ first drive of the second half, when he registered a sack, a tackle for loss and a pass deflection on three consecutive plays to force a punt. Young, who played 47 snaps in his season debut, finished with three tackles, 1½ sacks and a tackle for loss.

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

The veteran Broncos safety was fined $14,819 for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Las Vegas Raiders wide receiver Jakobi Meyers in Week 1 that left Meyers with a concussion. Jackson was back at it again Sunday, launching himself like a missile before delivering a helmet-to-helmet hit on Washington tight end Logan Thomas, who somehow managed to hold onto the ball for a fourth-down touchdown catch. Thomas jogged off the field but was ruled out for the remainder of the game with a concussion. Jackson was ejected and should face further discipline.

Washington scored at least 35 points for the first time since its 41-16 rout of the Cowboys on Thanksgiving Day in 2020, and Sunday marked the team’s first win when it allowed 33 or more points since October 2013. A lot of the credit should go to Bieniemy, the Commanders’ first-year offensive coordinator, who was back in the state where he shined as a running back for Colorado and in a stadium he knows well from his five years as OC for the Kansas City Chiefs. Washington took advantage of the Broncos’ aggressive pass rush with multiple successful screen passes, including a pair to Brian Robinson Jr. for a combined 42 yards and a 36-yarder by Antonio Gibson, who shook off last week’s costly fumble in the red zone to play a key role in the win.

Fail: Covering Marvin Mims Jr.

Mims, Denver’s rookie second-round pick out of Oklahoma, almost buried Washington in the first half. After catching only two passes for nine yards in his debut last week, the speedy wide receiver hauled in a 60-yard touchdown catch on Denver’s second possession. “We blew a couple coverages that we shouldn’t have,” Rivera said. Mims added a 54-yard catch to set up a touchdown on the Broncos’ third drive and later returned a punt 45 yards. He wasn’t targeted once in the second half.

Howell was far from perfect, and he was lucky not to lose a fumble on a strip-sack in the third quarter, but he played the first turnover-free game of his career and made a few dazzling throws as part of his 27 of 39, 299-yard, two-touchdown day. The best might’ve been his 30-yard touchdown strike to Terry McLaurin in the third quarter, but his 35-yard pass to John Bates to set up a field goal before halftime was almost as nice and equally as important. Howell became the first Washington quarterback to open his career with three wins since replacement player Ed Rubbert in the 1987 strike season. (Rubbert attempted only two passes before hurting his shoulder in his third game, a Tony Robinson-led win over the Cowboys on “Monday Night Football.”)

Commanders’ season is about Sam Howell. The early returns are good.

Had Denver’s two-point conversion been successful and the Broncos gone on to win in overtime, the Commanders’ miscues would be getting a lot more attention. The first came on Washington’s opening drive, when long-snapper Camaron Cheeseman’s bounced a snap to holder Tress Way on a 49-yard field goal attempt by Joey Slye that didn’t have a chance. Cheeseman, a sixth-round pick in 2021, has struggled with snaps since training camp and was shaky in Week 1 against Arizona. It’s only a matter of time before it costs Washington a game.

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