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Ball control offense is working as designed for the Commanders

The defense is overachieving, but the offense is also doing okay.

NFL: Washington Commanders at Houston Texans Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

A common refrain I keep hearing and reading (I’ve even said it myself a few times) is that the Commanders offense should be scoring more points. It is unsustainable, many fans say, to expect the defense to keep holding opponents to 21 points or less to get the win.

I’m beginning to doubt that this is completely true.

When I was a youngish lad, I attended university at VCU just as the school’s basketball program started enjoying success. The Rams joined the Sunbelt Conference in 1979, making its first-ever NCAA tournament appearance at the end of that season (a game I attended in North Carolina, where VCU fell to a far superior Iowa Hawkeyes team). I watched the team play under two head coaches — Dana Kirk and JD Barnett — before I graduated in 1981.

For at least one season while I was a student there, the VCU Rams played basketball with a deliberate style, relying on point guard Edmund Sherrod to play keepaway from the opposing team, dribbling and passing the ball till the shot clock got under 8 seconds before pulling the trigger on an offensive play. If the Rams missed the shot but managed an offensive rebound, they would reload and Sherrod would run the clock down again. The team won a lot of games, often with scores like 51-48.

The Washington Commanders football team under Ron Rivera, with Taylor Heinicke under center, is using a similar strategy to win NFL games. It frustrates opponents and many fans, but the strategy has been successful, with Heinicke managing to go 5-1 as a starter through 6 games, and the team compiling a 6-1 record since shifting to a more run-based offensive game plan.

Of course, it’s not what the coaching staff spent the 2022 offseason preparing for. Scott Turner and Ron Rivera had planned to run a jet motion, big-play offense built around a big-armed quarterback with multiple weapons at every skill position.

Unfortunately, poor pass blocking by the offensive line combined with Carson Wentz’s lack of mobility and slow decision-making led to a disastrous 1-4 start to the season. A broken finger suffered by Wentz in the Week 6 game against the Bears forced a change at quarterback.

That change from Carson Wentz to the physically limited but faster-processing Taylor Heinicke, along with the availability and improving health of rookie running back Brian Robinson, pushed the change in offensive philosophy that we’ve seen increasingly since Washington’s Week 7 game against the Packers, but which — statistically, at least — actually began in Week 6 against the Chicago Bears.

The formula has been to run the ball — a lot — almost regardless of its efficiency.

Look at this chart:

You can clearly see the season broken up into 3 segments:

While the run-pass percentages are partly driven by game script, the patterns are too pronounced to be merely accidental.

The Washington coaching staff opened up the season hoping to be a big-play passing offense that overwhelmed teams with too many versatile skill players to cover effectively. The strategy failed because the line couldn’t protect Wentz, and he was too immobile and too indecisive to make the plan work.

In the chart above, I’ve highlighted Week 6, which was Carson Wentz’s outlier. It’s the only one of his starts in which the Commanders ran the ball more than they passed it. That game marked the beginning of a shift that may have initially been accidental, but which has definitely become very deliberate over the past several weeks.

You can see from the charts above that the Commanders ran the ball just 38% of the time with Wentz as the starter — though, as mentioned, that changed in his final start (a win) against Chicago.

By contrast, Washington has run the ball 56.5% of the time in Heinicke’s 6 starts, but there is a clear difference between Taylor’s first three starts (51%) and his most recent three games (61.5%). The Commanders game plan is clearly to slow the game down, play defense and field position, and try to make fewer mistakes than the opposing team. Looking at the win-loss details, the strategy seems to be working.

What’s normal vs what the Commanders are doing

In a typical NFL game, each team has 10 to 12 possessions. 9 is a low number; 13 is a high number.

Nine years of statistics on drives per game and scoring frequency

Source: Sharp Football Analysis

From 2011 to 2019 (2020 stats were very different, with higher scoring rates due to the COVID effect of empty stadiums) each team typically got 11 drives per game, and averaged about 7 touchdowns every three games (2.36 per game).

  • The TD scoring rate averaged 21.2%
  • The overall scoring rate averaged 35.9% (so we can infer a field goal rate of 14.7%).

What the Commanders have been doing by running the ball more, is to effectively “shorten” the game each week. Of course, every game gets the same 60 minutes of play time on the clock, but every NFL fan knows that the passing game leads to more clock stoppages (so, a longer game). The net result of more rushing plays is that the clock keeps running, so there are fewer plays — and fewer offensive drives — in the game.

And fewer drives means fewer scoring opportunities.

Expected scores based on number of drives

If we apply the averages from the chart above, we can project expected scoring based on drives per game, as shown below (remembering that these are ‘expected averages’ and not a fixed expectation for any given game). As with any calculated mean, roughly half the teams will be above the number and half below, but this gives a standard measure — “expected points” — based on number of drives.

Now, let’s look at the actual drives per game for the Commanders through the first 12 weeks, the expected scores based on that variable statistic, and the actual scores achieved.

I’ve put Wentz’s six starts on the left (green) and Heinicke’s six starts on the right (blue).

  • The offense under Wentz scored an average of 17 points per game
  • The offense under Heinicke has scored an average of 20.8 points per game

But there’s another difference. In the first 6 games of the season, the two teams combined for 24.5 drives per game. However, in the most recent 6 games with Heinicke as the starter, the two teams have combined for 21 drives per game — and over the past three weeks, that average has dropped to just 19.7 drives per game! That’s a lot of potential scoring opportunities for both teams that have never eventuated.

Remember that with fewer drives, the expected point production is lower, since fewer drives will, on average, result in fewer touchdowns and fewer field goals.

I have calculated the difference between the expected score for each team in each game (based on number of drives) and actual score.

Both Wentz and Heinicke have underperformed as compared to the expected number, but with Wentz running more drives per game but producing fewer points, it’s no surprise that the offensive production looks much more efficient under Taylor Heinicke.

  • In Wentz’s 6 starts, the deficit for Washington’s offense between actual points scored and expected points was 9.38 points per game; in Heinicke’s 6 starts, the deficit was 2.07 points per game.
  • The results in scoring differential for Washington’s opponents follow the opposite trend, with a deficit of 3.52 points per game against “expected points” in the first 6 weeks, but 6.07 points per game in Heinicke’s 6 starts, indicating that Washington’s defense has been much more effective, on average, since Week 7.

Significantly, the only 3-game stretch in which the Commanders have a net positive differential on offense is Weeks 10-12 when the Washington offense exceeded the “expected points” total in two out of three games, and generated a net surplus of 3.3 points above expected for the three-games combined. This correlates with the only three games in which Washington rushed the ball at least 60% of the time, and these three games represent the lowest number of offensive drives for the Commanders all season (10, 10, 9), and 3 of the 4 lowest combined totals for both teams (20, 21, 18).

What conclusions do I draw from all of this?

  1. The strategy of slowing down the game is working for Washington. Both the offense and defense are more effective on a per-drive basis, and opponents have, for the most part, been making more mistakes than the Commanders, which is the key to winning in a ball control, defense & field position strategy.
  2. The flaws in the offensive line are minimized with the run-heavy game plan and the use of 2 & 3 tight end sets. Brian Robinson is clearly getting better (by which I mean both the quality of his play and his recovery from the gunshot wounds) from week to week, and he makes the OL look better than they are with his yards after contact.
  3. Having a punter like Tress Way and a kicker as reliable as Joey Slye has been [30-32 (93.8%) on field goals, including 4-4 over 50 yards for Washington] are important elements of a ball-control, field-position strategy. Sure-handed and competent returners also help a lot.
  4. The defense is leading the team to victory by holding opposing offenses to about 6 points below their expected score on a per game basis. Part of this is personnel, but I believe that another reason is that the offense is rarely going 3 & out. In fact, the Commanders have shown a propensity to put together long drives through their commitment to the run by staying ahead of the chains. For example, except for Heinicke’s interception, Washington’s offense didn’t have a drive of less than 5 plays until they tried to force the Falcons to burn their time outs inside the 2-minute warning in the 4th quarter. Washington actually averaged about 7 plays per drive against the Falcons. Ignoring turnovers, the Commanders had only six 3 & out series in the 4 games before they played the Falcons. For the most part, Taylor Heinicke is effective at keeping the offense on the field long enough to help the defense stay fresh. The effect is multiplied by Heinicke’s obvious effort to use as much of the play clock as he can before snapping the ball, so that even when a drive is relatively short, the defense isn’t forced straight back out on the field.
  5. Evidence from the analysis of the 12 games Washington has played indicates that the optimum results have been obtained when the team has run the ball on at least 60% of offensive plays and limited the combined drives in the game to 21 or fewer. In these circumstances, the offense is actually producing more than the “expected points” target, Meanwhile, the defense kept opponents below the “expected points” target in all three of these games, with an average opponent deficit of 7.6 points per game.

Bottom line

I’m all for scoring more points, but part of the game strategy currently being used by Washington is to limit opportunities for opposing offenses to score by eating up the clock; if the strategy is used effectively, the Commanders can win scoring around 22 points per game on offense if the defense is good for one “extra” stop per game, as they have been over the past 8 weeks. Washington’s defense has not allowed a team to score more than 21 points since Week 4, when the Cowboys put 25 points on the board.

The expected outcome from this style of play is a lot of close games decided by one score, with one big play in the final 4 minutes often seen as the one that “won” or “lost” the game. Many people see this as an unsustainable style of play that has no room for error and puts too much stress on the defense. Others see it as more luck than skill.

I see it a bit differently. The style that Washington has been using during its “hot streak” that began in Week 6 is frustrating for the opposing team — especially the opposing offense that sits on the sideline for long stretches of game time, itching to get back on the field. This is part of the reason for opponents getting impatient and making errors.

While a ball control game that is close on the scoreboard does put a certain kind of pressure on the defense (and raises the stress levels for fans of the burgundy & gold), it also creates advantages. Opposing coaches are hesitant to open up their offenses with big shots downfield, knowing that the number of opportunities (drives) will likely be limited, which can lead to more conservative play-calling.

The kind of defense that Washington runs (not blitz heavy - zone oriented - nickel & dime defenses with 4 man rush on passing downs and frequent 5-man fronts on early downs) feeds into the strategy of shutting down the opponent’s running game, not giving op big plays, and forcing opponents to play mistake-free football and put together long patient drives, which most teams are not as well-equipped to do as the Commanders are.

More points on the scoreboard from the Commanders offense are always welcome, but understanding the strategy being used by the Washington coaching staff helps highlight that this team is being coached to win games 20-16. The brand of smash-mouthed football we’ve increasingly seen from Antonio Gibson and Brian Robinson along with huge defensive contributions from both the obvious team leaders like Allen, Payne and Sweat, and some unexpected young players like Jamin Davis, John Ridgeway and Darrick Forrest, in addition to papering over Taylor Heinicke’s limitations as a passer, make it a lot easier to cheer for the kind of football that many NFL fans haven’t seen since the 1980s or earlier.

Ball control offense may not be what most NFL fans want to see when they turn on the TV every Sunday, but it’s working as designed for the Commanders, and — for the moment at least — the throwback style is helping the team stack the kind of wins that have been scarce for the burgundy & gold in this millennium. Let’s face it, the sort of unbridled enthusiasm that we’ve seen from Heinicke combined with winning 6 out of 7 games makes the style of play a lot easier to embrace as fans.

Let’s enjoy it for as long as it lasts.