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The Athletic (paywall)
Not only in 2023, a statistical nugget fans are likely aware of by now. The claim holds for a longer duration. Two seasons? Five? Ten? Think grander, as in the entire 21st century.
Under the direction of offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, and signed off by head coach Ron Rivera, the Commanders have dropped back to pass on 68.7 percent of their offensive plays through 10 games. If sustained, that would match the single-season record in TruMedia’s database, which offers data dating to 2000, set by the 2013 Atlanta Falcons.
There’s logic in thinking this rate of pass attempts is a byproduct of having a poor team. Teams typically throw more often in the second half of games when trailing, especially if down by more than one score. The 2013 Falcons started slowly, losing nine of 11 before finishing 4-12. While playing below preseason expectations — primarily on defense — Washington (4-6) has already matched Atlanta’s 2013 win total, remaining at least tangentially in the NFC playoff picture, and all but two of its 10 games have ended with one-score margins.
The only other team this century to drop back on at least 68 percent of its plays, the 2006 Detroit Lions, went 3-13. They were also directed on offense by Mike Martz, who gained fame as the Rams’ offensive coordinator with the “Greatest Show on Turf” teams that went to two Super Bowls, winning in 1999.
Rivera cited the desire for more reps and exposure for quarterback Sam Howell as a consideration for passing so much. Howell, who made his first appearance and start in the 2022 finale, has dropped back at least 47 times in each of Washington’s last four games despite each contest being a one-score affair in the fourth quarter. He also leads the NFL in pass attempts (397), completions (264) and yards (2,783).
Whatever the primary rationale, Washington’s adherence to the aerial attack is not by circumstance but by choice.
Seth Walder on if Commanders are passing too much, what to expect from Eugene Shen with Craig Hoffman
Washington Post (paywall)
Allen and Payne had become the crux of the defense and one of the more formidable defensive-line tandems in the league. But lately, the two have struggled to have the game-altering impact they once had.
Allen had a quarterback pressure rate of 11.9 percent in the first five games of the season, but over the past five games, that rate fell to 7.6 percent. In that span, he notched five quarterback hits and one sack.
Payne hasn’t laid a hit on an opposing quarterback since Week 5 and hasn’t recorded a sack since Week 2. His pressure rate the past two games, against the Patriots and Seahawks, was 2.6 percent.
[A]mid the Commanders’ defensive skid this year, their pass rush as a whole has been flat. And the spark Allen and Payne so often created on the interior has been noticeably missing.
His sack rate compared to early in the season has plummeted, allowing him to begin showing why the Commanders named the former fifth-round pick in 2022 their starting QB despite having 19 career passes under his belt.
That improvement will be challenged in coming weeks, starting Sunday against the New York Giants, who sacked Howell six times in a 14-7 win last month. The Commanders also face pass-rushers such as the Dallas Cowboys’ Micah Parsons (twice), the Miami Dolphins’ Bradley Chubb, the Los Angeles Rams’ Aaron Donald and San Francisco 49ers’ Nick Bosa and Chase Young, Howell’s former teammate in Washington.
Since 2001, 11 quarterbacks with at least 200 dropbacks have had a higher sack rate (the percentage of times sacked per dropback) than Howell (10.2%) over their first two seasons. Of the other quarterbacks in the top 12, only the Bears’ Justin Fields is a current starter. Among the other names: Josh McCown, Cody Kessler, Kellen Clemens, Josh Rosen, J.P. Losman and Carr.
In the past 23 years, the average sack rate has been 6.2%.
Howell also ranks sixth in sack-to-pressure ratio (the number of sacks taken compared to the number of pressures) during this period among quarterbacks in their first two seasons with at least 200 drop-backs (.31). The five ahead of him — Jimmy Clausen (.37), Dwayne Haskins (.37), Blaine Gabbert, Ryan Tannehill and Chad Henne — were all above .34. In the past three weeks, Howell’s ratio is .17.
ESPN NFL analyst Dan Orlovsky, a former NFL quarterback who has watched all of Howell’s snaps this season, said he looks for a number of clues to gauge the impact of too many sacks and hits on a young quarterback:
Do their feet look frantic? Are they getting the ball out too quickly — getting to the top of their drop and finding the checkdown? Are you leaving a clean pocket? And do their eyes watch the rush?
“I don’t see any of that on Sam,” Orlovsky said. “I believe quarterbacks should be aggressive. You can’t play this position at a high level if you’re not aggressive. You can make the case he’s as aggressive a thrower as we have in this league. I love it because it leads to good plays.”
“I’m tired of talking about it,” Howell said.
It’s an option to consider...
Offensive tackles are some of the biggest players on the field. Defensive corners are among the smallest. But the two positions are similar in this regard.
Those players are on an island.
They guard the perimeter and as such usually must go up against elite athletes - whether they are edge rushers or wide receivers. They will get beaten from time to time, especially when they are young.
Sam Cosmi struggled some at right tackle as a rookie. Then he got hurt. In his second year, he showed some modest improvement but had to move inside because the Washington Commanders did not build a good interior in the offseason. Then he spent time on the shelf again.
During last spring’s free agency, the Commanders chose to sign Andrew Wylie to play right tackle and Nick Gates to play center, making Cosmi’s move to guard official. Despite his relatively high Pro Football Focus score, the move has not been very successful.
Honestly, I don’t know what PFF is looking at sometimes.
Cosmi is still a decent pass blocker on the inside, but he is not a good run blocker. Neither are any of Washington’s linemen, and the entire offense has struggled as a result.
Brian Robinson Jr. is moving heaven and earth to eke out four yards per carry. Though the Commanders do average an above-average 4.6 yards-per-carry as a team, that number is inflated by Sam Howell’s scrambles. Without them, they sink below the league average.
Washington’s averages are unreliable because they run so infrequently. They run so little that the averages can be skewed by a single big run. They simply cannot rely on establishing any kind of consistent ground attack.
The answer is not moving Cosmi to a position where he is likely to be less effective. What is the answer?
Bullock’s Film Room (subscription)
Highlighting the positive performance from running back Brian Robinson
Commanders running back Brian Robinson has flown under the radar this season due to the lack of runs called in this offense this season. Despite that though, he’s quietly having a strong season. Despite averaging just 12 carries a game, he’s finding ways to have an impact. He’s ripped off a couple of long runs, most recently against the Eagles he had a 29-yard carry, but even in the passing game he’s becoming more impactful.
This week against the Seahawks, Robinson had a career best game as a receiver. He caught six passes for 119 yards and a touchdown. Now it’s worth pointing out that a good chunk of that yardage came on two off-script passes that weren’t designed to go to him, but he deserves a lot of credit for keeping the play alive and giving quarterback Sam Howell an option.
[Washington] tried a few different [run] schemes and the only one that had any real hint of success was a wide zone scheme they ran back in the second quarter. So Eric Bieniemy went back to it to start [a 4th quarter] drive and Robinson made it work.
The wide zone scheme, especially with the quarterback under center, was probably Robinson’s least natural run scheme coming out of college. At Alabama, they used a lot of gap scheme runs like power, counter and duo. When they did use zone, it was almost exclusively inside zone from the shotgun. So he’s taken a bit of time to get used to running wide zone in the NFL, but you can see the progress he’s made here.
The goal of the wide zone scheme for a running back is to run to the edge until you can’t and once you can no longer get to the edge, you look to make a single cut and get up the field. You can see at the snap Robinson takes the correct aiming point, initially aiming for the inside foot of the right end. However, as the run progresses, right guard Sam Cosmi gets pushed back a bit by the defensive tackle on the back side of this run. Cosmi actually does well to keep the defender from penetrating too much and making a tackle, but the defender does manage to make his presence felt and Robinson has to adjust his path accordingly.
Robinson adjusts by looking to attack the edge more. He almost bounces the run all the way outside with no clear cutback option available to him. As he gets there, Witherspoon emerges on the edge and tight end John Bates can only shove him wider. That shove from Bates, along with left tackle Charles Leno doing just enough to keep his defender inside, provides a clear lane for Robinson to cut into. Robinson makes the cut and explodes through the hole into the second level of the defense. From there he bounces off a defensive back attempting to make a tackle and picks up even more yards before the rest of the defense is able to rally back and bring him down.
It was a nice 15-yard run by Robinson and was the most successful run of the day for the Commanders, so they immediately went straight back to it on the next play.
Brian Robinson caught all 6 of his targets for 119 yards and a TD, setting career-highs in yards after the catch (115) and receiving yards over expected (+50).— COMMANDERS FOOTBALL (@HogsHaven) November 15, 2023
The Washington Commanders gained 240 yards after the catch as a team, the 4th most in any game this season.
Here in Washington, Bieniemy looks to be liking his running back duo of Brian Robinson and Antonio Gibson quite well.
Sunday in Seattle, Antonio Gibson was targeted six times out of the backfield. As a result, Gibson collected five receptions for 42 yards, including a 19-yard touchdown pass from Sam Howell that tied the game (19-19) in the fourth quarter. Gibson finished with 55 yards from scrimmage, averaging 6.1 yards per touch from scrimmage.
Robinson carried the ball eight times for 38 yards, including a 15-yard run. Robinson was also targeted six times on Sunday. He caught all six for 119 yards, including a 51-yard touchdown on Washington’s first possession. That means Robinson had 14 touches against Seattle, averaging 11.2 yards per touch for 157 yards from scrimmage. According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), Robinson also forced eight missed tackles, something the Washington offense needed.
Just last week in New England, Gibson gained 34 rushing yards on six carries, and also caught five receptions for 42 yards. Thus, Gibson totaled 11 touches from scrimmage and 76 yards from scrimmage for 6.9 yards a touch from scrimmage.
Bieniemy is using this running back duo more often in the Commanders offense, and it is returning dividends.
Washington Commanders quarterback Sam Howell leads the NFL in passing and having backs like Brian Robinson Jr. and Antonio Gibson help him find production, even when the plays don’t go the way they’re planned.
“Those guys are awesome football players. Obviously, they can run the ball at a really high level, but what makes those guys really special is what they can do in the passing game as well,” Howell said. “(Robinson) is not a guy who’s known for catching the ball out of the backfield, he’s a power runner and a guy who runs the ball downhill but he does a really good job as far as check-downs and scramble drill-type stuff. He has a good feel for the game, he’s just a smart football player.”
“That just makes me feel comfortable as a quarterback knowing that I’ll always have someone I can dump the ball down to,” Howell continued. “In the Seattle game, (Robinson) probably told me five times before the game, ‘If the play breaks down come find me I’ll always be open,’ and it just so happens that it worked out that way.”
“AG came in there in the fourth quarter, ran an awesome route on a play we tried to get schemed up for him to have a favorable matchup and he did a good job,” Howell said of the play.
Podcasts & videos
Lynnell Willingham: Sam Howell is doing Top 10 quarterback stuff
New Trap or Dive is out now ️ #HTTC @Nell_BTP joined @LetMualTellit @SaintWah @DCSportsDre- talking on Howell’s three game stretch, Bieniemy, and more.— Trap or Dive Podcast (@TraporDive) November 15, 2023
Episode 700 - Guest: @BenStandig. #Commanders intel.— Al Galdi (@AlGaldi) November 15, 2023
- rise of Sam Howell
- should EB be next HC?
- Josh Harris' mind on Ron Rivera already made up?
- should Josh be open to another (gulp) coach-centric approach?
Guest: @GiantsWFAN on #NYGiants. #NYGvsWAShttps://t.co/QU5vgY5grx
Check out the top moments from the Washington Commanders’ first practice of the week.
NFC East links
From Bill O’Brien to Eric Bieniemy: What has gone right and wrong for every offensive playcaller this season
Offensive coordinator: Eric Bieniemy
Playcaller: Eric Bieniemy
What has gone right? Quarterback Sam Howell looks like a keeper. Because Bieniemy has had him throw the ball a lot — 49 more pass attempts than any other quarterback — Howell’s growth appears to have accelerated. Bieniemy has done a better job lately of giving Howell and the offense more help; some of the play designs have been excellent.
What has gone wrong? Washington’s offense has become one-dimensional. The Commanders have thrown the ball 61% of the time, including 68% over the past three games — all close contests. It has put pressure on Howell to produce all the time, which has led to big plays but also 47 sacks. Bieniemy took time to adjust to his personnel.
Key to second half: Continuing to reduce the hits and sacks taken by Howell. With upcoming games against Dallas (two) and San Francisco, the pass protection will be tested. If Howell and the offense can continue the recent trend of limiting hits on him, then Washington’s offense has a chance to be fun down the stretch. — John Keim
Offensive coordinator: Brian Schottenheimer
Playcaller: Mike McCarthy
What has gone right? The Cowboys have scored 232 points on offense (not including defensive and special teams touchdowns). They have scored 30 or more points five times. It took a few weeks to get going, but QB Dak Prescott is “playing as good as I’ve seen,” according to owner/GM Jerry Jones. CeeDee Lamb is on pace for team receiving records. They have a diverse scheme that can attack in different ways.
What has gone wrong? The running game has not been as effective, which can be traced in part to the lack of continuity on the offensive line. Tony Pollard has one 100-yard game. The Cowboys’ red zone performance has been better of late, but they are just 13-of-33 on the season.
Key to second half: The best way to help the run game is to pass opposing defenses out of stacked boxes. With the success Prescott has had throwing over the past month, defenses will likely have to shift strategies — and that could help the run game, as could more of a mix between Pollard and Rico Dowdle in the backfield — Todd Archer
Offensive coordinator: Mike Kafka
Playcaller: Mike Kafka
What has gone right? Pretty much nothing. The Giants are 32nd in total offense, averaging a paltry 259.2 yards per game. They’re last by a wide margin, scoring only 11.8 points per game. There is no way to spin this into anything positive for Kafka, coach Brian Daboll and the Giants’ offense this season.
What has gone wrong? Everything. Their offensive line was a mess early this season, and it gave their quarterbacks almost no chance for consistent success. Now, quarterbacks Daniel Jones and backup Tyrod Taylor are injured when the offensive line is finally in a little bit better shape. It has been that kind of season.
Key to second half: Lean on the running game with Saquon Barkley to make life easy for undrafted rookie quarterback Tommy DeVito (at least until Taylor returns). The bar is about as low as it could get after the first half of the season. No team has averaged fewer than 12.0 points per game since the 2009 Rams. — Jordan Raanan
Offensive coordinator: Brian Johnson
Playcaller: Brian Johnson
What has gone right? The Eagles are 8-1, and Jalen Hurts (22 total touchdowns) is once again in the MVP conversation along with his good friend, receiver A.J. Brown (1,005 receiving yards). Philadelphia ranks fifth in total yards (376.8 YPG) and third in points per game (28.0) in Johnson’s first year as offensive coordinator.
What has gone wrong? Hurts has eight interceptions on the season — already two more than last season. The Eagles started slowly in the red zone but have gotten hot of late to climb to 12th in the NFL with a touchdown rate of 56%. Most of their struggles inside the 20-yard-line have come on the road (43% vs. 71% at home).
Key to second half: Philadelphia is minus-2 in turnover differential thanks in part to 13 giveaways by the offense, which is tied for seventh worst in the NFL. Hurts (11 turnovers) and the Eagles need better ball security as they face some of best teams in the league (Chiefs, Bills, 49ers, Cowboys) over the next four games. — Tim McManus
NFL league links
Pro Football Talk
The Browns went all in for Deshaun Watson during the 2022 offseason, with a five-year, fully-guaranteed $230 million contract, and six total draft picks including three first-rounders.
In exchange, they’ve gotten six meaningless games last year (after his 11-game suspension) and six games this year (he made a quick exit in one of them). Now, he won’t be back until 2024.
That will make it year three. The Browns will have three years left to get a positive return on their massive investment.
It’s happening at a time when the Browns have become extremely viable contenders, even without Watson available on a consistent basis. They’re 6-3. They’re in the mix for a playoff berth. If they can get anything positive from their offense, they could even win the division.
Still, think of how much better off they’d be if they’d kept the $230 million — and if they’d retained the six draft picks. They could have signed a veteran quarterback. They could have drafted one. Hell, they could have re-signed Baker Mayfield.
Instead, they put all their eggs in the Deshaun Watson basket. While it’s impossible to predict when and how a serious injury will happen, devoting that much money and that many draft picks to one player raises the stakes, dramatically.
For now, it hasn’t worked out.
Pro Football Focus (premium content)
21. Washington Commanders (Down 1)
Projected Week 11 starters:
- LT Charles Leno Jr.
- LG Chris Paul
- C Tyler Larsen
- RG Sam Cosmi
- RT Andrew Wylie
- Washington’s offensive line struggled against Seattle. The unit was charged with 17 pressures allowed — the fourth most in Week 10.
- Left guard Chris Paul earned a negative grade on 42.9% of run plays, which was the worst rate among all offensive linemen in Week 10.
Best player: Sam Cosmi
- Cosmi’s 77.8 run-blocking grade over the past three weeks ranks fifth among NFL guards.
Where will Ben Johnson land?— Tom Pelissero (@TomPelissero) November 15, 2023
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My annual rising young coaches list is here, featuring up-and-coming candidates for the 2024 head coach hiring cycle and names to watch in the future.https://t.co/FXcUf4ykag