LANDOVER — The Washington Commanders’ defense was already significantly shorthanded entering Sunday’s game against the Cleveland Browns as the unit was down to key members of its secondary. Safety Kam Curl and cornerback Benjamin St-Juste were both inactive with ankle injuries, forcing coaches and players to adjust.
But then, in the second quarter, the Commanders experienced another injury, a significant loss that proved too much to overcome.
Star defensive tackle Jonathan Allen exited Washington’s 24-10 loss to the Browns with a hyperextended knee and did not return. The injury occurred just after the start of the quarter, but Allen’s absence was particularly felt in the second half — when the Commanders stopped generating as much pressure on the interior.
With more time to throw, Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson was able to find the holes in Washington’s secondary and hit on a number of explosive plays. All three of Watson’s passing touchdowns came in the final two quarters, erasing a 7-3 Washington lead at halftime.
Watson (9 of 18 for 169 yards) completed just 50% of his passes, but two of his three touchdowns went for 46 and 33 yards respectively.
“Part of it is losing Jon Allen,” coach Ron Rivera said when he asked about his team giving up explosive plays. “We missed a couple of tackles. You can’t miss tackles, not against bigger runners, good runners. You’ve gotta make sure if you do anything, you at least slow them down, so that everybody else can come in and tackle them.”
Allen regularly helps the Commanders slow opponents down. The 27-year-old, named recently to his second straight Pro Bowl, was having another banner season as he had 7½ sacks and a career-high 16 tackles for loss entering Sunday’s action. Allen particularly thrived next to Daron Payne, who feeds off playing next to his former college teammate and is in the midst of a career year.
Washington’s pass rush slowed down after Allen’s injury. In the first half, Watson was sacked four times — all of which occurred before Allen exited the game. Watson wasn’t sacked again until there was 9:13 left in the game — with the Browns ahead 17-10.
That sack actually gave Washington a chance to get off the field as the Browns faced a long third-and-9. But before the next snap, the Commanders committed a penalty for 12 men on the field — making it a more manageable third-and-4. Taking advantage of the shorter distance, the Browns used the next two plays — a 3-yard Watson scramble and a 2-yard sneak from Jacoby Brissett — to convert the first down.
The Browns went on to score the game-sealing touchdown on that drive: Watson hit Amari Cooper for a 33-yard strike.
“He’s the leader of our defense and he’s a great player,” defensive end Montez Sweat said when asked about Allen’s absence. “It meant a lot, but it’s always next-man-up mentality. It’s the NFL. People get hurt every day.”
The Commanders, though, were already trying to get by with a patched-up secondary. Jeremy Reaves made the Pro Bowl this season, but because of his contributions on special teams rather than safety. Reaves was tasked with filling in for Curl, while veteran Danny Johnson got the start in place of St-Juste.
Washington began preparing for Cleveland with hopes that Curl and St-Juste could play. But over the course of the week, it became clear that both weren’t quite ready. Curl, who missed last week’s game against San Francisco, was downgraded to doubtful by Saturday, and St-Juste hadn’t practiced Thursday or Friday.
Rivera said St-Juste suffered a “little bit of a setback” with his ankle after facing the 49ers. The cornerback previously missed the prior three games before traveling to San Francisco last week.
In the third quarter, Cleveland took the lead when Watson hit Cooper en route for a 46-yard touchdown. Washington, however, would have prevented the score if not for cornerback Kendall Fuller’s missed tackle.
“We just got to come back and put the fire out,” Fuller said. “And we didn’t.”