Only two games into the season, the Commanders’ new offensive coordinator is already on a roll
Making snap judgments early in an NFL season is done at one’s own peril, because things often change quickly in pro sports’ most dangerous workplace.
The Washington Commanders, however, already have something good cooking, and new offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy is on a roll. It’s definitely not too soon to focus on Bieniemy’s impact both on Washington’s offense and the team overall, which improved to 2-0 after rallying for an impressive 35-33 victory on the road against the Denver Broncos. Hired by head coach Ron Rivera to energize the club’s lethargic offense, and truly empowered by Rivera to make the changes he deemed necessary in that effort, Bieniemy revamped the Commanders’ approach and ruffled a whole lot of feathers in the process.
But at the franchise’s Ashburn, Virginia, headquarters, the converts are growing. And as for Washington’s long-suffering fans, well, many are all-in. How could they not be?
In only a little more than seven months (the Commanders introduced Bieniemy on Feb. 18), the hard-charging former NFL running back disassembled a hot mess of an offense and rebuilt it on a foundation of the core principles he believes in most as a coach: effort, precision and accountability. Bieniemy is producing big-time results while working with a 23-year-old quarterback who made all of one start entering the season.
During visiting Washington’s thrilling comeback victory over reeling Denver on Sunday, Bieniemy and second-year passer Sam Howell were in sync as the team overcame an 18-point deficit (the Commanders trailed 21-3 with 9:01 remaining in the second quarter). In overcoming adversity, the Commanders displayed mettle not seen in Rivera’s first three seasons at the team’s helm, and there’s no mystery as to what’s different.
Commanders franchise president Jason Wright summed it up best to Andscape recently, explaining, Bieniemy is “the single biggest accelerant to the culture change Ron was brought in to do” on the field.
While Howell’s story has yet to be written, he improved to 3-0 as an NFL starting quarterback after Sunday’s win over the Denver Broncos. Howell isn’t a game manager, either. Washington isn’t winning in spite of Howell; the Commanders are winning because of Howell. He’s made mistakes, including taking too many sacks, but his ability to shake off negative plays and respond is a unique trait only some of the best quarterbacks possess.
It’s far too soon to call Howell the Commanders’ franchise quarterback. But there are many reasons to be excited.
Several NFL analysts weighed in on Howell after his Week 2 performance against the Broncos.
One thing I like about Sam Howell's game: He's not very tall (6'1), but looks comfortable throwing MOF. Here he is standing tall in a collapsing pocket and absolutely ripping it btwn the safeties. pic.twitter.com/MV2eWj2uN8— Mina Kimes (@minakimes) September 20, 2023
Robinson has been saying for months that he can do more than be a power back for the Commanders, although that will always be part of his skill set. He showed some of that in training camp, operating as a pass-catcher out of the backfield and putting moves on defenders in open space. He also looked stronger, more confident and quicker running between the tackles, which he said was partly because he didn’t feel completely healthy at any point during his rookie year.
“That’s night and day from then to now,” Robinson said Aug. 28. “So, people should expect a lot of great things to come when you compare all the things I did while I was limping around all year last year.”
So far, Robinson’s predictions for himself have come true. Through two games, his 146 rushing yards are eighth in the league and second in the NFC East. He’s rushed for 13 first downs, which leads the league for running backs, and he has the seventh best offensive grade for his position (74.9), according to Pro Football Focus.
And it’s clear the Commanders trust Robinson to keep them on the field; his 37 carries are tied for fourth in the league.
“He is a heck of a player,” Sam Howell said. “He has worked so hard. It was so much fun watching him run today. He did a good job. The offensive line did a good job. There were some holes for him to run through and he hit them. That is the type of player he is.”
Washington Post (paywall)
Sam Howell has started all of three games, so declaring him the solution to the Commanders’ quarterback problem would be premature. But so far he’s shown much of what Washington has been missing in recent years.
It starts with his arm, which allows him to make the big throws (and short ones) with pinpoint accuracy. Take his four-yard touchdown pass to tight end Logan Thomas. Howell led Thomas with his throw up the middle, and Thomas held onto the ball even after safety Kareem Jackson clobbered him with a helmet-to-helmet hit.
And then there was Howell’s 35-yard completion to tight end John Bates on third down in the final seconds of the first half. Howell took a five-step drop from the shotgun, stepped up in the pocket and launched a bullet along the right sideline, timing his throw with Bates’s route and keeping the ball out of reach of defenders. The completion helped set up Joey Slye’s 49-yard field goal.
Later in the game, Howell threw a 30-yard touchdown pass to Terry McLaurin. He placed the ball high and in front of McLaurin so the receiver could highpoint the ball as two defenders converged around him.
“The touchdown he threw to Logan was as good as it could be, the touchdown throw he threw to Terry was as good as it could be,” Rivera said. “... Now he’s anticipating, he’s throwing people to the ball. In terms of the one he threw to Terry, you could almost say he helped throw Terry open into the area that he needed to be.”
The Athletic (paywall)
According to TruMedia, the Commanders are the best running back screen team in the league. Just like it’s too early to declare Washington a Super Bowl contender after its 2-0 start, making any statistical declaration after Week 2 is the definition of a small sample size. Yet Bieniemy’s choices with when to use the screen and how to deploy Brian Robinson and Antonio Gibson are intriguing.
Washington ran a total of five screen passes to running backs in wins over the Cardinals and Broncos; no NFL team has more than seven such plays. Again, a small sample size. On those plays, quarterback Sam Howell is 4-of-5 (the lone incompletion was a drop) for 88 yards with a passer rating of 118.8 and an EPA/dropback of 1.04. Both represent the best in the league.
Against Denver, the screens represented Washington’s most consistently productive play. Robinson gained 21 yards on a first-quarter screen and another 21 in the fourth. The latter came after Gibson’s 36-yard catch-and-run, the team’s longest play from scrimmage, to the Broncos’ 14 to open the fourth quarter. Two plays later, Robinson ran for a go-ahead 2-yard touchdown. The Commanders never trailed again in the 35-33 victory.
“We got them good today with the screens,” Gibson said. “B-Rob got them on two. I got them on one. … To make those big gains and positive yards helps us out tremendously.”
“Always feels good to make plays and help the team win,” Robinson said. “I’ll do whatever I got to do. However many runs or carries or catches, it doesn’t matter. I just want to get the win.”
Bullock’s Film Room (subscription)
Breaking down why the Commanders gave up three touchdowns on the Broncos opening three drives.
While it’s certainly worth celebrating the ability to stay in the game and overturn such a bad start, it’s also worth exploring what went wrong at the start of the game that got them in such a hole in the first place.
The Broncos started the game scoring touchdowns on all three of their opening drives. In fact, their first three drives totalled for 17 plays, 226 yards and three touchdowns. The Commanders then suddenly turned things around.
So what went so wrong early?
[T]he Commanders can’t afford to keep starting off poorly. They play the Bills and Eagles over the next two weeks and those two teams will punish them for starting so poorly if they do continue that trend. But the resilience to bounce back says a lot about the character of this team.
From a schematic point of view, the passing game issues on that third drive are correctable. Forbes just got beat after not getting set quickly enough and they didn’t quite pass off the mesh concept as they would have liked. The pin-pull run scheme will likely continue to be an issue going forward as more and more teams will look to attack the Commanders in that way, largely because they are so stout against most other run schemes. No defense is perfect and this is the scheme the Commanders will have to accept they are vulnerable to, which is the trade off they make to be strong in other areas.
Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio predicted Sweat’s numbers could explode in 2023 if he finished a few more plays.
Through two weeks, Del Rio’s premonition looks accurate. Sweat has nine tackles, three for loss, three sacks, two forced fumbles, four quarterback hits and 11 QB pressures.
Parsons’ numbers are very similar to Sweat’s.
In Washington’s Week 1 win over Arizona, Sweat’s strip-sack and forced fumble flipped momentum to the Commanders and changed the game, leading to the game-winning touchdown. In Sunday’s win over the Broncos, Sweat had seven pressures and 1.5 sacks. It was also his first game back with Chase Young, who was equally as dominant as Sweat.
No one is disputing the greatness of Micah Parsons.
But maybe it’s about time the league started paying attention to Montez Sweat.
The Washington Commanders could present problems defensively for the Buffalo Bills and quarterback Josh Allen.
“This week will be big test for our offensive linemen,” McDermott said Monday. “They’ve got a very talented - bunch of high draft picks along their defensive front there.”
Buffalo’s o-line has experience, but its youth will be tested. At right guard, second-rookie O’Cyrus Torrence will have his hands full on the inside against Daron Payne, Jonathan Allen, and maybe Chase Young if it comes down to it. There’s seemingly some pressure on the rookie to keep Bills star quarterback Josh Allen safe while also providing holes for running back James Cook.
Considering how impressive Buffalo’s offense just looked against Vegas, it goes without saying that the Commanders’ defensive front will be key in helping to potentially pull off the upset and move to 3-0.
Washington and Buffalo kickoff from FedEx Field on Sunday at 1 p.m.
DC Sports King
Biggest Winner: Chase Young
Chase Young was the best defensive player on the field Sunday for the Commanders. The young defensive end has caught a lot of heat from fans after missing 23 games over the past three seasons, including Week 1, as he sat out with a stinger after being cleared by doctors.
Young made his season debut against the Broncos. He wreaked havoc throughout the game. Initially, he was supposed to be on a snap count. However, he played 47 of the Commanders’ 66 defensive snaps. And he played well, collecting 1.5 sacks, three pressures, and a hurry.
Young was a force even on plays that didn’t show on the stats sheet. His pressure on Wilson off the edge on a play-action goal line play sent Wilson right into the grasp of fellow defensive end Montez Sweat. Later on the same drive, Young bull-rushed Broncos guard Quinn Meinerz, which led to Young and Sweat sacking Wilson on third-and-goal.
It’s one game, but Young exceeded expectations, making him the biggest winner for the Commanders.
Biggest Loser: Cody Barton
The Commanders have a Mike linebacker problem, and it’s Cody Barton. Firstly, Barton does a great job with the pre-snap calls. He gets the defense in position. Yet, once the ball snapped, Barton didn’t hold his end of the bargain against the Broncos.
Barton was often late dissecting his reads. On the Broncos’ first offensive drive, he got pushed around or was late filling gaps as Denver gashed the Washington defense for 53 yards on the ground to score a touchdown.
Barton also got picked on in pass coverage. The Broncos exploited him with the same crossing concept three times, including on a second-quarter touchdown. Wilson identified Barton matched up in the slot with a single responsibility. Rookie wide receiver Brandon Johnson blew past Barton, crossing for the catch and score. Johnson had too much speed for Barton.
Surprisingly, Barton played all 66 of Washington’s defensive snaps. He had just one positive play that stood out. He may be the best signal caller for the team, but if he continues to struggle, head coach Ron Rivera may have to look at the team’s other options at MLB.
Over the Cap
OTC’s player valuations are calculated using proprietary formulas to more accurately depict the value being provided by a player based on his on field performance relative to the current market for his position. The calculations utilize a number of statistic and performance evaluations that are provided by Pro Football Focus. Positional valuations use a number of factors including snap counts, PFF grades and statistics to determine the player’s primary valuation. Overall values add a special teams component to the valuation. For a more in depth analysis of player and team performance please visit PFF to lean about the content and services they offer. To learn more about the OTC valuations, please read our introductory article.
Podcasts & videos
New Film Session is up #HTTC— Trap or Dive Podcast (@TraporDive) September 20, 2023
Eric Bieniemy's screens created explosive offense for Washington. @LetMualTellit explains why Washington's screens were effective Sunday & the different ways that Bieniemy was able to dress them up.https://t.co/bcthKYYw4f
Episode 659 - Have ya noticed how Ron Rivera has talked about Chase Young lately? High praise for his work ethic & focus. Big difference from 2021. I discuss this & more off comments from Ron on Monday on CY, Sam Howell, BRob &...The Cheeseman. #Commanders https://t.co/42G3vQ4aJu— Al Galdi (@AlGaldi) September 19, 2023
Episode 660 - Guest: @BenStandig on the #Commanders' 2-0 start. Intel & analysis on Sam Howell, Eric Bieniemy, Montez Sweat $$, Ron Rivera/Chase Young, Cody Barton/Jamin Davis & more.— Al Galdi (@AlGaldi) September 20, 2023
Guest: @RyanOHalloran. Great insight on the Buffalo Bills. #BUFvsWAShttps://t.co/SCqCefNzjW
Locked on Commanders: Washington Commanders Montez Sweat & Chase Young Pass Rush | Howell Sacks Dipping | Ron Rivera 100th
NFC East links
Washington Post (paywall)
The good fortune has obscured real problems for Philadelphia. Last year, the Eagles finished with the third-best offense and third-best defense after adjusting for strength of schedule, per defense-adjusted value over average, a metric that measures efficiency by comparing every play to a league average based on situation and opponent. This year, the Eagles are 13th in both categories. Philadelphia has been forced into three-and-out situations far more often than in the first two weeks of the previous two seasons. The team’s points per drive, plays per drive, yards per drive and red-zone efficiency are also down.
a win is a win. But there are warning signs when teams win more games than the underlying numbers would have suggested. NFL teams that were fortunate to be 2-0 are more likely to have limited playoff success. The 2016 Minnesota Vikings, with just a 16 percent chance, were the luckiest team to start 2-0 since 2002, when the league expanded to 32 teams. They ended up missing the playoffs. Those Vikings were the only squad over the past two decades more fortunate to be 2-0 than this year’s Eagles. If we look at the luckiest 20 teams to be 2-0 from 2002 to 2022, almost half of them (nine) didn’t qualify for the playoffs. Four of the 20 lost in the first round. Three lost in the divisional round, but two of those — the 2008 Carolina Panthers and 2011 Green Bay Packers — had a bye past the first round, leaving them without a playoff win. Four more of the luckiest 20 made it to the conference championship round or beyond, but the record demonstrates that two fortunate early wins offer no guarantee of future success.
On the other hand, of the 20 most deserving teams to be 2-0 since 2002, just four missed the playoffs and five made it to the Super Bowl.
Commanders: Being down 21-3, Washington stormed back to lead 35-27 and hold on despite a Hail Marry as time expired by the Broncos. The Commanders quarterback Sam Howell has won each of his three NFL starts, Chase Young made his first 2023 appearance a good one and new offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy again displayed much confidence in the offensive personnel, calling for the ball to be spread broadly. Washington’s two new guards, Saahdiq Charles and Sam Cosmi, thus far are marked improvements over the 2022 starting guards Andrew Norvell and Trai Turner.
Cowboys: Dallas has outscored its first two opponents 70-10. The defense is intimidatingly good, and the offense dialed it back in the second half of both games, not needing to show much or risk injury.
Eagles: The Eagles’ pass defense allowed Kirk Cousins to pass for 364 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. Yet, the Eagles won the game. How? Their offense was both explosive and efficient.
Giants: New York found itself down 20-0 to the Cardinals. This meant that in six quarters, the Giants had been outscored by their two opponents 60-0. That is not a typo. But the Giants managed to generate a comeback in which they scored 14 third-quarter points and 17 in the final quarter to obtain their first victory of the 2023 season.
NFL league links
Washington Post (paywall)
Mooney was reportedly watching the game with friends while in an upper tier of Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., when he collapsed. Emergency medical personnel responded to the incident, per reports, shortly before 11 p.m., when the game was in the fourth quarter.
A witness who spoke with the Boston Globe said a confrontation between Patriots and Dolphins fans near Mooney’s section resulted in him approaching the rival group.
“[Mooney] went over to Section 311 and he basically engaged in mutual combat with another fan,” the witness, Joseph Kilmartin, told the Globe. “A lot of people started trying to pull them apart. … It looked like somebody was in the middle of them, and then a man in the Dolphins jersey reached over and he connected with two punches to the victim’s head. It wasn’t something crazy or out of the ordinary until, 30 seconds later, the guy wasn’t getting up.”
Kilmartin told the newspaper that he provided police with video he took of the incident. He said police led away the Dolphins fan involved.
“The man just went out,” Kilmartin said to Boston station WCVB of Mooney’s condition in the aftermath of the altercation. “It was pretty hard to watch.”