LANDOVER, Md. — Jack Del Rio folded on the sideline, dropping his hands to his knees in bafflement before turning to head coach Ron Rivera and ripping off his headset.
After all of the errors — the blown coverages, the miscommunication, the missed tackles — this was just too much to bear, too wild to comprehend for the Washington Football Team’s defensive coordinator. On the final play of the first half, New Orleans Saints quarterback Jameis Winston completed a 49-yard Hail Mary as a swarm of Washington defenders trailed in coverage and barely left the ground as the ball descended to the end zone and into the hands of receiver Marquez Callaway.
In its first four games, Washington’s once-heralded defense failed to get out of its own way, but Sunday, in a 33-22 loss at FedEx Field, its secondary devolved into a full-fledged liability and its quarterback turned in his worst outing yet as the team fell to 2-3.
Before Winston launched that Hail Mary, he handed the ball to running back Alvin Kamara for a 23-yard touchdown run up the middle — made possible because of a missed tackle by free safety Bobby McCain.
And before that, Winston found wide receiver Deonte Harris for a deep completion up the middle. Harris turned the catch into a 72-yard score — because safety Landon Collins left the middle of the field wide open on third and seven.
And in between, cornerback William Jackson III knocked out the Saints’ Taysom Hill with a hit that left Hill concussed. It was Jackson’s fifth penalty of the season.
Days earlier, Jackson assured that the defense’s persistent issues were “easy” fixes. It’s all about “communication skills,” he said.
The only thing that appeared easy Sunday was the work the Saints made of Washington’s defense, scoring five touchdowns and averaging 6.7 yards per play.
On the other side, Washington quarterback Taylor Heinicke had the poorest showing of his young career, tossing two interceptions and many other throws that were nearly picked off. New Orleans (3-2) amassed 12 passes defensed, the most of any defense this season.
Every good decision Heinicke made was sandwiched by poor ones, be it a throw into double coverage or any throw at all when he had no options. Washington had five trips to the red zone and scored touchdowns only twice — both rushing scores by Antonio Gibson (20 carries, 60 yards). On one of those trips, Heinicke was intercepted at the two-yard line by cornerback Paulson Adebo.
Heinicke refused to let up, unleashing deep passes and taking big hits while pulling Washington within 27-22 with less than eight minutes left by leading an eight-play, 75-yard touchdown drive. New Orleans responded with one of its own to expand its lead to 11, but Heinicke kept throwing, launching deep balls that were deflected as he fell to the ground. Each time, he stood up a little slower than the last.
Heinicke finished 20 for 41 for 248 yards, no touchdowns and a 47.6 rating. He also took two sacks and had five carries for 40 yards.
Washington’s special teams and the front seven of its defense — at times — were bright spots. Washington created its most pressure of the season, registering nine quarterback hits, including two sacks — one a strip sack by Chase Young with a fumble recovery by Daron Payne. Linebacker Cole Holcomb intercepted Winston on the Saints’ opening drive, setting up a field goal and ending the defense’s stretch of allowing a touchdown on the opponent’s first drive in each of the first four games.
But those highlights couldn’t mask the errors that had Del Rio hunched over on the sideline in dismay. And they couldn’t salvage another poor outing, this one dropping Washington under .500 just in time to face a gantlet of top quarterbacks, starting with the Kansas City Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes next Sunday at FedEx Field.