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While nobody would call them a top Super Bowl contender, the Washington Commanders can’t be completely ruled out of the running for a playoff spot. After overcoming an early four-game losing streak, Ron Rivera’s squad has climbed back into contention by rattling off five victories in six weeks, including a 32-21 win over the previously undefeated Philadelphia Eagles

Could a Commanders franchise that’s earned a postseason berth just once over the last six seasons find itself playing in mid-January? 

While much of that hinges on whether Taylor Heinicke can provide smart, efficient play from the quarterback position, another factor looms large, too. 

After all, if Chase Young looks like his pre-injury self, Washington’s defense has an opportunity to propel the team into the playoffs.

Washington will soon have its best defensive player back in the lineup

Trying to stop the likes of Jalen Hurts and Dak Prescott is difficult for a defense with a fully intact lineup. However, the Commanders have been forced to try to slow opposing offenses without one of the league’s premier young pass rushers. 

Chase Young, the No. 2 overall pick of the 2020 NFL Draft, hasn’t played a down since he suffered a torn ACL in Week 10 of the 2021 season. The explosive edge rusher has spent more than a year working his way back to game shape.

On Monday, Young finally cleared the final hurdle in his recovery, as the Commanders activated him to the 53-man roster.

Needless to say, adding a player of his caliber to the mix for the home stretch should be a significant boon for a Commanders defense that has acquitted itself well this season. Following Sunday’s dominant 23-10 showing against the lowly Houston Texans, Jack Del Rio’s unit ranks 12th in points allowed at 20.3 per game. 

However, despite totaling 29 sacks (11th in the league), Washington’s defense hasn’t exactly been elite. According to Football Outsiders, the team falls right in the middle of the pack (16th) in Pass DVOA. 

Luckily, though, the Commanders can look forward to having an elite edge rusher for their final six games — and possibly more.

Chase Young’s return has major playoff implications

Chase Young Washington Commanders
Chase Young | Kevin Sabitus/Getty Images

Washington already boasts a ton of talent up front. Former Alabama standouts Daron Payne (6.5 sacks, 14 quarterback hits) and Jonathan Allen (6.5 sacks, 15 QBH) have played up to their usual standard, and 2019 first-rounder Montez Sweat has already set a new career-high for quarterback hits (22) through 11 games. 

However, that group will be significantly more difficult to handle once Young makes his season debut. 

The 2020 AP Defensive Rookie of the Year boasts an elite combination of physical tools that make him a load to block. Tipping the scales at 6-foot-5, 264 pounds, Young brings great length, an explosive first step, and excellent closing speed to the table. Plus, the 23-year-old ex-Ohio State star still has untapped upside. 

Assuming Young hasn’t lost the burst that helped him rack up 7.5 sacks and 12 QBH as a rookie, he could easily transform Washington’s defense into one of the NFC’s best. Even if he’s initially used in a part-time role, offenses will certainly face a steep challenge to scheme up how to block a front seven that currently features four first-round picks. 

Most importantly, the Commanders have a chance to spoil other NFC teams’ hopes of making the playoffs. Still in the hunt for a Wild Card spot, they can gain separation from other postseason hopefuls by playing stout defense down the stretch.

In fact, with matchups against the Atlanta Falcons (Week 12), San Francisco 49ers (Week 16), and Dallas Cowboys (Week 18) looming, Washington can simultaneously improve its odds of earning a playoff berth while also handing those contenders potentially devastating losses.

Who needs to step up for the Commanders down the stretch?

There’s no doubt Chase Young has a ton of pressure on his shoulders to make an immediate impact upon his return. However, the talented defender isn’t the only Commander who must step up and deliver down the stretch. 

Can Washington’s two-headed running back tandem of Antonio Gibson and Brian Robinson Jr. provide more punch? The former has seen his yards-per-carry average drop from 4.7 in 2020 to 4.0 in 2021 to a mere 3.6 this season. Meanwhile, Robinson, who admirably worked his way back from a gunshot incident, has been even less efficient at 3.3 yards per carry. 

Establishing the ground game will help open things up for Heinicke, who looks poised to permanently replace the perennially disappointing Carson Wentz. The 29-year-old journeyman hasn’t been substantially better, but he’s won four of his first five starts and seems to have the confidence of his teammates and coaches. 

Plus, the Commanders have to get more production out of the tight end position. Logan Thomas has gone from being a breakout star in 2020 (72 receptions for 670 yards and six touchdowns) to being a minor contributor.

Injuries have prevented the physically gifted tight end from building off of that promising 2020 campaign, and the team desperately needs him to become a reliable target for Heinicke. 

Overall, the defense should be in good hands with Chase Young lining up opposite Sweat. But if the Commanders want to be one of the final teams standing in the crowded NFC, they’ll quickly have to make a substantial leap on the other side of the ball.

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