Things seemed pretty dire a week ago, after the Commanders failed to step up and seize a crucial advantage over the divisional rival Giants and the rest of their competition for the two up-for-grabs NFC Wild Card berths. Remarkably, though, they are still in control of their playoff destiny despite losing to San Francisco.
That pretty much sums up the Commanders’ season. Just when you think they are getting somewhere, they find a way to disappoint. And just when you are ready to count them out, they find a way to keep hope alive. A rational observer might conclude that that means they are a marginal playoff contender. However, if you believe the Kansas City Times, rather than the English, the word “fan” derives from “fanatic”. Since this is an American football site, I’d have to go with the home team on that one, so I wouldn’t expect anyone to be rational about our playoff chances this time of year. And why should they be?
Thanks to some Christmas gifts from our friends in Kansas City, Minnesota and Carolina, the Commanders remain in the thick of the Wild Card race and simply need to win their two remaining games to book a place in the postseason. Let’s see if we can derive any clues from the gutsy road loss to the 49ers about what lies ahead.
The 7-6-1 Commanders were hoping to pull off their second major upset of the season on Christmas Eve by knocking off the 10-4 Niners. Halfway through the contest, it was looking like they just might have what it takes. After the break, however, the 49ers demonstrated who the superior team was. The Commanders have only beaten one team that currently has a winning record this season. They will probably have to beat another one to make it into the playoffs, although it is mathematically possible for them to do so with only one win against a winning team.
If ever a game exemplified the cliche “a tale of two halves”, this was it. The Commanders kept it even with the 49ers in the first half, entering halftime with the score tied at 7-7. Two George Kittle touchdown receptions gave the 49ers the lead in the third quarter and the Commanders were never able to catch up, eventually losing 20-37.
In the first half, the Commanders matched the 49ers in total points, and were close to even in total yards (WAS 141, SF 157). Washington had the advantage in 1st downs (15 - 9), defensive turnovers (1-0) and pass completion rate (72.7% - 44.4%); while San Francisco was better at rushing (102 total yards, 9.23 yards per attempt vs 52 yards, 2.2 yards per attempt). In the second half, the two teams were very close in total yards (WAS 227, SF 230) and 1st downs (WAS 16, SF 13).
What made the score so lopsided in the second half was big plays. On offense, the 49ers had 4 massive plays in the second half that helped to flip the script and seal the victory. These included those two 34-yard touchdown completions to George Kittle to pull ahead by 14 points in the third quarter (3rd and 4, 10:44 remaining: 4.52 EPA; 2nd and 9, 5:02 remaining: 4.09 EPA), a 54 yard completion to Brandon Aiyuk near the end of the third quarter (4.23 EPA), and a 10-yard completion to Kittle on 4th and 3 from the Washington 11 to set up a rushing TD near the end of the 4th quarter (4.17 EPA). On defense, the 49ers also made two massive plays in the 4th quarter to prevent Washington from coming back. These were a sack/fumble by Nick Bosa at the Washington 21 (-4.84 EPA) and a Jimmie Ward interception to end the following Washington drive (-3.91 EPA).
Washington, made two really big plays of its own on offense after the half: a 51-yard Taylor Heinicke completion to Terry McLaurin in the third quarter to spark a TD drive narrowing the 49ers’ lead to one score (5.83 EPA), and a Carson Wentz touchdown pass to Curtis Samuel on 3rd and 10 with 5:30 remaining and Washington trailing by 16 (3.99 EPA). On defense, Washington only made one really big play in the second half, a James Smith-Williams sack on Brock Purdy for -4 yards from the Washington 5 yard line (-5.15 EPA). Unfortunately, the Commanders were unable to do enough to contain the 49ers’ big play making ability in the second half or counter with big plays of their own.
This game ended Washington’s streak of not losing when Brian Robinson has 14 or more carries, thanks to the 49ers’ league-leading rushing defense (top ranked in both rushing yards allowed and rush EPA/play) holding Robinson to 2.64 yards per carry on 22 attempts, his third-lowest rushing average of the season. This was only the second game in which the Commanders rushed for under 85 yards this season. They lost both contests. They have only failed to win two games this season when they have rushed for more than 145 yards. Both times were against the Giants. The Commanders are 5-1 in games when they have run more than passed this season, and 2-7-1 in games when they have passed more than run.
The Commanders passed for 270 yards, their 4th highest mark of the season. The three games with higher passing yardage all featured Carson Wentz at QB. The 79 yard rushing total is their second-worst of the season, only bettering the 49-yard effort in the loss to the Titans.
The defense held the 49ers to 14 first downs, Washington’s second-lowest total this season. The Commanders also held the 49ers to 218 passing yards, which is fairly low, even if it is their fifth highest total this season. The 49ers’ 153 yard rushing total was the fourth-highest allowed by the Commanders this season. The biggest issue on defense was allowing the 49ers to achieve season-high marks in yards per play (7.13) and points per play (0.712), leading to their highest point total of the season. This was mainly due to Washington’s propensity to give up big plays on defense, as discussed above.
The 2-1 turnover differential, favoring San Francisco, extended the Commanders’ season record to 0-6 in games when they have lost the turnover battle. They are 5-0 when they have won the turnover battle.
CARSON WENTZ SNAP COUNTER REDUX
The return of Carson Wentz at starter means it is time to revive the Carson Wentz snap counter. If Wentz plays a minimum of 70% offensive snaps, then Colts receive Washington’s 2023 2nd round pick. If he plays fewer snaps, that reverts to a 3rd round pick.
Entering Week 17 Wentz has played 441 of 1055 offensive snaps, which puts him at 41.8% of offensive snaps. If he starts the remaining two games and plays 100% of offensive snaps, at the Commanders’ current rate of 70 offensive snaps per game, he will finish the regular season with 582 offensive snaps to put him at 48.6% of offensive snaps.
The Commanders currently hold the 7th seed in the playoffs, if the season ended today. If the Commanders run the table and reach the Super Bowl, they will end up playing 21 games. At current pace that would bring the offensive snap count to 1477. If Wentz plays every offensive snap, his total will reach 863 to put him at 58.4% of snaps.
What would it take for Wentz to reach 70% of snaps? The highest offensive snap count in a Commanders game this season was 85 in the overtime game tie with the Giants. If the Commanders continue on that pace through the Super Bowl with Wentz taking every snap, he will reach 951/1565 snaps, which would still leave him well short of the 70% threshold at 60.8% of snaps. In order for the Commanders’ 2nd round pick to fall into jeopardy, the team would need to play 166 offensive snaps per game, more than double the current average, on route to a Super Bowl finish.
Rest assured Commanders’ fans, the 2nd round pick is well and truly safe.
SNAP COUNTS - OFFENSE
Taylor Heinicke completed 13 of 18 passes for 166 yards, 2 touchdowns and 1 interception to achieve his highest passer rating of the season (114.6) of the season. Heinicke was credited with 3 uncatchable throws (16.7%) and was pressured on 25% of dropbacks, including 2 sacks. His 84.2 Total QBR made this his highest graded performance as a Commander, and ranked 4th best in the league in Week 16.
Heinicke made 6 high impact plays, including a 51-yard completion to Terry McLaurin (EPA 4.03), 3 clutch completions on 3rd and long (EPA 2.92, 2.36, 1.9), a 25-yard completion to Jahan Dotson from the SF 30 (EPA 2.89) and a touchdown strike to Jahan Dotson (EPA 1.66). Unfortunately, his involvement in Washington’s two most costly mistakes on offense (Sack/fumble for -10 yards from WAS 21, -4.78 EPA; Interception at WAS 25, EPA -3.98) led to his benching early in the fourth quarter, ending his run as Washington’s starter for the time being.
Carson Wentz played well in relief of the struggling starter. Taking his first snaps since going to IR in Week 7, he completed 12 of 16 attempts for 123 yards and a touchdown while avoiding sacks and turnovers. Wentz threw only 1 uncatchable ball (6.3%), and was pressured on 18.8% of dropbacks. His highlight was a clutch TD completion to Curtis Samuel for 20 yards on 3rd and 10, late in the fourth quarter (EPA 3.99). For the most part, he managed the remainder of the game well by taking what the defense gave him with the 49ers in soft coverage, protecting a sizeable lead. His effort was good for a passer rating of 117.4 and Total QBR of 70.8.
This game was unusual in that starter Brian Robinson actually played more offensive snaps than Antonio Gibson. Gibson left the game with foot/knee sprains and hasn’t practiced this week. Robinson was held in check more than usual by the 49ers top-ranked rushing defense. His rushing average of 2.64 yards per attempt was his third-lowest mark this season. He averaged 1.2 yards before contact per rushing attempt, nearly half his usual average of 2.3 yards. His 1.5 yards after contact per attempt was just slightly lower than his 1.6 yard season average. His only passing target was intercepted by Jimmie Ward.
Antonio Gibson rushed 5 times for 10 yards, averaging 2 yards per carry to tie his season low marks set against Detroit and Tennessee. Gibson’s 0.4 yards before contact was his lowest of the season, and well down from his season average of 2.2 yards. It was tough going for Washington’s RBs out there. Gibson also had 2 receptions on 3 targets for 21 yards and no drops. Jonathan Williams had three rushes for 13 yards and 2 receptions for 28 yards.
Terry McLaurin edged out rookie Jahan Dotson by 1 yard to claim the title of Washington’s leading receiver with 4 receptions for 77 yards and a TD on 5 targets. Washington’s QBs had a perfect passer rating of 158.3 when targeting him. McLaurin averaged 19 yards before the catch and only 0.3 yards after the catch per reception. His 51-yard reception from Taylor Heinicke in the 3rd quarter was the Commanders most impactful play on offense (4.03 EPA). He also had a clutch 14-yard reception from Heinicke on 3rd and 13 from the WAS 24 to keep a drive alive in the 1st quarter (2.36 EPA).
Dotson had 6 receptions for 76 yards and a TD on 9 targets with one drop. He averaged 10.2 yards before the catch and only 2.5 yards after the catch per reception. Curtis Samuel caught all 5 passes thrown to him for 52 yards. His 20-yard touchdown reception from Carson Wentz late in the 4th quarter was Washington’s second biggest play on offense (3.99 EPA). He also had a clutch reception for a first down on 3rd and 14 in the 2nd quarter (2.92 EPA). None of the backup WRs were targeted.
For the second week in a row, Logan Thomas was the only tight end to touch the ball. He caught 6 passes on 8 targets for 35 yards and two 1st downs. Thomas’ 15 yard reception on 3rd and 8 in the 4th quarter gave Carson Wentz his second-highest impact play (2.18 EPA), but came too late in the game to make a difference with the 49ers leading 37-20.
This week Sam Cosmi took snaps at right tackle and guard to relieve banged up starters Trai Turner and Cornelius Lucas.
The offensive line continued to struggle in their strongest test of the season. In pass blocking, they allowed pressures on 8/32 dropbacks (25%) with 2 sacks. As a unit, Washington’s O-line ranked 28th in the league in Week 16, with a pass-block win rate of 53%.
In the running game, the O-line seemed to struggle to open lanes for Washington’s lead backs, who both had much lower than usual yards before contact. This is a little puzzling because, individually, Cornelius Lucas had the second highest run block-win rate for offensive tackles in Week 16, and Andrew Norwell tied for 7th highest run-block win rate among guards. As a group, the O-line found themselves in a 9-way tie for 9th in the league, with a run-block win rate of 72%.
DEFENSE – SNAP COUNTS
In his eagerly-awaited return, Chase Young played 30 defensive snaps, well exceeding the 12-18 snap count that Ron Rivera had planned for him. While he did not register a sack, he did bat down a pass and chased down Christian McCaffery from behind twice to make tackles.
Daron Payne had 4 tackles, a sack and a tackle for loss. Jonathan Allen had a quiet day only registering 6 tackles. John Ridgeway had 2 tackles and batted a pass. Two of Allen’s tackles were run stuffs against Christian McCaffery, but he was uncharacteristically short of big plays behind the line of scrimmage. James Smith-Williams made the highest impact play on defense for the Commanders, sacking Brock Purdy for -4 yards on 4th and 1 from the Washington 15 yard line in the first quarter (-5.15 EPA). He also had a tackle for loss. Efe Obada had 1 tackle. Montez Sweat had about his quietest day as a Commander and did not appear on the stat sheet.
David Mayo led Washington in tackles, recording 4 solo and 5 assists, with no missed tackles. He had Washington’s third-highest impact play on defense, stopping Christian McCaffery for no gain on 4th and 1 for a turnover on downs at the Washington 15 in the 1st quarter (-2.37 EPA). Pass coverage is not really Mayo’s strength. Against the 49ers, he allowed 2 receptions on 2 targets for 38 yards and a TD, for a perfect 158.3 opposing QB passer rating.
Jamin Davis was second on the team with 8 combined tackles. He also had a tackle for loss on Christian McCaffery. He did not allow a reception on one target in coverage.
Kendall Fuller disappeared from the stat sheet against the 49ers, which is what you want from your CB1. He was not targeted in coverage all game and consequently had no passes defended or tackles.
Instead, Brock Purdy chose to target receivers covered by other defensive backs. Benjamin St-Juste allowed 5 completions for 88 yards on 5 targets in coverage to give an opposing passer rating of 118.7. St-Juste made his impact elsewhere, recording 4 combined tackles and a sack in addition to watching receivers make completions.
Danny Johnson managed 2 combined tackles on 13 defensive snaps. He allowed 1 completion for 15 yards on 2 targets in coverage.
Hot on the heels of a well deserved Pro Bowl nomination, special teams star and backup safety Jeremy Reaves was the Commanders’ third leading tackler (8 combined, 6 solo) while filling in for injured starter Kam Curl. He only allowed 2 receptions for 11 yards on 4 targets in coverage for an opposing passer rating of 56.2.
Darrick Forrest had made Washington’s second-biggest play on defense, when he intercepted a 17-yard pass by Brock Purdy at the San Francisco 31 yard line in the 2nd quarter (-3.23 EPA). Unfortunately, his blown coverage on George Kittle’s first 34-yard TD reception gave the 49ers their second-biggest play of the game (4.52 EPA). Forrest finished with 4 combined tackles and an interception. He had 4 receptions for 76 yards, an INT and a TD on 5 targets in coverage to give an opposing passer rating of 118.7.
Bobby McCain had 2 combined tackles. In coverage, he allowed 1 reception on 1 target for 6 yards. He also had 1 QB hurry on 3 blitzes.
Antonio Gibson returned 3 kicks for 39 yards and a 13-yard per return average. Dax Milne had 3 kick returns for 54 yards and averaged 18 yards per return. He also returned 1 punt for 4 yards.
Pro Bowl starter Tress Way punted 4 times for 192 yards, averaging 48 yards per punt, with long of 62 (and landing one fair caught at the 49ers 14 yard line). Joey Slye was 2/2 on extra points.
Acknowledgement: Thanks to James Dorsett for speedily editing this and my other article this week, ahead of a beach holiday over New Year’s. Stats and Snaps will return rested, tanned and ready for the final playoff push, but it might be a bit shorter than usual (Note: nobody but an English tourist actually gets a sun tan on purpose down here - the UV index is just crazy. That’s just an expression).
What will be the key to the Commanders making the playoffs?
This poll is closed
The switch at QB
Chase Young’s return
Getting Kam Curl back
The defense stepping up
Sticking with the run
Luck/help from other teams
Something else, which I will share in the comments