Commanders-Chiefs takeaways: Third-down defense problem again in loss

Ideally, Ron Rivera wanted his starters to play an entire half in Saturday’s preseason game against the Kansas City Chiefs. But ultimately, with three of Washington’s five projected starting offensive linemen missing, the Commanders coach opted to take a different route. 

Quarterback Carson Wentz and the first team played just three series in the Commanders’ 24-14 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, the same number of drives the unit played last week against the Carolina Panthers.

On Saturday, Wentz (6 of 9 for 64 yards) was able to move the ball, but Washington’s offense stalled in key moments — none more so than when the quarterback took an inopportune sack on third-and-10 to knock the Commanders out of field goal range. The latter is a type of play that Washington can’t afford to have this coming season.

But, in all honesty, Wentz was low on the list of Washington’s problems against the Chiefs — if you could call him a problem at all. 

Instead, poor third-down defense and lackluster returning stuck out again for the Commanders. Let’s get into the takeaways:

Third-down defense: Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said Wednesday that he “didn’t like” how his unit performed on third down last weekend in Washington’s preseason opener.  He likely won’t be any happier after seeing how the Commanders did this time around. 

The Chiefs converted on six straight third-down opportunities to start the game, getting off to a 14-0 lead in the process. The conversions weren’t solely the result of brilliant play from quarterback Patrick Mahomes, either. Rather, the Commanders had breakdowns in the secondary and the pass rush wasn’t in sync as Mahomes exploited flaw after flaw. 

The worst arguably came when Mahomes hit wideout Justin Watson for a 39-yard gain on third-and-10 in the first quarter. The pass moved Kansas City inside Washington’s 10-yard line and the Chiefs scored just two plays later. 

The Chiefs finished the game 9 of 15 on third down, a week after the Panthers went 11 of 18. 

Poor returning: For the second straight game, Washington’s kick returners again failed to impress. The Commanders actually started the contest with running back Antonio Gibson — more on him soon — fielding the first kick-off, but his lone return was for 17 yards to the 23-yard line. 

Elsewhere, veteran Alex Erickson didn’t get past the 20 as he returned a kick for 17 yards, while Kyric McGowan’s return went for 13 yards, Washington is searching for a new returner after DeAndre Carter signed with the Los Angeles Chargers in free agency. 

Washington’s best option at this point might be hoping for a touchback. 

New running back starter?: It wasn’t all bad for the Commanders. Rookie running back Brian Robinson impressed with another strong performance as he rushed for 31 yards on eight carries. Those numbers might not be extraordinary, but Robinson’s physical running style stands out. The 23-year-old was able to move the chains, converting three first downs. 

Notably, Robinson earned the start at running back over Gibson, last year’s starter whose fumbling issues led to the change.  Is that going to be a permanent switch? Rivera is likely to ride the hot hand — and at this moment, that belongs to Robinson. 

Gibson uneven: As for Gibson, the 24-year-old seemed to respond to the role change. Gibson’s top moments came by making plays in space, hauling in three catches for 37 yards — one of which went for 22 yards. The playmaking shouldn’t come as a surprise as Gibson was a wide receiver in college.

That said, Gibson didn’t do himself any favors when it came to rushing out of the backfield.  Despite getting reps with the first team, Gibson ran for only three yards on two carries. After the starters were pulled, Washington’s coaches had Gibson continue to play with the second unit for at least another drive.

Fourth receiver thoughts: A tip of the hat to Cam Sims. The veteran wideout took a hard hit in the second quarter, only to come back just a few plays later and scored a tough 9-yard touchdown over a cluster of defenders. Sims should arguably be Washington’s fourth receiver, a role currently held by 2021 third-rounder Dyami Brown. Sims’ 6-foot-5 size could prove valuable to Wentz in the red zone. 

At the very least, Sims has nice chemistry with backup Taylor Heinicke — who also had a strong game with 83 yards on 9 of 12 passing. 

Offensive line stout: The Commanders were missing three starters upfront with left tackle Charles Leno, left guard Andrew Norwell and right guard Trai Turner out. But the backups held their own. Wentz’s lone sack appeared to be the quarterback’s fault and while third-stringer Sam Howell was sacked twice, the rookie’s work-in-progress footwork likely contributed to the plays.

The Commanders started Corneilus Lucas, Saahdiq Charles, Chase Roullier, Aaron Monteiro and Sam Cosmi but only Roullier and Cosmi are Washington’s normal starters. 

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