With last week’s loss in San Francisco and tight competition from Green Bay, Detroit and Seattle, the Commanders needed a win on Sunday against the easier of the two teams on their remaining schedule to stay in the playoff hunt. Unbelievably, Head Coach Ron Rivera appears to have been unaware of that critical fact until it was pointed out to him in the postgame press conference.
As if that were not enough reason for Rivera to be fired on the spot, knowing that he needed the win to keep the Commanders’ season alive would have been unlikely to have changed his game plan, as he had already decided to make a switch at quarterback to give the offense “a spark.”
I would like to review how that decision went from a statistical perspective, before we have our usual look at what Commanders got playing time and how they performed.
The quarterback to whom Rivera turned to kickstart his offense was, of course, Carson Wentz. This past offseason, Rivera in his own words “pulled out the sheets of paper”… “looked at the analytics” and “watched the tape” on Wentz. Once he was certain that he had found the player to solidify the QB position, he pulled the trigger on a deal that made the Commanders Wentz’s third team in three years, in exchange for shipping two Day 2 draft picks to the Colts.
With the season on the line, whether Rivera knew it or not, Wentz completed 16/28 passes (57.1% completion rate) for 143 yards, 0 TDs, 3 INTs, while taking 3 sacks for 19 yards. He was credited with only 4 uncatchable throws (14.3%), making this his second-most accurate passing performance of the season, while his receivers dropped 4 passes (14.3%). He added 7 yards and one TD on 3 runs. His effort was good for a passer rating of 31.4 (37th ranked QB in Week 17, 30th amongst QBs with > 15 pass attempts) and a Total QBR of 36.5 (20th/30 starting QBs in Week 17, due to MNF cancellation).
Rivera’s decision to start Wentz against Cleveland was made after he benched Taylor Heinicke for committing two costly turnovers in last week’s loss in San Francisco. As for providing the spark to reignite Washington’s offense:
- With Wentz back under center, the Commanders’ offense scored 10 points against Cleveland, tied for their second-lowest total this season. The previous equal and lower scores were in the Week 3 and 4 losses to Philadelphia and Dallas, also with Wentz starting. The Commanders have only scored fewer than 17 points once in Heinicke’s 9 starts.
- Wentz’s 57.1% completion rate was the 4th lowest by a Washington QB in 16 games this season. Taylor Heinicke has only completed a lower proportion of passes in 2 of 9 starts. In last week’s loss to the 49ers, Heinicke completed 72.2% of passes. Wentz himself has only had a lower completion rate twice this season, one of which was in the Bears game when he played with a broken finger.
- Wentz’s 143 passing yards was the third-lowest by a Washington QB this season. Taylor Heinicke has only thrown for fewer yards in 1 of 9 starts. Last week against the 49ers Heinicke threw for 166 yards before being benched.
- Wentz’s 3 interceptions gave him the highest number of turnovers of any kind by a Washington QB this season, and eclipsed Heinicke’s season-high mark by 2 interceptions. Last week against San Francisco, Heinicke was benched after his second turnover. So far this season, Wentz has committed 1.4 turnovers per game, while Heinicke has committed 1.2 per game. In 2022, there have been 25 games in which a team has thrown 3 or more interceptions. Only one team was able to win despite throwing 3 interceptions: KC 34-28 over DEN, 11 December. Wentz’s 3 interceptions, combined with no turnovers on defense, resulted in a +3 turnover differential, favoring Cleveland. Washington is now 0-7 in games when it has lost the turnover battle this season.
- Wentz’s 31.4 passer rating was the lowest by a Washington QB this season. The next two lowest marks were also his (56.6 vs Dallas, 66.3 vs Chicago). His 36.5 QBR was close to average for Washington QBs playing full games this season (38.3).
- Washington failed to score on 6 of its 8 offensive drives. 5 of the 6 non-scoring drives were ended by a negative play or failure to execute involving Wentz: 3 interceptions, sack on 3rd and 8, incomplete pass on 4th and 10. On their 6th offensive drive, the Commanders were also held to a field goal as a result of a Wentz completion for -1 yard on 3rd and 5.
- Overall, with Wentz’s return to action, Washington’s offense had its third-least efficient performance of the season, with an EPA/play of -0.155 (24th ranked in Week 17). The only less efficient offensive performances were in the Week 3 and 4 losses to Philadelphia (-0.266 EPA/play) and Dallas (-0.273 EPA/play), also with Wentz at QB.
While Carson Wentz’s poor performance was without doubt a major contributing factor to the Commanders’ loss, arguments can be made that it was not the only reason for the loss. From a practical perspective, however, it is highly unlikely for a team to win an NFL game while scoring as few as 10 points. This season, teams have been held to 10 points on 33 occasions. Only two of those teams managed to win the game: NE 10 – NYJ 3, BAL 10 – DEN 9. Another way to look at that is that Washington has held an opponent to fewer than 10 points in 1/16 games this season. From that perspective, the offense gave the team a 6.25% chance of winning.
As bad as the offense was, it may not have been the only reason for the loss. The defense gave up 24 points to the Cleveland Browns, who currently rank 16th in the league in scoring. This was tied for the 4th highest score allowed by Washington this season, and was due in large part to Washington’s continued vulnerability to explosive plays. Washington’s defense, allowed 4 passes of over 20 yards, including touchdown passes of 46 and 33 yards to Amari Cooper. They also gave up three runs of 14 or more yards, including a 35-yard run by Nick Chubb. In order to win, the Commanders would have had to score 25 or more points. They have only done so in 3 out 16 games (18.75%) this season, twice with Wentz at QB and once with Heinicke.
Continuing the trend since the Week 14 bye, Washington’s defense had its least efficient game of the season with a horrendous +0.145 EPA/play, ranking 25th in the league in Week 17. The defense allowed Cleveland to make 8 high-impact plays (EPA > 1.5), while only making two high-impact plays (EPA < 1.5) of its own: Payne/Darrick Forrest stuff of Deshaun Watson scramble on 4th & 3 (-2.66 EPA); Payne sack for -8 yards on 2nd & 20 from the CLE 40 (-1.71 EPA). Washington’s defense has only had one takeaway in the last three games, the lowest total in a three-game stretch since Week 5.
The offensive line had one of their better efforts of the season in pass protection, allowing pressures on only 15.6% of drop backs. Wentz has enjoyed fewer pressures three times this season, while Heinicke only did so once. The line was not great supporting the run, as Washington’s two running backs averaged 1.2 yards before contact on rushing attempts.
OFFENSE – SNAP COUNTS
Wentz played 100% of offensive snaps in his first start since injuring his finger in the Week 6 game against the Bears. Judging by Total QBR, this was his fourth-best performance in 7 starts. Backup QB Taylor Heinicke has had 6 better performances in 9 starts this season. As discussed above, the switch to Wentz at QB failed to give a spark to the offense as Head Coach Ron Rivera had hoped.
For reasons known only to the Washington front office, backup Jonathan Williams was officially designated the starter, while lead back Brian Robinson played more snaps. Robinson was Washington’s leading rusher with 87 yards on 24 carries (3.6 ypc) with a long of 14. He did not catch the one pass thrown his direction. Robinson was up against it, as he averaged only 1.5 yards before contact per rushing attempt.
Jonathan Williams was the second-leading rusher with 30 yards on 9 attempts (3.3 ypc) and a long of 12. He also had 3 receptions on 5 targets with a long of 6. That's 1 incompletion, 1 dropped pass and two completions behind the line for a combined -3 yards. Williams averaged 0.9 yards before contact on rushing plays.
Jahan Dotson was Washington’s second-leading receiver with 3 catches for 37 yards on 7 targets, with 2 dropped passes. Terry McLaurin was second among wide receivers with 2 catches for 25 yards on 5 targets and no drops. He also rushed once for 12 yards. Cam Sims caught the 1 pass thrown his way for 16 yards and Curtis Samuel added 1 reception for 6 yards on 2 targets, with no drops.
Logan Thomas led all Washington receivers with 6 receptions for 56 yards on 7 targets and 1 dropped pass. Neither of the other TEs was targeted. The lack of targets to tight ends other than Logan Thomas continues a trend that has been going for some time. The last time a Washington QB threw a pass to either John Bates or Cole Turner was in the Week 12 game against Atlanta.
As in recent weeks, starters Leno, Norwell and Schweitzer continued taking 100% of offensive snaps, while Sam Cosmi took snaps at right guard and right tackle in relief of Trai Turner and Cornelius Lucas, respectively. As discussed above, the offensive line allowed their fifth-fewest pressures in pass protection this week, while only giving the backs an average of 1.2 yards before contact on rushing attempts. As a unit, the Commanders’ O-Line currently is currently tied at 27th in the league in Pass Block Win Rate and is tied at 18th in Run Block Win Rate.
DEFENSE – SNAP COUNTS
Daron Payne continued his Pro Bowl (alternate) campaign with 5 combined tackles, 2 sacks, 2 tackles for loss and a QB hit, but also missed 1 tackle. Washington’s one-man wrecking crew was responsible for Washington’s two biggest plays on defense: the second sack in the 1st quarter on 2nd and 20 from the Cleveland 40 (-1.71 EPA) and stuffing a Deshaun Watson scramble for 1 yard on 4th and 3 with Darrick Forrest (-2.66 EPA).
Montez Sweat returned to the stat sheet following a brief post-bye hiatus, registering 4 combined tackles, 1 sack, 2 tackles for loss, and 2 QB hits, with 1 missed tackle. In his second game back from injury, Chase Young had 1 assist and 1 QB hit. He did not allow a reception on his 1 target in coverage. Backup DE Casey Toohill had 3 combined tackles and 1 sack. Backup DE Efe Obada had 3 combined tackles, while fellow DEs David Bada and Shaka Toney had 2 and 1 assists, respectively. Rotational DT John Ridgeway had two combined tackles.
Jonathan Allen left the game with an injury early in the second quarter, before recording any stats.
Jamin Davis led Washington defenders with 9 combined tackles, including 1 tackle for loss. He did not allow a completion on 1 target in coverage. He blitzed 3 times with 0 pressures. The much maligned David Mayo was second on the team with 8 combined tackles, 2 tackles for loss and 1 missed tackle. He allowed 1 reception for 12 yards on 1 target in coverage.
Commanders’ CB1 Kendall Fuller had a rough day against the Browns, allowing 3 receptions on 4 targets for 80 yards and 2 touchdowns, with 1 critical missed tackle, to give DeShaun Watson a nearly perfect 156.2 passer rating when throwing into his coverage. This was Fuller’s worst game of the season in coverage, judging by opposing passer rating, and comes a week after having completely shut down the receivers he was covering in San Francisco (opposing passer unratable).
Backup CB and long-time roster fringe player, Danny Johnson, had another stellar outing in relief of injured starter Benjamin St.-Juste. Johnson shut down Watson, allowing 0 completions on 5 targets with 2 knock downs, for an opposing passer rating of 39.6, which is as low as it gets. Since he began getting substantial numbers of snaps on defense in Week 13, Johnson has not allowed an opposing passer rating above 88.5. For perspective, that puts the ceiling of quarterbacks throwing into his coverage at around the level of Taylor Heinicke (89.6), Jacoby Brissett (88.9) and Marcus Mariota (88.2).
Darrick Forrest led the safeties, in Kam Curl’s absence, with 5 combined tackles and 1 missed tackle. Like Fuller, he had a rough outing in coverage, allowing 3 completions on 4 targets for 71 yards and a TD, yielding an opposing passer rating of 156.2. Like Fuller, this was Forrest’s worst game in coverage this season. He has allowed opposing passer ratings above 100 in 5 games, and held them below 84 in 8 games, while avoiding targets in coverage in two games.
Jeremy Reaves, filling in for Curl, also had 5 combined tackles and 1 missed tackle. He allowed 1 reception for 7 yards on 1 target in coverage. FS/slot corner Bobby McCain had 2 combined tackles. He was targeted once in coverage and allowed a completion for a 1 yard loss. He blitzed twice yielding no pressures. Percy Butler was also used on 1 blitz, to no effect.
SPECIAL TEAMS – SNAP COUNTS
Jaret Patterson, filling in for injured Antonio Gibson, returned 3 kicks for 70 yards (long 26, 23.3 yd avg). Dax Milne returned 1 punt for 15 yards to achieve his highest average of the season.
Despite the offense’s inept performance, Tress Way only punted twice for 90 yards, with 1 fair caught at the Cleveland 16 yard line. Joey Slye was perfect on field goals (1/1 from 43 yards) and extra points (1/1), and had 2 touchbacks and a 23-yard return on 3 kickoffs.
Washington’s coverage units did not give up any big plays on special teams.
Acknowledgement: Edited by James Dorsett
Which Commander other than Sam Howell are you most interested to see get more playing time against Dallas?
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OL Chris Paul
WR Dyami Brown
RB Jaret Patterson
FS Percy Butler
CB Christian Holmes
CB Tariq Castro-Fields
TE Armani Rogers