Chase Young was supposed to boost Washington's defense when he made his season debut, and he did, but the Commanders found out the hard way how much they need a key member of the secondary.
Safety Kam Curl's absence because of an ankle injury was obvious during a 37-20 loss to the San Francisco 49ers, even while Young made his presence felt in his first NFL game in 13 months. The team could use Curl healthy for a crucial game Sunday against the Cleveland Browns, which isn't a must-win game but sure feels like it given the tightness of the playoff race.
“We felt it,” coach Ron Rivera said of not having Curl. “A young man like that is valuable to what you’re trying to do. And the other guys that came in played hard. They gave us everything they got.”
All of that added up to the defense — which rounded into form only after Curl recovered from a broken thumb suffered in the preseason — allowing its highest point total of the season and 371 yards, the most since Week 6.
Two turnovers by Taylor Heinicke did not help, and it led to him getting benched in favor of Carson Wentz. The biggest question facing Rivera is whether Heinicke or Wentz starts against Cleveland.
Of course, if the defense doesn't rebound, it might not matter and the Commanders' playoff hopes will take a huge hit. They're 7-7-1 and would get in by beating Cleveland and then the Dallas Cowboys.
One of their best hopes of doing that, beyond stable quarterback play, is getting more from Young, who made two tackles and batted down a ball in his return following a torn ACL and ruptured patellar tendon in his right knee. Young played 30 snaps, almost double the limit the coaching staff expected, and could help fellow defensive linemen Jonathan Allen, Daron Payne and Montez Sweat wreak havoc against Deshaun Watson and the Browns.
“I’ve been restless,” Young said. "I’m fresh. My mind is fresh and my legs are fresh. I’m going to be that dog for this run.”
Almost everyone else in the hunt for NFC wild-card spots is losing, so a three-game winless stretch has not taken Washington out of the running. The Commanders could even clinch Sunday with a victory and losses by Detroit, Seattle and Green Bay.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
The running game that had keyed a 6-1 stretch was ineffective, finishing with just 79 yards. Rivera credited the 49ers' league-leading defense.
“Some of the things that they do up front with their line movement, stuff like that is pretty good,” he said. “Their linebackers’ ability to run, it allows their defensive front to take more chances to work backdoor a couple of times. Their guys could run and make up for anything.”
Wentz now seems to be the favorite to start against Cleveland after going 12 of 16 for 123 yards and a touchdown in relief of Heinicke. It was Wentz's first action since breaking the ring finger on his right, throwing hand Oct. 13, and he looked good despite not getting the practice snaps he has been used to all career as the starter.
“You prepare because you’re always one play away,” Wentz said. “I didn’t change my approach. ... I prepared, so when your number does get called, you’re not missing a beat.”
Heinicke's fun ride with Air Jordans for himself and some teammates in the colors of every team he beats might be over. A lost fumble and an interception in the fourth quarter at San Francisco prompted Rivera to make the switch from Heinicke to Wentz.
Rivera has said he would make a decision early this week so the starter could prepare to face the Browns.
"It’s tough," Heinicke said. “I just try to roll with the punches. If I’m starting, I’ll give it my all. If I’m not, I’m trying to be the best backup I can be. I’m going to continue to do that. Let’s see what happens.”
Curl's status isn't the only question on defense. Jon Bostic left with a pectoral injury, and Washington already has no depth at linebacker after the season-ending injury to starter Cole Holcomb. Defensive end James Smith-Williams could land in concussion protocol.
51 — Penalty yards Washington racked up against San Francisco, an unsustainable number for a team with a razor-thin margin for error.
Turn attention to the Browns, who have nothing to play for after being eliminated from playoff contention. The Commanders are 2 1/2-point favorites, according to FanDuel Sportsbook, and there's no excuse for losing to Cleveland in this situation.
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