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With road trip to Denver this week, Commanders fans are concerned about OL play and a strong NFC East

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Arizona Cardinals v Washington Commanders Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

Concerns about the offensive line

Commanders fans collectively spent the offseason wringing our hands with concern about the offensive line. It had been terrible in 2022, and the front office took notice and took action by parting ways with Trai Turner and Andrew Norwell — both signed in an unsuccessful effort to bolster the OL last offseason — and adding a couple of free agents. Right tackle Andrew Wylie was signed from the roster of the super bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs, while Nick Gates came over from the Giants to fill the shoes of Chase Roullier, who retired after back-to-back seasons with serious leg injuries.

The issue, of course, was that fans felt that the team hadn’t done enough to improve the line. The top two draft picks were defensive backs, and the 5-man starting group didn’t really inspire confidence; the depth behind them even less so.

In a survey of Hogs Haven readers following the Week 1 win against the Cardinals in which the good guys scored only 20 points, we asked which element of the team fans were most concerned about. The response was overwhelmingly focused on the offensive line.

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The fact that 75% of respondents were more concerned about the OL than any other option could possibly be an artifact of the 2022 performance and the several months of concerns expressed in the offseason and preseason.

For most of the past few months, the refrain from fans has largely been that, if the offensive line could just play at an ‘average’ or ‘okay’ level, that should be good enough. There is a fair amount of evidence that this is pretty much what the line did against Arizona on Sunday afternoon.

In the aggregate ranking of pass protection above, Washington was ranked 11th out of 30 teams to have played on Thursday or Sunday. This quantitative measure matches up with the Mark Bullock qualitative analysis published earlier this week:

The offensive line has lost elite talents like Trent Williams and Brandon Scherff over the last few years and hasn’t replaced them. With a young quarterback in Sam Howell and a new offensive coordinator in Eric Bieniemy, the offensive line becomes crucial in both of their career paths.

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.

Howell was responsible for maybe two and a half sacks, the offensive line was responsible for one and a half, [Brian] Robinson was responsible for one and the defense earned one with a good call.

There were some breakdowns in pass protection, but it seems that Sam Howell, on average, enjoyed plenty of time in the pocket before being pressured (nearly 3 seconds). In fact, he appears (from the chart below) to have had the most time to pressure of any quarterback in the NFL in Week 1.

Pro Football Reference has a “Pocket Time” stat that is defined as ‘the average time the QB had in the pocket between the snap and throwing the ball or pressure collapses the pocket, in seconds’. In Week 1, they list Sam Howell as having the 5th-highest Pocket Time, at 2.7 seconds.

Also, while 6 sacks sounds like a total breakdown in protection leading to massive losses of field position, that wasn’t really the case outside of the disastrous strip-sack and fumble return for a defensive touchdown. Sam Howell’s second sack resulted in a loss of 1 yard; his first and third were each at the line of scrimmage for no loss of yardage. In effect, half of his “sacks” were simply quarterback scrambles for no gain, and two of the three were followed by the team gaining a first down in the subsequent plays.

The team’s run blocking was more suspect, but Brian Robinson managed to get five 1st downs on 19 rushing attempts. If you discount his final 5 carries of the game, which were all run into loaded boxes and designed to stay conservative, kill the clock, and rely on the defense to close out the game, then Robinson’s success and production look a bit better. Those final 5 clock-killing runs went for 11 yards and no first downs. Prior to that, Robinson had 14 carries for 48 yards. That’s still a pedestrian 3.4 yards per carry, but his 5 first downs account for 35% of these 14 running plays, and his ‘success rate’ ends up at 57% (8 successful carries in 14 attempts).

All in all, the offensive line performance in Week 1 seems to have lived up to the standard that most fans had said they were looking for; that is, it was in the middle-third of the NFL. For what it’s worth, PFF ranks the Commanders offensive line #17 following the Week 1 games, up 10 spots from PFF’s preseason ranking of #27.

Overall confidence

In our “baseline” confidence survey a week ago, 92% of Hogs Haven readers expressed confidence in the direction of the team. That fell to 81% this week.

Typically, confidence is buoyed by wins and falls after losses, so this 11-point drop qualifies as “unusual”, but is likely a reflection of expectations that Washington would mop the floor with the lowly-regarded Arizona Cardinals at home in Week 1. The 3 first-half turnovers, 6 sacks, and the need for a 4th quarter rally to win the game don’t seem to have sat well with survey respondents.

Still, at 81%, the team enjoys a relatively high level of confidence heading into a tough stadium in Denver for the Week 2 matchup against the Broncos.

Broncos fans are feeling...okay

With Sean Payton and Russell Wilson playing at home, Broncos fans were expecting an opening week win. In last week’s Reacts survey, 82% of Broncos fans predicted victory against the Raiders.

Following the Week 1 home loss, Broncos fan confidence seems shaken but not shattered.

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They liked what they saw from Russell Wilson, and having watched the game (on replay) Friday afternoon, I agree that he wasn’t bad, and played much better than he had a year ago.

A slight majority of Denver fans are confident of a win against Washington this week, but after having seen how disruptive Raiders’ DE Maxx Crosby was, I’m expecting the Commanders’ defensive line to create havoc on Sunday. I’m taking the 3.5 points and picking the visitors to cover the spread.

What’s happening in the NFC East?

For anyone who was snowmobiling in Antarctica without an internet connection last week, the Eagles looked fairly pedestrian in securing a 25-20 win over the Patriots, while the Cowboys absolutely destroyed the NY Giants season opener at home by winning 40-0 in a game that wasn’t as close as the final score would indicate.

It seemed like a good time to find out which division rival — the Eagles or Cowboys — was seen as the better team by Hogs Haven readers.

Despite the Cowboys’ lopsided beatdown of the G-men, 62% of those who responded to the survey said that the Eagles are the better team. They certainly looked good on Thursday night against the Vikings, winning by a score of 34-28 in a game in which the Eagles held the lead for the entire 2nd half.

In this week’s national email survey, fans of all 32 teams were asked which 0-1 team really was that bad. Unsurprisingly, survey respondents overwhelmingly opted for the only team to be held scoreless, and the only team to surrender 40 points in Week 1. The Giants are the NFL’s whipping boys, at least until Sunday, when they get the chance for a “get right” game on the road against the Cardinals.

In that same national email survey, fans were asked to predict the outcome of the Week 2 games. They’ve already been proven right by the Eagles victory over the Vikings on Thursday Night Football.

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Fans nationally also predict that the Giants will take care of business in Arizona, while the Cowboys are predicted to prevail over the Jets at home in Texas.

The Commanders are the only NFC East team that fans nationally are predicting to falter this week, with the 3.5-point favorites, the Denver Broncos, getting the nod for the victory.

With tough games coming up at home against the Bills in Week 3 and on the road against the Eagles in Week 4, Washington needs the win to achieve a 2-0 record for the first time since 2011.

The game is shaping up to be a defensive battle, with the over/under set at 39 points by Draft Kings. I reckon Washington has the better defense, and their ability to keep the DL fresh will be bolstered by the return of Chase Young to this week’s lineup. Meanwhile, Denver has been hit fairly hard by injuries, so I’m feeling confident that the burgundy & gold will fight on, fight till they have won. Hail (expected) victory!