Washington Post (paywall)
Washington’s win over the Cardinals offered plenty of reasons to believe Howell can still be a fine quarterback — the simplest being that he has started only two games in his young career — but a takeover by the Commanders’ defensive line decided the game.
Playing without defensive end Chase Young, who suffered a stinger in the preseason, Washington’s star trio of end Montez Sweat and tackles Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne combined to shift the momentum back in Washington’s favor in the second half, sparking a turnaround the offense couldn’t muster on its own.
“That’s what we pride ourselves on, defense closing games,” Sweat said. “I kept on telling them, ‘Who’s going to be the closer?’ ”
The defense’s spark ignited a crowd that had fallen silent in the second half after a string of poor plays on offense.
Sweat, playing in the final season of his contract, recovered a fumble in the fourth quarter and split credit with Abdullah Anderson on another sack in the second quarter to become the first Washington player to record 1.5 sacks and two forced fumbles in a game since Brandon Meriweather in 2014.
Allen all but sealed the game with a clothes-lining sack on Arizona’s final drive, and rookie corner Emmanuel Forbes capped it with a pass deflection on the Cardinals’ last gasp: on fourth and 10 from their 37. Washington’s defense allowed the Cardinals to convert only 4 of 14 third downs (28.6 percent). It also kept Arizona’s final five drives to seven plays or fewer and no more than 17 yards each.
Washington Post (paywall)
It had been years since FedEx felt fully alive. There were shimmering moments, but nothing compared to Sunday, when the crowd of 64,693 — considered a sellout following years of shrinking capacity — represented an entire region still riding high on the emotional jet fuel of being rid of Daniel Snyder. There was excitement for the future, a sense it was okay to dream again, but the euphoria of this day felt simpler.
Snyder was gone. They were still here.
Late in the fourth quarter, the Washington Commanders’ defense closed out the Arizona Cardinals with five straight stops, including two forced fumbles, and the crowd’s repeated roars made the 20-16 win feel like the playoff game that new managing partner Josh Harris said he considered it to be.
At one point, the broadcast showed former quarterback Sonny Jurgensen wearing his Hall of Fame jacket and waving to the crowd while standing next to Harris in the owners’ suite.
“You’re seeing people hugging in the stands,” broadcaster Adam Amin said. “When was the last time you saw anything like that in the last decade here in Washington?”
“I played a lot of games [in college] at Texas, and I’ve been in a 108,000[-fan] packed stadium, and it felt similar to that,” right guard Sam Cosmi said.
“There were some times we kind of let them down,” running back Brian Robinson Jr. said. “But they was there when we needed them the most.”
“It was amazing,” Washington receiver Terry McLaurin said. “I got chills standing there for the national anthem. That dude can play, the way he played through the planes coming over, the roar of the crowd. I’ve been here five years and that was probably the loudest I’ve heard it.”
“Our guys fed off the energy,” Washington coach Ron Rivera said.
Harris has talked often about turning FedEx into the home-field advantage the franchise once enjoyed at RFK Stadium during its most successful seasons. Rivera has said the same for a few years. Sunday, Washington saw what it could be once again.
“The fans being engaged like this is absolutely wonderful,” said former Washington quarterback Joe Theismann, who helped lead the team to its first Super Bowl victory after the 1982 season. “That’s something that’s very special. It speaks to the volume of the enthusiasm that’s always been here. If you were part of this football team for the last three or four or five years it’s something you’ve never seen.”
“It was really electric,” tackle Charles Leno Jr. said. “It was fun. It was a great environment.”
Defensive tackle Jonathan Allen told fans at an event in July following Harris’ takeover he’s “been waiting seven years for this.” This, of course, was a packed stadium rooting for one team.
He said after the game it was what he’d hoped.
“1,000%,” Allen said. “They were incredible. I only expect it to get better from here. As players, we have to make sure we do our job to give them a reason to continue to come out and support.”
The Athletic (paywall)
Robert Griffin III’s pregame assessment of how the Washington Commanders can succeed this season with Sam Howell at quarterback proved more Nostradamus than analysis.
“It has to start with the defense,” Griffin, now an ESPN analyst, said of the Commanders’ season-long approach while speaking to reporters before the game. “Shut down the run and get the ball back to Sam Howell, give him opportunities to continue to grow. You don’t want to be down in a game 21-0 and then ask Sam Howell to throw the ball 45 times.”
There was a worry during the game’s rainy middle that the exuberant supporters, including Griffin and the numerous alumni on hand, would leave with a hangover and witness an embarrassing loss, as Washington trailed 16-10 in the third quarter.
All young quarterbacks struggle at times, and Howell endured his share. He had help. Arizona sacked Howell six times in the first game with new offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy.
In the final minute of the first half, Howell fumbled on one takedown, which the Cardinals scooped up at Washington’s 2-yard line for their lone touchdown in the game. He also threw an interception off a tipped pass.
With a powerful right arm and aggressive mobility, Howell passed the raw-traits test in practice. Coaches raved about his ability to self-correct in real time, and his cool demeanor has not been easily ruffled. These attributes pushed quarterback play down the list of concerns about Washington before Week 1. They still do. But the performance won’t move the skeptics off their position.
“We were moving the ball well, (but) turnovers, penalties and sacks,” Howell said. “A lot of things that I could do better.”
Howell finished 19-of-31 for 202 yards.
The Athletic (paywall)
John Thompson loved games like this.
His team wins. “But I can fuss at ’em for the next couple of days,” the Hall of Fame basketball coach would say.
Oh, the paint that Eric Bieniemy will peel in the offensive meeting room this week!
“I already know what’s going to happen,” tackle Charles Leno Jr. said after the Washington Commanders played slightly less terribly than the Arizona Cardinals in the second half Sunday, and held on for a 20-16 win, a barely palatable result in front of 64,693 at FedExField — most of whom, for the first time in years, were actually rooting for the home team.
Ron Rivera was, understandably, underwhelmed by his team’s performance, after such a promising summer and preseason. The team that looked so crisp against the Ravens in joint practices and an exhibition didn’t show up Sunday against the awful Cardinals, who almost snuck out of town with a win.
The offensive line and Sam Howell each contributed to the six sacks allowed. Howell had a can’t-have-it strip sack and fumble inside his own 10 late in the first half, gratefully gobbled up by Arizona’s Cameron Thomas for a walk-in touchdown. There were holding penalties, offensive pass interference penalties, dropped passes, an interception, another fumble by Antonio Gibson. Just, yuck.
In the end, the defense saved the day, with Montez Sweat putting down a big ol’ marker for a big payday after this season with two forced fumbles and 1.5 sacks, and the defensive line dominating much of the day. Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne were, as ever, monsters in the middle. The secondary was on point, with no blown coverages. The defense allowed just three Cardinals field goals.
How did Sam Howell fare in his first game of the 2023 season?
Sam Howell’s turnovers
There was always going to be a level of nervousness and extra adrenaline from Sam Howell in this one. He is a player with just one career start entering an emotionally charged atmosphere with increased expectations, so anyone expecting perfection was kidding themselves.
Howell is a gunslinger who takes a lot of risks. That’s probably why Eric Bieniemy kept things simple early on, but the Washington Commanders were collectively guilty of too many turnovers during their opening contest of the campaign.
The former North Carolina star threw an interception, gave up a fumble that resulted in an Arizona Cardinals touchdown, and was also involved when Antonio Gibson got accredited with a fumble of his own. This was a significant blemish on Howell’s overall performance and there were a few other times when his throws could have been taken away.
In fairness to Howell, he kept swinging for the fences. That’s a testament to his character, but these rash decisions need brushing up in the coming months if he wants to become the team’s long-term option under center.
Howell eventually finished the game with two turnovers in total. It’s still early days, but this cannot continue for much longer given the pressure on Ron Rivera’s shoulders in 2023.
With Washington still trailing 16-10 late in the third quarter, the Cardinals faced a 3rd & 15 from their own 35. Montez Sweat broke through, sacked quarterback Josh Dobbs, who fumbled and Daron Payne recovered on the Cardinals 29 with two seconds remaining.
It was exactly what the offense had needed, struggling as it was. Following the three first-half turnovers, the Commanders offense on its two second-half possessions had run 7 plays gaining 0 yards and 3 plays for two yards.
Again when the defense gave the Commanders the ball, they were 3 & out, punting back to the Cardinals. Again it was Dobbs who fumbled and again it was Sweat making the play on Dobbs. This time DT Abdullah Anderson recovered at the Arizona 37.
The final Cardinals’ possession produced only 12 yards in six plays as the defense again held, giving the Commanders a win in their 2023 opener.
When the day was concluded, the defense had held the Cardinals to 9 points.
1. The defense played out of its mind.
The Commanders were expected to have one of the best defenses in the league this season, and they did nothing to put doubt in that statement against the Cardinals.
Arizona went into halftime with a three-point lead with hopes of extending it, but Washington snuffed out any hopes of that. The unit forced two critical turnovers (more on that later) that gave Washington a short field and opportunities to put points on the board. Washington also made it almost impossible for Arizona to extend drives, as the team was limited to just 29% on third-down attempts.
No plays were bigger than the forced fumbles that came in the third and fourth quarters. Both were forced by Sweat with Payne and Abdullah Anderson scooping them up. They put the offense in scoring position, and the unit responded with 10 points.
While the Washington Commanders will gladly take the win, there’s not much celebrating going on after an ugly 20-16 outcome against the Arizona Cardinals.
“Our guys, they’ve been working hard and practicing hard, they’ve been getting better and for us to make those kinds of mistakes is disappointing,” Rivera said following the win. “I know we are all disappointed, but we’re all thrilled. Believe me, I’m happy as hell we won, I really am. But we got to play better. We really do, because again, we’ve worked hard, we’ve done things the right way, but details, we’ve got to be better with those.”
“I just think I could have played cleaner football,” Howell said. “Trying to do too much in the pocket, I think I could have thrown the ball away, sometimes I took too many sacks.”
These are the observations of a coach and quarterback following a win.
But if you read the press conference transcripts without knowledge of the score you’d think this team just lost.
DC Sports King
Recently, Arizona Cardinals head coach Jonathan Gannon went viral for a perceived uninspiring pep speech saying, “Understand I’m looking for killers.”
The Cardinals’ defense took notice because that unit acted out what the coach said he wanted, both positively and negatively.
Arizona’s defense amassed 67 yards in penalty on one drive, leading to a Washington Commanders touchdown in the first quarter.
The first of two helmet-to-helmet penalties occurred when Cardinals linebacker Kyzir White blasted Commanders quarterback Sam Howell after the QB stepped out of bounds. The hit also took out the down judge.
Jonathan Gannon got laughed at by media and fans for his perplexing comments. Yet, after an impressive showing that included six sacks and three turnovers through three quarters, not many are laughing now.
The Arizona offense imploded late in the game, leading to the Commanders rallying to a 20-16 win. The penalties on the opening drive came back to haunt the Cardinals. Yet, one thing is certain, their defense is nasty and will keep them competitive even with an inept offense.
Podcasts & videos
Locked on Commanders: Washington Commanders Sam Howell Struggles as Montez Sweat and Defense Lead Victory in Week 1
Check out the best photos from the Washington Commanders’ Week 1 matchup against the Arizona Cardinals. (Photos by Emilee Fails and Kourtney Carroll/Washington Commanders)
NFC East links
Cowboys at Giants
- Cowboys pick up where they left off. Dallas earned a reputation for sniffing out the ball last year while leading the league with 33 takeaways. The defense and special teams assured no one would accuse the squad of losing that opportunistic spirit on Sunday night. First, safety Juanyeh Thomas knifed through the line to block the Giants’ opening-drive field-goal attempt, which cornerback Noah Igbinoghene scooped up and returned 58 yards for a score. Two drives later, Trevon Diggs delivered a big-time hit on Saquon Barkley seconds after the running back collected a pass, sending the ball airborne into the waiting arms of DaRon Bland. He, too, found the end zone. The Cowboys offense only completed one first-quarter drive, yet Dallas ended the frame with a 16-0 lead. America’s Team would amass another 24 unanswered points and two more forced turnovers before the night came to a merciful end. It was an utterly dominant display of force.
- Mike McCarthy’s offense doesn’t just ride coattails. Dak Prescott and Co. weren’t amazing, but such a thrashing didn’t require them to be. The flashes they did show should deliver a dose of optimism in McCarthy’s first year calling plays since his days in Green Bay. Although Prescott produced an unexciting line with 13 completions for 143 yards and no touchdowns of his own, his brand of mistake-free football led to points on five of seven drives. Tony Pollard looked far removed from the broken leg he suffered to end last year. The new workhorse exhibited bounce aplenty on his way to two TDs and 82 yards on 16 touches. Plus, the electric KaVontae Turpin exceeded his four measly offensive touches from last year with three carries, two catches and a score. All in all, the starting offense finished with 257 yards, 27 points and its first Week 1 win since 2019.
- What could go wrong, did go wrong. The Giants leaned impressively on the run game to drive down to the Cowboys’ 8-yard line on their first possession. Then the wheels fell off. A false start moved them back to the 13, a botched snap put them farther in reverse to the 27 and the Cowboys blocked the ensuing field-goal try for a score. That opening drive set the tone for a disastrous performance. New York simply had no answer for a swarming Dallas D. Quarterback Daniel Jones went 15 of 28 for 104 yards, two interceptions and a 32.4 passer rating, an outing that still sounds better than it was thanks to garbage time. He was harried and harassed throughout, taking seven sacks and seeing pressure on 62.9% of his dropbacks, per Next Gen Stats. The offense under Jones gained just 2.6 yards per play. The Giants defense also struggled playing behind the eight ball, allowing five scoring drives, and Graham Gano missed a second, unblocked field-goal attempt. The Giants were steamrolled in every phase. A third-place finisher in the NFC East last year, New York looked nowhere near a team primed to jump a spot, much less two.
Next Gen stat of the game: The Cowboys generated pressure on 23 of 36 dropbacks (63.9%), tied for the second-highest pressure rate in a game since 2019. Dallas had eight defenders generate multiple pressures, including four with at least five pressures.
Eagles at Patriots
Eagles D spearheads hot start, holds on late.Darius Slay intercepted Mac Jones on the Patriots’ first drive of the game, weaving his way for a 70-yard score on the return. The next play from scrimmage, Jordan Davisstripped Ezekiel Elliott, setting up a short score to put Philly up 16-0. The Eagles’ D then forced three consecutive three-and-outs. But the Pats hung around, despite the awful start. In crucial moments, the Eagles’ big names stepped up. Fletcher Cox made huge plays in the backfield to turn the Patriots over on downs. Leading by five, the Philly defense made two more massive stops late to ice the win when the offense couldn’t. The Eagles generated 20 QB pressures, per Next Gen Stats. They didn’t have a sack on the first 11 drives but took down Jones twice late, including one for rookie Jalen Carter. On a day the offense struggled, the Philly D came to play on the road.
Eagles’ offense looks rusty to open the season. Perhaps it’s simply the product of facing a good Bill Belichick defense, with horses up front and months to prepare, but Philly’s offense looked like a shell of what we saw last season. The Eagles couldn’t punch it in outside of a short-field TD, settling for four field goals. Jalen Hurts rarely took deep shots, with only one Eagles pass play going for more than 15 yards. The ground game was stymied (3.9 yards per attempt on 25 carries), and Hurts flubbed what could have been a game-changing fumble late in the contest. Philly finished with 251 total yards and 17 first downs. The Eagles went 4 for 13 on third-down conversions and 0 for 1 on fourth down. Just two drives made it to the red zone (first two of the game). The lack of chunk plays and the consistent pressure on Hurts behind one of the best O-lines in the NFL were not what we’d grown accustomed to seeing.
Next Gen stat of the game: The Patriots held Jalen Hurts to a 33.3% success rate on nine carries (28 yards, +6 rushing yards over expected on five designed runs; 10 yards, -2 RYOE on 3 scrambles) after allowing 6.1 yards per attempt on designed QB runs last season (28th).
Cardinals at Commanders
Washington’s defensive front closes the show. Holding the Cardinals to three points and 93 yards in the second half, the Commanders’ defense pinned its ears back and thwarted any idea of an upset. Montez Sweat (1.5), Jonathan Allen (1.0) and Abdullah Anderson (0.5) combined for three sacks, but Daron Payne’s constant disruption of Arizona’s backfield won’t show up on the stat sheet. Sweat added two forced fumbles to his great day. Jack Del Rio’s defense is off to a great start, and it figures to grow even stronger once star pass rusher Chase Young gets back on the field.
- 2023 could be a rollercoaster ride in Washington. It wouldn’t have been such a close game if the Commanders’ offense hadn’t given Arizona so many chances. Sam Howell made plenty of mistakes (interception, fumble lost) but he seemed to shake off the miscues, continuing to throw the ball downfield. Commanders OC Eric Bieniemy deserves credit for getting creative and dialing up different looks against a game Arizona defense. Howell’s offensive line didn’t make life easy, but the second-year quarterback pulled out a gutsy performance (sacked six times). Howell made a slick toss to Brian Robinson for the game’s first score and gave Washington the lead with a six-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter. Coupled with a solid defense, Howell’s gunslinger mentality figures to make for some exciting contests in 2023.
Next Gen stat of the game: Montez Sweat (6 QB pressures, 1.5 sacks, TO forced by pressure) and Jonathan Allen (6 QB pressures, 1 sack) combined for 12 of the Commanders’ 17 QB pressures in Week 1.
NFL Research: The Commanders allowed 210 total yards and zero offensive TDs to the Cardinals, the fewest total yards allowed by Washington in Week 1 since 2005 versus Chicago (allowed 166 total yards, won 9-7).
NFL league links
Over the Cap
Every year during the first week of the season I like to break down the various rosters in the NFL in a few different ways. Because some extensions came in late in the week I’ll hold off on doing some of the financial breakdowns until next week, but here are a few ways in which we can look at how teams have been built this year in the NFL (practice squad not included).
I define homegrown talent as a player who was either drafted by or originally signed as a UDFA by the team that the player currently plays on. On average 61% of a team’s roster comes from their own draft process with the rest coming from free agency, trades, waiver claims, etc…Having a high number of homegrown players does not mean that a team has necessarily drafted well but it does give insight into how they are attempting to build and develop their current roster. The teams with the largest percentage of homegrown players are the Cowboys (80%), Rams (79.6%), and Buccaneers (72.7%). On the bottom are the Cardinals (44.4%), Panthers (45.6%), and Raiders (46.6%).