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C Tyler Larsen seen as the key to turnaround in offensive line performance for the Commanders

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Washington Commanders v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

Washington’s offensive line has had a lot of upheaval this season, especially on the right side of the line. While Charles Leno and Andrew Norwell have started and finished 7 games at Left Tackle and Left Guard respectively, the team has had 4 different starting centers, 3 different starting right guards, and 2 different starting right tackles in those same 7 games.

As you can see from the chart, the team has rushed for between 128 and 166 yards in 3 of the past 4 games. The game against the Titans was the worst rushing performance of the season; however, that was rookie running back Brian Robinson’s first-ever NFL action after recovering from two bullet wounds to his glute and leg, and it came against Tennessee’s 4th ranked rushing defense.

The first three games of the season were pretty consistent in terms of offensive rushing production, with the team putting up between 85 and 88 yards per game.

Some pass blocking data from PFF

When it comes to protecting the quarterback, the team has given up 1, 2 or 3 sacks in every game except Weeks 2 & 3 when they surrendered 5 to the Lions’ 30th ranked pass rush, and 9 to the Eagles’ 8th ranked pass rush.

Carson Wentz was the QB for all the games except the last.

I’ve gone to PFF for stats on true pass sets, pressures allowed, and sacks allowed to look at their assessment of the 8 players that have manned these 3 positions so far this season.

True Pass Set is a pass play with the following characteristics:

  • Without play action
  • Without a screen
  • Without a rollout
  • With time to throw between two and four seconds
  • With more than a three-man rush

Here’s the data from PFF:

One limitation of the data is that Schweitzer’s data isn’t broken down by position, but I don’t think it matters much for the kind of macro view we’re taking here.

I was surprised by a few of these results.

Firstly, I was surprised that the highest pressure rates allowed belonged to Larsen and Charles, while both right tackles allowed pressure 11% of the time. This didn’t confirm my ideas about who was pass blocking well and who was not.

Sacks are a different matter. Of the 6 sacks charged to this group of 8 players, 1 was charged to Schweitzer while the other 5 were all charged to Sam Cosmi. This did confirm what I thought from watching the games.

Some run blocking grades from PFF

I went back to PFF for some information about run blocking. This time, instead of raw data, I opted for PFF grading.

You’ll see that the grades are separated into zone and gap blocking schemes, and that Washington runs significantly more of the former than the latter. The two right tackles, Cosmi & Lucas, both grade out dramatically better in zone than gap. For the most part, the other linemen are graded more evenly between the two schemes, with a lot of middling grades. Of the centers and guards, PFF grades Schweitzer the highest and Turner the lowest, with only 4 points separating the other 4 players.

Why has the offensive line looked better in the past two games than it did at any time since the opening week win against the Jaguars?

I think there are 3 factors at play in answering this question:

#1 - The personnel

Week 1 vs. Jacksonville was the only game this season where the coaches got to play the three guys that they thought were best-suited to these three positions. Schweitzer got injured in that opening week game; Roullier was lost for the season at the end of the loss to the Lions in Week 2.

For a month, injuries, Injured Reserve and poor play all had a role in forcing the coaches to field a different group of players on the OL every week.

It’s only in the past two games (Bears & Packers) that these three positions have been manned by the same players for two weeks in a row. Lucas and Charles have played together for the past 3 weeks, but Tyler Larsen got his first start in Week 6 after spending training camp on the PUP list and opening the season on IR.

It feels like that group of Larsen, Charles and Lucas has brought some needed stability to the offensive line. In this week’s Reacts survey, we asked Hogs Haven readers which of these three players was the most responsible for the team’s improved OL play.

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The response was very strong — 76% identified Tyler Larsen as the most responsible for the improvement. This could simply be because the team won the only two games he played in, but I’m guessing that there’s a bit more to it than that.

In the games with Schweitzer and Martin starting at Center, we saw multiple bad snaps per game — mostly coming in at Carson Wentz’s knees. This, of course, forces the QB to bend down to get the ball, momentarily taking his vision off the defense and possibly slowing down his rhythm. Those low snaps seemed to disappear when Larsen took over on Thursday Night Football against the Bears.

Reader comment

It’s hard for me to tell if Larsen’s making better protection calls. At least he should know the O better than a guy off the street.

Reader comment

At least Larsen can snap the damn ball

The other issue is that Washington’s center is an integral part of setting the protections. Nick Martin was brand new, and Wes Schweitzer was pressed into duty as the backup to injured Chase Roullier as Schweitzer himself was returning from his own injury. For the three weeks that they were in that crucial position, the OL simply looked disorganized (rather like the DBs in a typical Jack Del Rio defense early in the season). It seemed as if Larsen’s return resolved this issue as well.

What seems clear is that Turner was the weakest link, and the 2 12 games with him at RG were probably the worst for the OL this season.

#2 - the competition

The offensive line may not actually be playing better; it could just be that they are facing inferior defenses. The Packers and Bears are ranked 27th & 29th in rushing defense, and neither has an elite pass rush. The Commanders play the Vikings in two weeks, and Minnesota is tied with Philly at #8 in quarterback sacks. It’s possible they could expose the apparent offensive line improvement as a mirage created by lower levels of competition.

The next top-10 run defense that Washington will face is against Atlanta, but that’s not until the end of November — Week 12. By then, we should already know whether the offensive line is good enough or not.

#3 - the Heinicke factor

Carson Wentz had a few bad decisions in the middle of the Jacksonville game, but for the most part, he was comfortable in the pocket against the Jaguars. After Week 1, however — with Turner replacing Schweitzer, Schweitzer replacing Roullier, Martin Replacing Schweitzer, Lucas replacing Cosmi, and finally Larsen replacing Martin — Carson Wentz never really looked protected and comfortable again.

Taylor Heinicke certainly lacks Carson Wentz’s arm strength, and #4 has his own issues with accuracy, just like #11, but Taylor Heinicke offers certain types of help to his protectors up front. First, he is much more mobile than Carson Wentz. He also possesses better pocket awareness and escapability. Also, while one of the frequent criticisms of Taylor Heinicke in 2021 was that he often tried to extend plays too long, creating negative outcomes when they weren’t necessary, the same criticism has been leveled against Carson Wentz throughout his career, and that tendency was on full display as quarterback of the Commanders. Secondly, Taylor Heinicke has been with Scott Turner for 6 years, Wentz for less than 6 months. Taylor understands what he is seeing and knows the answers that are built into the offense, giving him the advantage of quicker decision-making.

Here’s Taylor Heinicke himself talking about those factors:

I’ve been with Scott for six years now. I think he understands what I do best and I understand the offense and I get what he’s trying to look for, what he’s looking for and what he’s trying to accomplish. We have full trust in each other. And again, part of my game is my legs. So if I can use them a little bit, I think it just helps the offense all around.

Reader comment

Perhaps the OL play is improved because they don’t have to hold pass protection for 6 seconds with Heinicke under centre.

Reader comment

The funny thing is, the OL play is not improved relative to pass pro. Their continued weakness is just being masked by the QB.

Logan Paulsen was ripping the OL after film breakdown and indicated that Heinicke’s field awareness and pocket presence was the reason the OL “looked better”. They may have looked improved to the casual fan, but they were atrocious in pass protection. Again.

I know I know....this is a cherished anti-Wentz topic at the moment but the reality is our OL is still garbage in pass pro, blowing blocks, and giving up pressure/hits... thankfully the backup QB can circumvent their bad play with his legs and better understanding of Turner’s scheme (throwing w/ anticipation better than Wentz).

In effect, as a mobile QB who always poses a threat to run (the Packers were deploying a ‘spy’ to keep Heinicke from breaking the pocket and running for first downs at times), and who has quick decision making and an understanding of where his “hot” and checkdown receivers are, TH is in a better position to help out his offensive line than Wentz was. Once Heinicke settled down and got into rhythm, his second half against the Packers was a demonstration of how he can make the blockers look better than the relatively immobile Wentz, who often looked frozen by indecision.

Is the offensive line improvement real?

That leaves us with the question of whether the apparent improvement in the OL is real or not. We may or may not find out very soon. The Colts defense is ranked 8th in yards per game surrendered, and 13th in points.

The Colts, however, aren’t very stout against the run, giving up 123 yards per game for the season, and 169 yards per game against their last three opponents. The Colts are ranked 13th in sacks per game, but they rank 8th over the past 3 weeks. In short, the Colts defense overall may challenge Washington’s ability to move the ball and score, but they are unlikely to pose an unusually tough challenge for the currently constituted offensive line when it comes to stopping the run or sacking the quarterback.

The real test may simply be the grinding marathon of the season. With Roullier and Schweitzer on IR and Sam Cosmi’s hand in a cast, it appears that the coaches have settled, for the moment, on the best-5 healthy players. With Lucas apparently outperforming Cosmi at right tackle, there have been calls from the fans and some local media members to try the 2nd year lineman at guard in place of either Charles or Norwell when he is recovered from his thumb surgery in order to stick to that “best five” philosophy.

Reader comment

I was shocked that lucas didn’t get the starting job last year after having a pretty solid 2020. Cosmi should move over to guard. He is athletic enough to pull and block in space but his skill set doesn’t seem to translate to rt tackle. Charles has played well also. But looking at our line I think we only have 2 true tackles on the roster and they are both starting right now.

Reader comment

I find all the giving up on Cosmi as a T talk to be weird. The guy who is a 2nd rd pick who, due to injuries, has started only 13 games in his career. He has had some ups and down but I’d say he has fully justified the pick and is still developing. He certainly has outplayed several OL taken before him, most notably Jenkins and Darrishaw (both favorites on this board before the draft).

Don’t ever say you are for building through the draft if you are advocating sitting Cosmi or moving him to guard. He has the frame and athleticism of an NFL OT, and has shown plenty of promise. Give him some freakin’ time. I don’t care that next Sunday, a 31 year old journeyman OT would be better if they were both healthy. In a year, it would be no contest if he gets the experience he needs.

It could be that the biggest factor in the success of Washington’s offensive line for the balance of 2022 will simply be the consistency that comes from lining up the same five guys every week since they have to work as a unit to open holes for runners and build an impenetrable wall for the passer.

It should be one more interesting aspect of this difficult season for Washington fans to keep an eye on.