Much has been made of Washington’s league-leading 19 sacks allowed through 3 games this season. Various attempts have been made to assign them to, in order, a “terrible offensive line with players who couldn’t start on any other team in the league,” Eric Bieniemy’s lopsided play calling, and Sam’s own proclivity to hold onto the ball too long.
We’ll take them in order to try to best get to the bottom of what is, obviously, a multivariate issue.
Offensive Line Performance
It no secret, Washington’s offensive line - which was riddled with injuries - wasn’t very good last year. This offseason, Washington took a number of steps to improve its line, both in free agency and in the draft. The team added right tackle, Andrew Wylie, with whom Eric Bieniemy was intimately familiar from his time in Kansas City. Wylie wasn’t the flashiest tackle prospect on the market, but he was a middle tier target that seems to be performing about as advertised. Also added was center Nick Gates, a fan favorite from his time with the Giants, as the team sought to stabilize the position as Chase Roullier left the organization.
Rivera and company also added Ricky Stromberg and Braeden Daniels in the draft. Stromberg is essentially a depth center/guard, and Daniels was put on season-ending IR before Week 1.
A few things are indisputable about Washington’s offensive line so far this season: 1) The move to right guard has been great for Sam Cosmi, who has been the team’s most reliable lineman. 2) The line has been up and down through three games. 3) At times, most of the players on the line have had a very good game (Leno (Week 1); Charles (Week 2); Cosmi (Week 3)).
It’s controversial in some circles, but several third party rating services also score Washington’s line from good (#3 in run blocking) to average (#14 in pass blocking)
Pass protection composite ratings from three sources— Computer Cowboy (@benbbaldwin) September 27, 2023
These are starting to look much less wild than prior weeks
The Dolphins!! pic.twitter.com/4lfYGIZSU5
Composite of run block ratings. These ones are all over the place lol (look at TB and CHI).— Computer Cowboy (@benbbaldwin) September 27, 2023
But the Eagles might be good at run blocking
(just noticed that the SIS numbers don't include MNF yet) pic.twitter.com/pWG68YlBki
Regardless of what the outside (and inside) experts are saying, many fans remain unconvinced, and it’s undeniable that Sam Howell is getting sacked a great deal more than he should be. What could be some other factors?
Eric Bieniemy’s Play Calling
New offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy is a huge fan of passing the football. He liked it a lot in Kansas City and he seems infatuated with it so far in Washington.
2022 Chiefs pass:run ratio w/OC Eric Bieniemy & 2x MVP Mahomes— RefTheDistrict (@RefTheDistrict) September 26, 2023
2023 Commanders pass:run ratio w/OC Eric Bieniemy & 1st yr starter Howell
And as much as it pains me to say it, he’s passing too much.
I’m not clamoring for a return to Bill Callahan or Martin Mayhew’s mythical 2:1 run/pass ratio, but passing nearly two-thirds of the time is putting an inordinate amount of pressure on Sam Howell to carry this offense, and he’s not capable of it - at least at this point. It’s also not necessary when your lead back has been incredibly productive.
Brian Robinson has rushed for 50+ yards in 10 straight games, the longest streak among NFL running backs. He's really developing nicely.— Grant Paulsen (@granthpaulsen) September 25, 2023
Robinson is averaging 4.6 yards per carry this season and his YPC has improved each week. #Commadners
I’m certain we’ll see a more balanced attack from Bieniemy moving forward, which should take pressure off both Howell and the line. But are there any other factors at work?
Howell’s Internal Clock
I said it after watching pre-season games in August: Despite having a hell of a lot of time in the pocket, Howell was holding the ball too long.
At the time, I assumed Howell was being a bit leisurely, going through his reads because it was basically glorified practice. Three weeks into the season, it’s clear that’s just where he is in terms of his mental processing.
Worryingly, looking back at his time at UNC, that’s where he’s been for several years now.
For as great a freshman season as Sam Howell has had the one thing he still hasn’t learned is when to throw the ball away. You cannot take a sack there. Throw it away. #UNC— B.J. Davis (@BJ_Davis23) November 15, 2019
Sam Howell has to learn how to throw the ball away this year and not take sacks. Got to keep himself up. UNC was 3rd worse in sacks giving up in #ACC last year it’s not just the OL either. Imagine how good the offense can be then.— Jman (@jhardy252) July 21, 2021
As a diehard Heels fan, I got to witness the good, bad and ugly of Sam Howell’s career at UNC. Good arm that can make all the throws. Pocket presence is still a big weakness of his in terms of knowing when to get the ball out instead of taking sacks. Needs good protection. 2nd Rd— Zach Young (@zgyoung9) April 1, 2022
During his final college season among Power 5 QBs in his draft class, Sam Howell ranked:— Ryan Heath (@QBLRyan) July 22, 2023
1st in sacks taken (45)
1st in pressure to sack ratio (30.8%)
1st in deep ball attempt rate (19.3%)
Hopefully we get fun and ugly instead of not fun and ugly
And the Tarheels’ offensive line took a ton of heat in Howell’s time at North Carolina, not unlike what we’re seeing in DC now.
No. 10 North Carolina returned all of its starters on the offensive line from last season and it was supposed to be one of the strengths of the offense heading into the season opener against Virginia Tech.
“The sacks were a surprise — and disappointing,” UNC coach Mack Brown said. “That’s something that we’ve got to really look at. We’ve been talking about that for two years.” Carolina was 13th in the ACC in sacks allowed last season totaling 34 in 12 games.
Quarterback Sam Howell admitted he was culpable for some of those sacks for holding onto the ball too long.
He never seemed to have that chance against the Hokies. And their pressure mainly came from their down linemen so they didn’t have to blitz a lot.
It all sounds very familiar at this point. The reality is - again, by outside measures - Howell has had a lot of time, by NFL standards, to throw the ball so far this season.
Per @PFF, Sam Howell has had 2.5+ seconds to throw on 78 of his 124 drop backs. Only Kirk Cousins has had more time.— Zachary Krueger (@ZK_FFB) September 25, 2023
They also say Howell is responsible for 23.8% of his pressures -- second-worst behind only Russell Wilson. pic.twitter.com/TeXITH8FKn
Average time to throw vs. average target depth in 2023 (TruMedia)— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) September 26, 2023
Tua is a cheat code right now. pic.twitter.com/EVduxuFiHj
There's a stat that accounts for how well QBs avoid letting pressures become sacks. Pressure-to-sack % is the % of time pressure becomes a sack? Howell is last in that stat right now.— Grant Paulsen (@granthpaulsen) September 25, 2023
39.6% - Howell
35.1% - Tannehill
31.4% - Carr
Patrick Mahomes is No. 1 at 2.6%.
Does this realization mean that I’m giving up on Sam? No. Is it my goal to “blame” Sam singularly for the offenses’ woes? No.
This is my attempt to diagnose the actual root of the offense’s problems, and to focus the cure squarely on those issues so that they can improve. To my eyes, there are some pretty straightforward fixes that can be implemented immediately: Fold more runs into the mix (according to Chris Russell, they haven’t run the ball at all this year on second and 10); Strongly encourage Howell to speed up the clock in his head, and give him quick hit options in the pass game.
If the Eagles want to, they could deploy the Bills’ game plan against Washington and dare the Commanders to try to counter it. The question is, if they do so, will Washington have a different answer this time?
Which of these issues do you think is the most tied to Washington’s offensive woes?
This poll is closed
The quality of the offensive line.
Eric Bieniemy’s play calling.
Sam Howell’s pocket presence.