The entire outlook for the Washington Commanders during their Week 1 matchup against the Arizona Cardinals changed in three plays.
First, there was a one-yard tackle for loss from Daron Payne, who put a swim move on Paris Johnson Jr. to wrap up Keaontay Ingram. Next, it was Jonathan Allen’s turn to wreak havoc on the Cardinals, as the Pro Bowl defensive tackle bust through Arizona’s front to take down Josh Dobbs for a four-yard sack in 3.67 seconds.
Finally, there was the game-changer: Montez Sweat worked his way around left tackle D.J. Humphries and knocked the ball from Dobbs’ grasp with a chop on the quarterback’s arm. Payne fell on it, and seven plays later, Washington retook the lead on a six-yard touchdown run from Sam Howell.
Of the Cardinals’ 11 possessions, only two went further than 30 yards, and three of them actually resulted in negative yardage. That got noticed by Pro Football Focus, which gave Washington top 10 grades in overall defense (fourth), run defense (third), pass rush (10th) and coverage (seventh).
Bullock’s Film Room (subscription)
Evaluating what went wrong for the Commanders on all 6 of the sacks that the Cardinals defense managed on Sam Howell
In the opening game of the season, the Commanders surrendered six sacks to the Arizona Cardinals and on the face of it, that suggests the offensive line didn’t perform well. However, sacks can be a very misleading statistic. Yes the offensive line are there to protect the quarterback and keep him upright, but that doesn’t mean they are to blame for every sack that happens. Let’s take a closer look at these sacks and see what really happened.
Overall: I think the first two sacks were pretty obviously on quarterback Sam Howell. Sack three was just a case of a good defensive call against an inexperienced quarterback. Sack four was on Andrew Wylie and while sack five was on Nick Gates for a mental error, Howell has to take some responsibility because he had two options to throw to before the sack occurred. Brian Robinson was at fault for the six and final sack, meaning in total, Howell was responsible for maybe two and a half sacks, the offensive line was responsible for one and a half, Robinson was responsible for one and the defense earned one with a good call.
Washington Commanders quarterback Sam Howell was sacked six times by the Arizona Cardinals.
When speaking to the media and addressing questions about his offensive line, Washington head coach Ron Rivera acknowledged that there were issues but thinks there will be improvements made.
“There were a couple things that for us, we missed a protection,” Rivera said. “We thought something was going to happen and because of that we came off of a switch too soon. Then we actually had one where we had a little foot traffic and one of our guys got tripped up. Then a couple times we probably should have gotten rid of the ball. It’s a combination of things. It’s all things that are corrective ball, things that we should get better with and we expect to get better with.”
Bullock’s Film Room (subscription)
Taking a closer look at the Commanders 3rd down defense package
The Commanders had a rough start in 2022 but soon developed into one of the best third down defenses in the league by the end of the season. This year they appear to be building on that, holding the Cardinals to just four third down conversions on 12 attempts.
Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio showed a wide variety of looks on third down against Arizona. Some of these looks I hadn’t seen from Washington’s defense before, so I thought I would highlight them.
While a lot of the third down package revolved around Cover 0 looks, there were times when Del Rio opted to play coverage, trusting his four defensive lineman to generate pressure while the defensive backs covered. But even then, he still did a good job mixing up what coverages he used.
Overall it was a strong outing from the defense on the field, but also from Del Rio with his game plan and play-calling. He designed a number of nice looks with that Cover 0 package but also showed a willingness to play coverage and mix up the coverages when doing so. The Commanders will face a lot tougher opposition than the Cardinals going forward, but Washington has typically started slow defensively under Ron Rivera and Jack Del Rio. That wasn’t the case this week as the defense looked dominant and incredibly flexible with personnel packages, blitzes and coverages. It should be an exciting unit to watch this season.
The Washington Commanders showcased against the Arizona Cardinals why they have one of the best defensive line units in the NFL — and they were without Chase Young.
Washington recorded a sack or tackle for loss in all but one of Arizona’s 11 drives.
After the win, Allen said the unit “made a lot of great plays,” but still wants to get better. If there’s a lot left in the tank for the defensive line in addition to Young’s return from injury, then opposing quarterbacks beware.
“There’s obviously going to be room for improvement and we got to be better if we’re going to go where we need to go,” Allen said. “We’re going to accept the win, take it. We’re excited. We’re happy we pulled it out, and you know, grow from there.”
How did Forbes grade out per Pro Football Focus? PFF graded all 31 first-round picks, with Forbes ending Week 1 with the 11th-highest grade [67.2] among the 2023 first-round picks.
Here’s PFF’s analysis:
Forbes acclimated well in his Washington debut, racking up four tackles, two stops and a pass breakup. His one mistake was a busted coverage that went for a 31-yard gain, but he gave up only one other catch for eight yards. Forbes played a mostly sound game, and his development will be fun to watch against better competition.
Not a bad debut for Forbes. If you ask him, though, he’d tell you he should’ve come away with an interception on Arizona’s final play.
Washington Post (paywall)
The charitable way: The West Coast scheme relies on timing and spacing, which take time to hone, and growing pains were expected. Quarterback Sam Howell flashed playmaking promise, especially on his two touchdowns, and coordinator Eric Bieniemy adapted to the game flow by prioritizing the run late. The six sacks didn’t expose an Achilles’ heel, because the responsibility for them was split among blocking, Howell’s occasionally lagging internal clock and, at least once, a combination of Howell and a longer-developing play call. All those issues are fixable, and as the offense coheres, Bieniemy will maximize everyone better and complement the strong defense. Give it time.
The uncharitable way: For all the talk of Bieniemy’s attention to detail, the offense was not crisp in a near-loss to the Arizona Cardinals. Neither touchdown drive was impressive — the first fueled by defensive penalties and the second on a short field — and the unit gave away the ball three times. Bieniemy called 14 runs in the last 17 plays because he didn’t trust the passing game. Given the ball at the Arizona 22-yard line with 4:38 to go and a one-point lead, Bieniemy didn’t even try to put the Cardinals away with a touchdown, pounding the rock three straight times and taking the field goal. Coach Ron Rivera bet too big on unproven pieces in Howell, Bieniemy and the offensive line. It will never work.
“[It’s] never as bad as you think and never as good as you think,” Rivera said of Howell. “There were some really good things that happened; there were some really good rhythm stuff that was on. And then there was some things that were just kind of like, ‘Ooh, why’d you do that?’ ”
Here’s why it’s difficult to read too much into the results of Sunday: Washington played basically the same game Week 1 in 2022. It seized an early lead against a poorly regarded opponent, nearly fumbled the game away in the middle and roared back late with an impressive play by a new quarterback and a game-sealing turnover by the defense.
“This year just feels different,” [LT Charles Leno] said. “For some reason, it just feels different. I don’t know how to explain it.”
DESPITE TURNING THE ball over twice Sunday, Howell’s resiliency showed. After his first-quarter interception, he drove the team to the 19-yard line before running back Antonio Gibson fumbled. After Howell’s second-quarter fumble for a touchdown, he led a 69-yard drive with 49 seconds left that ended in a field goal.
Howell also was sacked six times — a combination of mistakes, including some by his protection and some by him. He was also drilled at the end of one run, drawing a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on the defense. Yet he didn’t flinch.
“It is a trademark of his, how tough he is,” Rivera said. “He took a couple big shots. One thing he has to learn is he can’t leave himself exposed like he did. He’ll learn that and he’ll learn that quickly.”
Said Washington left tackle Charles Leno Jr.: “He’s the same guy every single day. It is absolutely insane. He threw the pick. He was like, ‘whatever’. He goes back to the huddle calls, ball sack fumble, like, ‘oh whatever’. Go back to the huddle. Call the play. He’s the same guy. Unshaken. ... I love that about him.”
Washington Commanders coach Ron Rivera has detailed the need for patience with Sam Howell as he learns how to win football games.
“I think you have to have some patience with him, but again, in the back of your mind, you always do think about, hey, we’ve got to do something to win,” Rivera said. “I think as you go through it and you progress and you know when certain things happen early on, you go, okay, we got it. We’re doing it. We just got to get the rhythm going. We’ll look at it. Each game will have its own personality, its own characteristics as to how things flow.”
For Rivera, Howell’s internal clock needs to be kicked up a gear, but he made a point of exactly where the quarterback is in his career.
“He’s learning,” Rivera said. “It’s just the process now lining up and doing it.”
Could the Commanders use more explosiveness at running back?
The Washington Commanders do not have a running back who is a legitimate break-away threat.
I am assuming that the Washington coaches would prefer to have more big play potential from their running backs. But if they do, it does not show up in their drafting strategies.
Since finding Alfred Morris in Round No. 6 of the 2012 NFL Draft, Washington has drafted 10 running backs. Only the last three – taken during the Ron Rivera regime – remain with the club.
Of the others, Chris Thompson (fifth-round, 2013) was a very good third-down option for a number of years. The others – including high-profile talents like Derrius Guice, Bryce Love, and Matt Jones – were mostly busts.
Brian Robinson Jr., Antonio Gibson, and Chris Rodriguez Jr. appear to have good potential. But I think it’s way too early to make any bold predictions about how they will be viewed five years down the road.
I can say this about them. They are all strong, powerful runners who can get some tough yards. And none of them is likely to break big runs longer than 30 yards this season.
Washington has won season-opening games. Ron Rivera’s first game in Washington was a 27-17 victory over the Eagles. However, the team proceeded to lose their next five contests to fall to 1-5.
Just last season (2022), Washington defeated the Jaguars 28-22 at FedEx to launch the season. The next four weeks, they proceeded to lose to the Lions, Eagles, Cowboys and Titans.
In 2018, Alex Smith led the Redskins to a road win over the Cardinals 24-6. However, back at home the next week, the Colts clearly outplayed Washington 21-9.
For five consecutive seasons 2013-2017, the Redskins lost their season opener. The previous season (2012), Washington went to New Orleans for the season opener and surprised everyone by winning a 40-32 shootout. But the next week, they fell to the Rams, as Washington was on their way to a 3-6 record before winning their final seven games.
We have to go back to 2011 to find our answer. Washington faced the Giants at FedEx to open the season and defeated the Giants 28-14. Some may recall Ryan Kerrigan intercepted Eli Manning and returned the pass 9 yards for a touchdown.
The following week, again at FedEx Field, Washington trailed the Cardinals 21-13 in the final quarter. Rex Grossman connected with Santana Moss from 18 yards to narrow the deficit to 21-19. Then Graham Gano kicked a 34-yard field goal to give Washington the 22-21 win.
THAT was the last time Washington’s NFL franchise was 2-0 to start an NFL season.
DC Sports King
“I feel completely disenfranchised,” Riggins said in February 2022. “I can’t understand how anyone who once played under the old franchise name could possibly want to be a part of anything to do with the Washington Commanders.”
A lot can change over time, and Riggins has loosened his stance somewhat following the team’s sale. Riggins first attended the Economic’s Club dinner with new Commanders owners Josh Harris and Mitchell Rales. Riggins was also one of several Washington alumni who attended the Commanders’ season-opening win over the Arizona Cardinals.
The Week 1 game was the first regular season contest under the team’s new ownership. Washington had a sellout crowd of over 64,000 fans at FedEx Field, who watched the Commanders defeat the Arizona Cardinals 20-16.
Riggins enjoyed the game in the stands next to Rales, who wore a Riggins jersey. The Commanders fans serenaded Riggins during the game, in which he took the liberty of showing off his custom-made jacket with the old “Redskins” logo on the inside flap.
Podcasts & videos
️Mega episode:@Coach_JayGruden on Week 1 Sam Howell/EB, DL turns imposing, post-Snyder, new intel on Bruce Allen ignoring 49ers' calls for Cousins.— Ben Standig (@BenStandig) September 13, 2023
The home-and-home w/ @AlGaldi. OL play, Gibson/RB rotation, Kam Curl, Hulk Hogan vs. "Macho Man" Savagehttps://t.co/TSMvAvQTuM
Episode 654 - It took some time, but Washington's run of 1st-round picks on d-linemen is paying off. I discuss this & much more off comments from Ron Rivera on Monday, including his evaluation of Sam Howell & assessment of sack responsibility. #Commandershttps://t.co/WphQohxkCQ— Al Galdi (@AlGaldi) September 12, 2023
Episode 655 - Guest: @MarkBullockNFL. #Commanders film breakdown. Great stuff on Sam Howell, who/what was to blame for each of the six sacks & much more.— Al Galdi (@AlGaldi) September 13, 2023
Guest: @ZacStevensDNVR. Terrific insight on the Broncos. #WASvsDEN
And I talk #Nats & #Orioles.https://t.co/UINHAGXSXs
With @RealBramW discussing all facet of the Commanders after the opening win; how it looks going forward. Answering many questions. More. @ESPNRichmond chttps://www.youtube.com/live/GyDWJAUgsOE?si=lVxB0BYTRWv4s1fT via @YouTube— John Keim (@john_keim) September 13, 2023
Taking-my-children-to-their-first-game fans.— Hannah Lichtenstein (@HannahLichten) September 12, 2023
Sunday’s “Welcome Home” theme meant something important for all types. https://t.co/UyeAh9h6Xi
NFC East links
Running back D’Andre Swift and tight end Dallas Goedert had two touches on Sunday.
Not apiece, but combined.
In the Philadelphia Eagles’ sluggish 25-20 win over the New England Patriots, their offense sputtered as a whole. Still, the lack of usage for Goedert and Swift in particular was eyebrow-raising.
It certainly wasn’t lost on new offensive coordinator Brian Johnson, who indicated he’ll be cognizant of getting Swift and Goedert more involved going forward.
“Fortunately for us we have some excellent skill position players who are all very deserving of a bunch of touches and can make game-changing plays when they get the ball in their hand,” Johnson said Tuesday, via team transcript. “It’s up to us to really, really, like you said, just be mindful of that and try to get those guys going within the flow of the game.”
Though the Eagles prevailed on Sunday, a lack of chemistry on offense was apparent. Philadelphia posted 251 yards on 61 plays, converting on four of 13 first downs.
Pro Football Talk
Trotter, while on the field before the game, was congregating with other reporters. Here’s what the complaint alleges, in paragraph 113: “At one point, Mr. Trotter was speaking to Will McClay, the Cowboy’s Vice President of Player Personnel, about the fact that NFL teams tend not to draft many players out of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (‘HBCUs’) and whether that might be due to the lack of Black people in personnel decision-making positions — i.e. General Managers. Mr. Jones joined the conversation, and Mr. Trotter asked why teams have so few Black decision makers.”
From paragraph 114: “In response to Mr. Trotter, Mr. Jones dodged the question and stated that players get a large percentage of league revenue and the majority of players are Black. In effect, Mr. Jones was stating that Black people should ‘be happy for what they have’ and not seek further advancement of their rights, positions in society or equality.”
From paragraph 115: “Mr. Trotter reiterated his question, and Mr. Jones responded, ‘I’m starting to feel a little defensive.’ However, notwithstanding Mr. Jones’ previous answer or history of conduct, Mr. Trotter made it clear that he was not attacking him, or even speaking about the Cowboys, but just asking about the league generally.”
Paragraph 116: “Mr. Jones finally responded: ‘If Blacks feel some kind of way, they should buy their own team and hire who they want to hire.’ Mr. Trotter responded by asking if the NFL was going to change its rules requiring purchasers to buy at least 30% of the team and finance deals with no more than $1 billion in debt. Mr. Jones ignored the question.” (Emphasis in original.)
Bleeding Green Nation
Philadelphia is banged up ahead of Thursday Night Football.
After serving as the Eagles’ clear lead back in Week 1, Gainwell is in jeopardy of missing Week 2. Derrick Gunn reported that Gainwell “remains a wait and see” so we could be looking at game-time decision here. Even if Gainwell does suit up, one would think the Eagles might need to manage his workload. D’Andre Swift appears to be in line for a bigger role after only getting two touches against the New England Patriots. Rashaad Penny will be active for his first game with the Eagles if Gainwell can’t play.
Bradberry clearly hasn’t passed through the NFL’s concussion protocol. He probably won’t have enough time to be ready for Thursday night. If that’s the case, Josh Jobe will start at cornerback in his place.
Blankenship also being listed under DNP for the second straight day isn’t ideal. If he doesn’t play, the Eagles could be starting Justin Evans and Terrell Edmunds at safety ... with Sydney Brown potentially in the mix as well.
Big Blue View
Dallas exposed their biggest flaws, so how can the Giants address them?
The Giants acted during the offseason like a team that expected to ascend. They gave Daniel Jones a relatively big contract. They traded for Darren Waller. They signed Bobby Okereke. They traded for Isaiah Simmons. They traded for Boogie Basham. They gave Dexter Lawrence and Andrew Thomas big money.
The Giants went all-in on last year, believing that the foundation for success was in place and they just needed to add pieces to it. Sunday stung so much because the Giants believed they were beyond being embarrassed like that, and had done enough to take a step forward.
Sunday’s result certainly calls all of that into question.
While Jones was being turned into one Giant bruise by the Cowboys (7 sacks, 12 hits, a bunch of scrambles to avoid sacks), Dak Prescott was virtually untouched. Never sacked, hit just three times in 24 dropbacks. Dallas has 15 sacks of Giants quarterbacks to zero for New York in the last three meetings.
NFL league links
ESPN analyst and former NFL quarterback Dan Orlovsky said, explaining the phenomenon. “Teams have sat there and said, ‘We are going to take these home-run hitting quarterbacks and make them hit singles.’”
In a league seemingly obsessed with finding the biggest arm — and the most explosive receivers to take advantage of it — the moonshots might be a thing of the past.
There were 3,416 attempts at least 15 yards downfield during the 2022 regular season, the fewest in any season since 2006.
But when quarterbacks did let it fly, they were pretty successful. Completion percentages on those attempts of at least 15 yards downfield was 45.1% — the second-highest completion percentage in a single season since 2006.
The trend continued through the first week of the 2023 regular season, too. Both air yards per attempt and number of passes attempted of more than 20 air yards were lower than the 2022 averages — and the 2022 Week 1 numbers. Just 9.2% of all passes attempted were deep balls, down from 10.4% in Week 1 of 2022, while air yards per attempt decreased from 7.3 to 7.1. Passers produced the fewest yards (6,225) and TD passes (37) in a Week 1 since 2006. They averaged 6.25 yards per attempt, the lowest Week 1 output since 1996.
So what gives? There’s not a simple answer. Around the league, head coaches, coordinators and players all point to different reasons.
The Athletic (paywall)
Jets coach Robert Saleh said in a news conference Monday that if Rodgers’ injury were non-contact, he would be more concerned about the turf at MetLife Stadium and “I think that was trauma-induced” — but that he knows “the players prefer grass.” Rodgers was sacked by Bills outside linebacker Leonard Floyd when he suffered the injury.
This offseason, MetLife Stadium’s turf was changed from a slit-film surface to a multilayer dual-polymer monofilament fiber called FieldTurf Core. Slit-film surfaces, which are created by cutting “blades” into a single piece of material, resemble netting upon close view designed to keep infill in place. Players have referred to such turf as “grabby,” where a monofilament surface can be “harder and faster” but designed to release cleats.
Some Jets players reiterated their preference for natural grass Monday night, but some did note that the new field at MetLife felt like an improvement to the previous slit-film surface.
Asked Tuesday afternoon about the renewed outcry over playing surfaces, NFL executive vice president Jeff Miller said the league had not found a difference in the injury rate for Achilles injuries on natural grass surfaces versus synthetic. Miller cited data collected on the matter since 2015.
“It is always difficult when talking about Achilles injuries, which are such substantial injuries, to see two players in the first week go down with those,” Miller said, referring to Rodgers and to Baltimore Ravens running back J.K. Dobbins. Dobbins tore his Achilles tendon Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium, which has a grass surface. “So that is an important area to continue to research, but because an injury happens on a surface doesn’t mean that injury was caused by that surface. And in this case, we haven’t seen a data difference for Achilles injuries. So there’s a lot more work to do. We don’t want those injuries in the game.”
Pro Football Talk
Once Rodgers landed in New York with a trade from Green Bay, the NFL scheduled the Jets for six nationally televised games. Five are in prime time.
Now, with Rodgers out, the league, its networks and its fans are stuck with some Jets games in prime time that it can’t move.
The team’s Week 4 game against the Chiefs on Sunday Night Football on Oct. 1 will remain on NBC. The Week 9 game against the Chargers on Monday Night Football on Nov. 6 will remain on ESPN. The Week 12 game against the Dolphins on Black Friday (Nov. 24) will remain on Prime Video.
The NFL, though, can flex the Jets’ Week 10 game against the Raiders on Sunday Night Football on Nov. 12 with 12 days’ notice. Thus, a decision has to be made by Oct. 31. The 49ers play the Jaguars and the Packers play the Steelers that week, both of which might be possibilities to take the place of Jets-Raiders.
The Jets’ Week 17 game against the Browns on Dec. 28 could become the first Thursday Night Football game flexed. It requires 28-days notice to be flexed, so Nov. 30 is the deadline. The Dolphins at the Ravens could be a possibility.