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Commanders young CBs rise to the challenge after benching of William Jackson amid trade talk

Poll Results!!

NFL: Tennessee Titans at Washington Commanders Photo by Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post via Getty Images

NFL football is a sport where it is often difficult to link causation and results with any confidence or accuracy. Twenty-two men are flying around the field on every play, most of them bashing into one another in a choreographed 4-second explosion of violent intent, with each man responsible for his own play, but all 11 on one side of the ball expected to perform as an integrated unit amid the chaos.

Separating out good individual performances from bad is difficult for fans due to a lot of limitations. For one thing, few fans have the opportunity to see all 22 players on the video screen at the same time. You might, for example, only see the safety when he makes or misses a tackle, or where a DB is positioned as the ball arrives, but not what happened for the 2 seconds it took for the receiver to run his route. Also, fan perception can be shaped by what the broadcaster chooses to focus on when selecting replays. By highlighting two good plays (or two bad ones) the broadcaster can sway millions of viewers to a belief that a player had a good game (or a bad one) without much regard to what that player did on 59 other plays in the game.

There is also an issue with scheme and assignments in player evaluation. It might appear to a casual observer that a player missed a block or let a receiver run free, but that player might have executed his assignment in the scheme perfectly; the failure might have been with another player, or with the design of the scheme itself.

I’ve seen Twitter feuds where analysts who earn money breaking down NFL plays will argue over whether a particular player blew a play or did exactly what he was supposed to based on the scheme — often with the two ‘analysts’ disagreeing over exactly which scheme was being used!

A quarterback might make what appears to be a wonderful throw for a first down without the fans watching at home being aware that there was another receiver wide open and streaking for the end zone. Or, a QB might be chastised for overlooking a wide open receiver without the critic realizing that a 6’7” tackle with long arms was in the throwing lane, making the decision to throw elsewhere the right one.

There are also issues of small sample size. There are only 17 games in a season, so one or two bad games — especially games like those in prime time that are more widely broadcast — may unduly influence fan opinions. One comment by Troy Aikman on a prime time broadcast could end up coloring a player’s entire career. A receiver might only be targeted 3 times in a game; one drop (or one TD catch) can be the difference between the perception that he had a great performance or a horrible one without regard to how often he made a good block or helped open up the coverage for a teammate by running a perfect route.

There is a reason why players so often say that the only opinions that they care about are those of the people “in the building” who are working together with them to put together game plans and seasons, and who are likely the only ones who fully understand enough to completely evaluate.

I am a casual fan. I am not an NFL analyst. I played football when I was young, but that was in a different millennium, and as an offensive lineman, I wasn’t much concerned about anything other than pancaking the one guy lined up 2 feet away from me.

I think that I’m like a lot of fans. My analysis of players is very results oriented (if we won, they must have played better), and I am influenced by what the networks choose to show me or not show me. A good twitter highlight or two can also go a long way towards shaping my view of a play or a player.

With that in mind, in this week’s survey, we asked about two 2nd year defensive backs that were both drafted last year — Benjamin St-Juste in the 3rd round by Washington, and Rachad Wildgoose in the 6th round by the Buffalo Bills.

St-Juste seems to have the body type of a boundary corner, but this offseason, the coaching staff identified him as the right guy to man the slot CB position. I’m guessing here, but I think it may have been the commitment (as measured by salary cap) to Kendall Fuller and William Jackson that drove this. I think they wanted to get St-Juste on the field, but they didn’t want to sit Fuller or Jackson to make that happen.

WIlliam Jackson and Curtis Samuel had been the two high-profile free agent signings of the 2021 offseason, but neither had a very good season last year. Samuel was injured, and Jackson looked uncomfortable playing in a zone scheme rather than the aggressive man-to-man cover he was known for. Coming into the ‘22 season, we were told that Samuel was now healthy — which 7 weeks of football have proven to be true — and that William Jackson now understood the defensive scheme and was ready to play at a high level, which was put to the lie by the first month of the season.

Neither Jackson nor Fuller looked good in September. Jackson missed the Week 3 game, and then, in the middle of the Week 5 game against the Titans, he was suddenly pulled from the game and put on the bench in favor of Benjamin St-Juste who took over the boundary corner position mid-game.

We heard talk later of back pain that was affecting William Jackson, followed by rumors that the Commaders were trying to trade him, maybe because he asked for a trade and maybe not. With the trade deadline looming at 4pm on Tuesday, November 1st, Jackson is still on the roster, but he hasn’t played a snap — not even special teams — since being benched in Week 5.

Weeks 3, 5, 6 & 7

We end up with a curious situation for a results-focused fan like me. Jackson played in Weeks 1, 2, 4 and part of 5.

My feeling as I’ve watched the team play has been that the defensive secondary has played better since he came off the field in Week 5, but that could be driven by a lot of factors, not the least of which is that the Commanders faced two struggling offenses in Weeks 6 & 7 with the Bears and Packers.

I remember 2020, when the offense seemed to start clicking just when Alex Smith took over as QB, and how they lost two late-season games that Haskins started in his place. Was Alex Smith a good quarterback, or what it just an accident of timing that the team won when he played?

Last season, there were high expectations for the defensive line play, which was very disappointing early in the season. Sack production was almost non-existent, and opposing quarterbacks weren’t being contained. Ron Rivera was repeating the same answers after every game, saying that his defensive line wasn’t rushing as a unit; that players weren’t mature. Then Montez Sweat suffered a broken jaw and Chase Young’s knee ripped apart. The defensive line performance seemed to change in response. It seemed as if the rush was both more disciplined and more effective. Was it because of the change in personnel, or was it an accident of timing that the injuries occurred just as the defense was starting to gel, just as it had in 2020 when Sweat and Young were both healthy and playing?

I thought it might be useful to look at some data about pass coverage this season, with the focus being on the difference between games in which Jackson was on the boundary with St-Juste in the slot, and those where St-Juste played wide while Wildgoose played the nickel. I’ve highlighted the latter in yellow.

It appears as if the worst game of the year was against the Eagles. Jackson was out that game and Wildgoose was playing more than 1 defensive snap in a game for the first time in his short career.

Philly beat the snot out of Washington that day, and the defensive secondary couldn’t stop the Eagles passing attack.

My habit, when faced with one outlying result is usually to throw it out as a “giant tree” abberration that only makes it harder to understand the forest in front of me.

When I look at the remaining 6 games, and divide them as Jackson/St=Juste vs St-Juste/Wildgoose (Week 5 is the latter, as Jackson played only 12 snaps in that game vs 57 for St-Juste) then patterns seem to emerge.

  • In the “Jackson” games, opponents put up between 217 and 260 passing yards per game (237 average) and opposing QBs threw 7 TD passes.
  • In the “Wildgoose” games, opposing offenses were held under 200 passing yards in every game (161 average) and opposing QBs threw 4 TD passes.

I’m the first to admit that this is too small a sample, and there are too many factors at play to draw any conclusions from this data, which could be as accidental as the Football Team winning games when Alex Smith played and losing when he didn’t, or the curious improvement in DL play when the two first-round picks were lost to injury, or the potentially accidental correlation between wins when Brandon Scherff played and losses when he didn’t.

There is too much going on in an NFL game or season — too many random factors to draw straight-line causation conclusions...especially when you have to throw out one of 7 games to get the data to match your hypothesis.

Still, the small sample available to me made me consider the possibility that, for some reason, Jack Del Rio’s defensive secondary might play better when Wildgoose is on the field and St-Juste plays the boundary than when Wildgoose is on the bench and Jackson is on the boundary.

This led me to ask Hogs Haven readers this week to grade the two young corners, St-Juste and Wildgoose.

The results are pretty much what I expected them to be.

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Benjamin St-Juste was graded quite highly by Hogs Haven readers, 94% of whom rated him with a B or an A grade, with over 60% of respondents giving him a “B”.

Fans were less enthusiastic about Wildgoose, who was picked up on waivers during final cutdowns in August.

Ninety-three percent of voters gave the young slot defender a B or C grade, with nearly half of the total respondents pegging him with the lower “C” grade.

I wondered what PFF thought of these two, and I imagine the results will be a bit surprising.

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Of the 4 games that St-Juste played primarily at boundary corner, PFF graded him best (by far) in his Week 3 game against the Eagles, giving him grades for overall defense, tackling and coverage that are all in the upper 70s.

The rest of St-Juste’s grades are disappointing, with most of them hovering in the 30s, 40s & 50s, aside from his tackling & coverage grades against the Packers.

Wildgoose, on the other hand, shows up with very good grades in the two games against the Titans and Bears, with 4 grades in the 70s and two in the 80s, but quite poorly aginst the Eagles and Packers, with his tackling grade of 24.1 in the Week 7 game standing out.

Asked about Wildgoose this week, Jack Del Rio had some positive things to say:

He’s been solid. He’s a younger player that’s growing. He’s not perfect, but he’s competitive and he’s done some good things for us. Last week was a pretty good challenge against one of the league’s better quarterbacks and he did a solid job covering his guy majority of the time.

I know that a lot of fans have talked about Wildgoose’s poor tackling. PFF credits (debits?) Wildgoose with 3 missed tackles for a missed tackle rate of 18.8%. For reference, LB Cole Holcomb, who leads the Commanders in tackles has a missed tackle rate of 8.6% according to PFF. If Rachad Wildgoose can’t improve that aspect of his game, he will likely find it hard to get significant snaps consistently in his career.

I’ve included some information on penalties in the image as well because I think the data may be part of the explanation for what PFF is grading. Three times this season, St-Juste has been penalized on 3rd down for illegal contact or illegal use of the hands, resulting in 3 first-downs for opposing offenses. One of those penalties came against the Cowboys, when “Juice” was playing in the slot, but the others came against the Bears and Packers.

Wildgoose, for his part, has been called for defensive pass interference 3 times this season — twice against the Eagles — giving up 23 and 17 yards of field position. His two lowest rated games by PFF are the ones in which he was flagged.

I’m not sure what’s gonna happen with William Jackson III. The trade deadline is Tuesday. If no one is willing to trade for him, the Commanders end up in a tough spot contractually. Jackson is a vested veteran, so his $5m base salary is guaranteed, though his $750,000 in per game roster bonuses are not. Jackson is one of the 5 players signed under Ron Rivera’s watch with void years in his contract — he actually has 2 void years in his. If Jackson isn’t going to play, even getting rid of him by swapping 7th rounders in the 2024 draft would be worthwhile for Washington’s front office just to get his high-dollar contract off the books, though they would accelerate $9m in cap charges for roster bonus in 2023, 2024 and 2025 whether he is traded or cut.

The problem arises if no one is willing to take on Jackson’s contract, and he ends up not being traded. Should Washington go through the rest of the season with the 2nd-highest salary cap hit sitting on the bench behind a player on his rookie contract, possibly disgruntled?

The phantom back pain that Jackson has been experiencing allows for face-saving options if no trade materializes. If they don’t want to play him, the Commanders might just place him on IR and hope to trade him in the offseason. Or, if there’s a need for Jackson to take the field in burgundy & gold again, he can simply be carried on the roster till the back pain disappears.

My personal view is that St-Juste is special. PFF grades notwithstanding, I see a cornerback with all the skills needed.

Wildgoose may not be the best slot corner in the league, but as long as he creates the opportunity for St-Juste to line up across from Kendall Fuller, then he may be part of a synergistic solution for Jack Del Rio’s defense where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, or where getting Jackson off the field represents “addition by subtraction”.

William Jackson is OUT for this week’s game in Indianapolis, so we’re sure to see more of both St-Juste and Wildgoose on Sunday, though, with Sam Ehlinger at QB, this may not be the stiffest test they will face this season.

The sterner test is likely to be in two weeks, when Kirk Cousins and the Vikings come to town with Adam Theilen and Justin Jefferson headlining the receiver group. Washington is a road underdog against the Colts, and are likely to find themselves underdogs at home against the NFC North-leading Vikings as well.

By mid-November, Washington fans should know a lot more about their two young defensive backs, and about the future of William Jackson III.