The Washington Commanders' three-game win streak was snapped on Sunday by the Minnesota Vikings with a 20-17 loss. Here are five takeaways from the game.
1. It took nearly two quarters for the offense to get going.
It normally takes Washington's offense some time to get going, and that was the case once again on Sunday against the Vikings.
Minnesota did what no other team has been able to do against Washington all season, and that is find the end zone on its opening drive. The Vikings methodically moved down to the Commanders' 9-yard line, where Kirk Cousins found Justin Jefferson for the score.
Washington, on the other hand, struggled to build upon its successes. For every positive play, such as the 16-yard run by Curtis Samuel in the first quarter, there were moments like the six-yard sack on Taylor Heinicke that kept the team backed up. Washington did not get a three-and-out until the fourth quarter, but it took until 1:33 left in the first half to pick up a third down conversion.
The 11-play, 37-yard drive that ended with a field goal in the second quarter was the most efficient that Washington had looked up to that point. Even then, however, there were some issues. Washington ended that drive with three straight incompletions from Heinicke, leaving Joey Slye with a 44-yard attempt.
Fortunately, the defense kept Washington in the game, but Washington must learn to capitalize on that if it hopes to beat better teams.
2. The defensive gave Kirk Cousins problems all afternoon.
Speaking of the defense, the unit had another standout game. The group only got one of the team's two sacks -- the other came from Benjamin St-Juste -- but they hounded Cousins with 11 quarterback hits.
It started on the Vikings' second drive of the game. After the Vikings had a clean pocket leading up to their touchdown that gave them a 7-0 lead, Daron Payne took Cousins to the ground for a nine-yard loss on third down. The other sack came in the fourth quarter, when St-Juste responded with an eight-yard sack while being unblocked on his way to Cousins.
There were moments when Cousins managed to stay in the pocket to deliver his passes, but the defense made him pay for it. Right after Jefferson hauled in a 47-yard pass from Cousins, the quarterback took a nasty hit that forced him to sit out the next play.
While the outcome is far from ideal, the defense's improvements continue to be a positive.
3. There were more incredible moments from Taylor Heinicke...
Heinicke's previous two starts featured two incredible second-half throws that directly led to Washington pulling out wins, and the quarterback delivered a third one that ignited the crowd that allowed the offense to gain some traction.
The play came on second-and-7 at the Vikings' 49-yard line. Heinicke, who dropped back for a pass, had the coverage that he liked on a pass intended for Curtis Samuel, but the ball came out late as he tried to move to the left. There were three defenders surrounding Samuel on the play, and it looked like things were about to go awry for the Commanders.
But then Washington got a little luck. The Vikings' safety collided with an official, which gave Samuel enough of a window to make the catch and roll into the end zone, giving Washington a 10-7 lead.
It was a great play by Samuel to turn a nearly disastrous moment into a victory, but Heinicke has come to expect that from Samuel.
"I've been with Curtis two or three years in Carolina and here, and I've seen him make plays like that," Heinicke said. "When you get the coverage that you want, you want to give him a shot."
4. ...but his luck ran out in the fourth quarter.
Heinicke was able to keep Washington on top in the final minutes of the previous two games with his incredible moxy and knack for delivering clutch throws, but that was not the case against the Vikings.
Despite Minnesota scoring points for the first time since its opening drive in the fourth quarter, Washington still held onto a 17-10 lead. All it needed to do was stay on the field and put up at least a field goal, and it would have had a good shot of winning the game.
Those hopes ended four plays into the Commanders' ensuing drive.
Heinicke had Logan Thomas wide open in the middle of the field on second-and-11. A completion would have resulted in a first down and more, but Heinicke, who had seen many of his passes batted down all afternoon, threw the ball just out of Thomas' reach. It was grabbed by safety Harrison Smith, who returned it all the way to the Commanders' 12-yard line.
"A little unfortunate, but back to square one," Heinicke said. "I gotta just hit that pivot and move on."
Then, when Minnesota tied the game, Heinicke was sacked on third down, forcing Washington to punt.
Last-minute wins are exciting, but they are far from sustainable over multiple games. Washington will need to find a way to avoid relying on late heroics if it wants to keep its season alive, especially with the Eagles up next.
5. An explanation of the unnecessary roughness penalty.
Despite all the mistakes, Washington still had a chance to win after Minnesota took a 20-17 lead.
That is, until a late unnecessary roughness penalty wiped that away and allowed the Vikings to run out the clock. The penalty was called on John Ridgeway for illegal contact with the long snapper, and after the game, NFL Senior Vice President of Officiating Walt Anderson explain why the flag was thrown.
"The rule protects the long snapper on field goals and point after attempts," Anderson said. "You cannot make forcible contact to the head and neck area because he's by definition defenseless until he has time to protect himself or to move downfield. Then, he's no longer defenseless. So, the call there was No. 91, the defender, made forcible contact to his head and neck area immediately after the snap and before he had time to protect himself."
It was a costly error during a game in which the Commanders only committed three penalties. It serves as a lesson that Washington must play smarter in order to beat the top teams in the NFC.
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