Two of the Commanders’ nine sacks allowed preceded an interception; the Commanders’ fourth-down attempt at the goal-line failed with an incomplete pass; and a pass to the end zone intended for Curtis Samuel was picked by Tre’Davius White.
So, it’s not as if the Commanders were unable to operate against the Bills and their fifth-ranked defense. In fact, there were times when they moved the ball quite well. Those moments, however, were overshadowed by a failure to execute.
“Shoutout to them. They came to play,” Antonio Gibson told reporters. “They made some great plays today and they got the best of us, so shout out to their defense.”
Of all the mistakes made on Sunday, those committed by Howell were the most glaring. For the past six weeks, the Commanders experienced all the positives that come with having a young, talented quarterback as their starter. He’s tough, has a strong arm, knows where to place the ball and has poise in the pocket. All those are qualities that have been hard to find consistently in Washington’s previous quarterbacks, and it looks like Howell has a foundation to build upon for years to come.
On Sunday, Howell and the Commanders experienced the growing pains of having a quarterback with only four starts under his belt. All four of his interceptions seemed to compound on each other, and while some of the nine sacks can be credited to other factors, others were caused by Howell holding the ball for too long.
According to Next Gen Stats, Howell’s throw time is 2.81 seconds — one of the longest in the league — and has been sacked 19 times — the most in the league. After the game, Howell blamed himself.
“Obviously a lot of things didn’t go right today, and it starts with me,” Howell said.
Howell’s teammates were also quick to defend him, putting some of the blame for Sunday’s results on themselves.
“Sam’s a great quarterback and a tough kid,” said tackle Andrew Wylie. “As an offensive lineman, that’s [the sacks] on our unit. We take that personally. We gotta do a better job of keeping him upright and getting him that extra tick. He’s a baller! He’s trying to make plays, and that’s what we need out of him. Our guys up front take that very personally.”
The Washington Commanders have raved about quarterback Sam Howell’s calm demeanor, his confidence and his ability to forget about bad plays — or games. Each one of those aspects will be tested this week.
Howell, who had won his first three NFL starts and provided hope for a franchise in search of consistency at quarterback, will need to rebound off his worst game. And he’ll have to do it at Philadelphia on Sunday.
“It was a tough day for all of us,” receiver Terry McLaurin said. “It’s not just on him, but I just want to let him know that we got his back.
Howell has been pressured on 36.6% of his passes, fourth highest in the league. And that has been done while facing rushes of five defenders or more only 20.3% of the time, third lowest in the NFL. He has been hit on 26.2% of his passes, according to ESPN Stats & Information; only seven quarterbacks have been hit more often.
“He’s still learning a little bit,” [Bills defensive end AJ] Epenesa said, “whether it’s the disguises of the defense or recognizing coverages. His thought process or whatever that is to make him take another second to break it down that’s our chance.”
Or, as Bills defensive tackle Jordan Phillips said, “If he doesn’t see something most of the time he’ll just hold the ball and he’ll run. It’s just growing pains.”
Bullock’s Film Room (subscription)
Breaking down Howell’s four interceptions against the Bills to find out what he can learn from those mistakes.
In what was clearly the worst performance of his young career to date, Commanders quarterback Sam Howell struggled mightily against one of the best defenses in the NFL. The Bills nearly shut out the Commanders in a 37-3 win that pumped the brakes on the good vibes that Washington started the season with and hit the team with a dose of reality.
Howell completed 19/29 passes for 170 yards, no touchdowns and four interceptions. He was also sacked nine times, a number of which were his fault and a handful more he could have prevented. It was an ugly performance for the Commanders offense and one that Howell has a lot to learn from. I’ll say right at the top here that Howell could and should have done a lot better than he did, but one bad game doesn’t mean it’s time to write him off as I’ve seen others suggest. I still think Howell can develop into a good quarterback, but he has plenty of lessons to learn, which goes for every young and inexperienced quarterback.
With that being said, let’s get into the four interceptions and break down what lessons are to be learned from those mistakes.
Situation: Third and 19 at Buffalo 34, 4:39 remaining in the first quarter.
Bullock’s Film Room (subscription)
Evaluating what went wrong for the Commanders on all 9 of the sacks that the Bills’ defense managed on Sam Howell
One of the worrying trends regarding Sam Howell and the Washington Commanders offense so far this season has been the number of sacks Howell is taking. Through three games, Howell has now been sacked 19 teams, which is obviously far too much. He was sacked six times in the opener against Arizona, which prompted me to break down each sack and look at what went wrong. Against the Bills this week, Howell was sacked nine times, so I figured I would look at each sack and break it down.
Now right at the start I will state again that sacks aren’t necessarily a stat that accurately reflects the play of the offensive line. As you’ll see in this post and if you read the breakdown of the sacks back in week one, sacks can often reflect more on the play of the quarterback than the offensive line. Each sack has its own context and that is important. I’ve seen far too many people jumping to blaming the offensive line when it’s not necessarily the offensive line’s fault.
With that being said, let’s get into the sacks.
Situation: Second and six at Washington 29, 9:38 remaining in the fourth quarter.
On this play, the Commanders run what appears to be a four verticals concept, but the two inside receivers are actually running deep curl routes at varying depths. The Bills drop back into a fairly obvious Tampa 2 coverage with two deep safeties each responsible for a deep half and five underneath zone defenders. The middle linebacker sinks his zone slightly deeper than the rest of the underneath zone defenders to allow the two safeties to gain width and cover their respective halves of the field.
It’s a pretty clear Tampa 2 coverage from the defense so Howell should be thinking two things as he drops back. He could be thinking to attack the hole between the safety and outside corner with one of the outside fades or more reasonably he should be thinking he has a tight end spotting up over the middle underneath the middle linebacker, who has to sink deeper. As Howell reaches the top of his drop, he should see that his tight end is breaking off his route while the middle linebacker has his hips turned to run down the seam. He should be hitting his back foot and then driving that ball over the middle to his tight end.
Unfortunately, Howell doesn’t take that opportunity and instead waits to be sure his tight end does break open. That moment extra he waits is enough for him to start feeling some pressure. Howell steps up in the pocket to try and avoid that pressure, but the pressure wasn’t coming from the edge. He ends up stepping up into the defensive tackle who wraps him up for a sack.
Conclusion: This one is on Howell for me. He had the opportunity to get the ball out at the top of his drop to what should have been his primary receiver given the coverage. The leverage of the defender combined with knowing what route was being run should have been enough for Howell to anticipate the route breaking open and deliver the throw on time. By pausing to wait for confirmation that the route was indeed open, he brought pressure on himself. He then made that worse by stepping up into the sack instead of recognizing where the pressure was.
Washington Post (paywall)
6. Antonio Gibson fumbles at the worst times. The play after Payne’s pass breakup, Bieniemy called a halfback screen, which had keyed several explosive plays in Denver. Gibson broke a tackle, then another, then got hit and lost the ball.
“That was on me,” he said. “I was doing too much trying to make something happen at the end of the game.”
Since 2020, when Washington drafted Gibson, he has lost eight fumbles — seven of which have come in the red zone or inside his team’s 37-yard line. In that span, of all qualified skill players, Gibson has cost his team the fourth-most expected points added, an advanced metric that gives yards context. The only three who have cost their teams more are running backs Melvin Gordon, Dalvin Cook and Ezekiel Elliott.
7. Washington will play Howell through ugly stretches. After the Gibson fumble, Allen rushed for a touchdown, Howell threw a pick-six, and the rout was on. But even in the waning seconds of an unwinnable game, Washington kept Howell on the field. So if he struggles like this again — and odds are he will — don’t expect the Commanders to bench him to protect his confidence or his body. Rivera said he and Bieniemy made the decision to keep Howell in because they wanted him to continue playing and learning.
“When he started to move the ball on that last drive, you felt like, ‘Okay, he’s setting in a little bit,’ ” Rivera said. “He’s still learning. He’s a young guy, and he’s got to play.”
9. Rivera’s teams can respond to blowouts. This was the fifth time in 193 career games that Rivera has lost by 30 or more points. The weeks after the four previous losses, Rivera’s teams went 2-2, and the two losses were both close — a 20-19 defeat to Detroit in 2018 and a 20-16 defeat to Philadelphia in 2021. All this means for Washington in 2023 is that Rivera is capable of getting his team to bounce back for a difficult game next week in Philadelphia.
The sliver linings were hard to find...
Loser No. 3 - Darrick Forrest - Commanders S
Much was expected of the Washington Commanders secondary given their vast improvements throughout the offseason. In light of this, Darrick Forrest is the final loser from Sunday’s game over linebacker Cody Barton, who looks like a lost cause despite leading the team in tackles once again.
Forrest is a gifted individual - he’s proven as much since being installed into the starting lineup. However, things haven’t gone according to plan for the safety so far this season and one could make a strong case for Week 3 against the Buffalo Bills being the worst performance to date.
Whether it’s the scheme not suiting Forrest’s skill set or the fact those on the backend are trying to make up for deficiencies at the defensive second level, something’s not right. The former fifth-round pick looked lost in coverage more often than not, giving up a touchdown early and appearing hesitant from an anticipation point of view compared to his usual high standards.
Again, this is probably nothing more than a blip rather than anything serious. Forrest is a determined character with proven athletic intangibles in a regular-season environment, so fans should expect the Cincinnati product to bounce back at the earliest possible opportunity.
The Washington Commanders have put a lot on quarterback Sam Howell’s shoulders, but perhaps it’s time for offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy to lean on running back Brian Robinson Jr. more.
Failure is only lasting if organizations don’t learn from what brought it on, and one thing Washington needs to take away from its first loss this season is the need to increase its use of running back Brian Robinson Jr.
By the end of this contest, Robinson had an average of seven yards per carry, which is great, but he only had 10 carries, which is not so great.
60 percent of Robinson’s official touches gained five yards or more and only two gained fewer than four.
Why the Commanders opted to not help their young quarterback more by using a running game led by Robinson that was having very positive impacts on the game is not known.
What is known is the approach taken didn’t work, and it resulted in the first four-interception performance by a Washington quarterback since Kirk Cousins did it in 2014 and came just one sack from tying the franchise’s all-time record of 10.
DC Sports King
“I feel like we had success in the run game; numerous amount of times we picked up positive yards in the run game,” Robinson said after the 34-point loss (h/t Scott Abraham of ABC7 News). “I would love to stick to it as a running back. Sometimes, it’s not what’s best for the offense. With that being said, I have to control what I can control. When my number [is] called, I have to make the most of it.”
In a game in which quarterback Sam Howell got sacked nine times, a run game may have alleviated some of the protection issues. The Commanders had an opportunity to go to Robinson near the goal line in the second quarter down 10-0.
Howell passed on both first and second-goal-to-go downs. The Commanders turned to Robinson on 3rd-and-goal at the one from a shotgun formation. The Bills got to Robinson for a one-yard loss. Washington turned the ball over on downs after an incomplete pass from Howell to tight end Cole Turner on fourth down.
By halftime, the Commanders were in a 16-0 hole.
The Commanders rushed for 105 yards as a team, averaging 8.1 yards per carry. That included two runs for 17 yards by Gibson and an 18-yard scramble by Howell. Bieniemy should undoubtedly note he missed the opportunity to continue leaning on the run game behind Robinson.
Who gets the most blame for the Commanders embarrassing 37-3 home loss to the Bills?
Jonathan Allen without hesitation responded, “I put it on the D-Line.”
“As a defensive lineman, we have to be better, and I have to be better myself,” emphasized the always-responsible Allen. “I have to make sure I am doing what I need to do in staying in my rush lane, making sure he doesn’t have a place to run.”
“I feel like when you have four first-round picks on the defensive line, we are expected to make some of those plays. Again, we have four first-round picks, so we need to get the job done. The D-Line has to play better, and we are going to play better.”
“I mean, we lost 37-3. I think you can safely say everybody on the team failed.”
Podcasts & videos
Episode 663 - Analysis & discussion of #Commanders' loss to the #Bills. It was 9 years ago today that Kirk threw 4 INTs in a Skins loss to the Giants. He grew & got better. Same can happen w/ Sam.— Al Galdi (@AlGaldi) September 25, 2023
I also talk #Orioles, #Nats, #Terps, #Hokies, #UVA & more.https://t.co/1ZIJrQHWWn
Episode 664 - Ron Rivera on Monday opened up about the #Commanders' 2023 season being about developing Sam Howell in a way that Ron had not previously. This was good & encouraging. I discuss that & more from Ron, including him on Antonio Gibson's fumbling.https://t.co/2moDYMCcvt— Al Galdi (@AlGaldi) September 26, 2023
Bills debrief, Travis Kelce and Taylor Swift, and Eagles Preview | Get Loud | Washington Commanders
️Spent postgame rehashing the big & small picture angles from the Commanders' blowout loss with @granthpaulsen. The frets with Sam Howell's inexperience and the leaky OL popped. Gibson's fumbles, Dotson's statsBieniemy's plan, a sackless performance. https://t.co/ajXb9wz4yX— Ben Standig (@BenStandig) September 25, 2023
NFC East links
The premature coronation of the Cowboys came crashing to a halt vs. the Cardinals, just like we said it would
The past two weeks, talking heads at ESPN and other networks have thrown up on themselves talking about how great the Dallas Cowboys looked against the Giants and Jets. Their Week 3 tilt with the Cardinals was supposed to be nothing more than a formality on Dallas’ path to 3-0. But, like I stated just days before this game, everyone needed to slow down on crowning this team too soon.
Since places like ESPN tip-toe around it like Dallas hasn’t disappointed its fans for over a quarter of a century, it’s up to me to temper expectations for this team. Even if they go on to win 12 or 13 games in the regular season, you know the outcome when the playoffs roll around.
Of course, you’ll hear many excuses this week to shield the blow of a loss to the Cardinals. Calls that were missed or didn’t go in Dallas’ favor, and things of that nature. None of that changes the fact that the Cowboys lost by 12 points. Their great defense had more holes than Swiss cheese, as James Conner averaged seven yards per carry for the Cardinals. We can’t blame that on Trevon Diggs being out with a season-ending injury. It certainly doesn’t help moving forward, but the Cardinals trampled that Cowboys run defense.
I’m not saying the Cowboys done as playoff contenders. In fact, they may still win the NFC East and host a game in the postseason. What I am saying is the same thing I’ve said for years: Let’s chill with the Super Bowl chatter. You know it, I know it…. it’s not going to happen.
NFL league links
Forbes.com (subscription site - 4 free articles)
Members of the National Football League’s finance committee are leaning towards increasing the debt limit for its owners.
Currently, owners can have as much as $600 million of debt on their team and a buyer of a team can use as much as $1.1 billion of debt. According to the NFL executives who spoke with Forbes, those figures a likely to be increased to $1 billion and $1.6 billion, respectively.
The biggest disagreement among owners is the amount of debt existing owners can stack against their teams, with some in the finance committee believing the limit should only be increased to $800 million from $600 million. The league last increased its debt limit for existing owners from $500 million to $600 million a year ago and boosted its debt limit for a buyer of a team from $500 million to the current ceiling in 2021.
To finance the $6.05 billion purchase of the Washington Commanders in July, the group led by Josh Harris used $1 billion of debt.
One of the reasons for the debate among owners is that interest rates have risen dramatically in recent months. The cheapest way for an owner to borrow money is from the league. The NFL typically borrows at about 1.125 percentage points credit spread above Secured Overnight Financing Rate, which has jumped to 5.31% from 2.99% over the past year, plus another 10 basis points. Thus the NFL would currently borrow at about 6.54%.
Despite climbing interest rates, the NFL’s balance sheet almost begs for more leverage. By Forbes’ count, NFL team debt is an average of just 9% of team values. And those teams with relatively high debt from new stadiums, like the Las Vegas Raiders ($1.3 billion) and Los Angeles Rams ($3.2 billion), are not having an problems servicing their debt.
Pro Football Focus (paywall)
• Motion, speed and more speed: The Dolphins’ 83.3% rate of using pre-snap shifts or motion leads the NFL, allowing players such as Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle to find space amid confused defenses.
• EPA dominance: The gap between the Miami offense and second place in expected points added per play this season is the same as the gap between second and 21st.
• Can Miami sustain this success? The offense got hot in 2022, as well, but failed to translate that into postseason success after Tua Tagovailoa’s multiple concussions.
The Miami Dolphins’ offense has been on fire to start the 2023 NFL season, but it ascended to a new sphere with a 70-20 beatdown of the Denver Broncos in Week 3.
The Dolphins have looked like a team going places since Mike McDaniel and Tyreek Hill arrived over a year ago. The offense — and quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, in particular — looked vastly improved a year ago, but that train derailed late in the season.