The Athletic (paywall)
To log the team captain’s assessment, space is the final frontier.
“The scheme is different than what we are accustomed to from last year,” McLaurin said, referencing the change in offensive coordinator from Scott Turner to Eric Bieniemy. “We’re running different routes than we were last year. It’s more predicated off of spacing.”
The topic is pertinent considering Washington’s ariel attack has yet to hit warp drive through three weeks despite significant weaponry in McLaurin, Jahan Dotson and Curtis Samuel. Quarterback Sam Howell and the offensive line took the brunt of criticism following last week’s 37-3 meltdown against the Buffalo Bills.
Another element involves creating more accessible passing opportunities for the young QB with the talented receiver corps. There are also the route concepts and execution to help generate separation from corners and safeties. Creating that collective mind meld has been challenging for the 2-1 Commanders against an ongoing league-wide trend toward limiting big plays in the passing game.
Through three weeks of the 2019 season, McLaurin’s rookie year, teams played two-deep safeties on 1,086 snaps, according to TruMedia. Over the same time frame in 2022, the number jumped to 1,406. This year’s total is a tick behind at 1,381.
“Offenses evolve. Offenses change while trying to make big plays,” Washington cornerback Kendall Fuller said. “Defenses have evolved with it.”
Washington Commanders wide receiver Jahan Dotson hasn’t quite had the impact that many were expecting thus far.
One trend that Washington Commanders fans aren’t loving three games into the season and after a horrendous loss to the Buffalo Bills, is the lack of production out of second-year pass catcher Jahan Dotson. The Penn State product and 2022 first-round pick has just 10 catches on 16 targets across their first three games and has yet to record a touchdown or break 100 yards on the year.
“I just think it’s about opportunities,” Rivera said. “When the balls are thrown and when he has had the ball thrown his direction, he’s been catching the ball and making plays.”
Rivera also revealed it depends on what progression Dotson is for a play, which can also impact how often he is targeted.
“A lot of it has to do with also reading the progressions and all that,” he said.
Bullock’s Film Room (subscription)
Looking at some small adjustments Eric Bieniemy could make to help Sam Howell’s development
Much has been made this week about Sam Howell’s poor performance and the struggles of the Washington Commanders offense against the Bills last weekend. The sack numbers are somewhat alarming and any time a quarterback throws four interceptions there will be questions raised, one of which regards the play-calling by Eric Bieniemy. Three games and just one loss into a season feels very over the top to be questioning the play-calling of an offensive coordinator that has been part of two Super Bowl winning teams in the last five years, but as everyone is talking about it, let’s look into it.
It’s no secret that Bieniemy has been very pass happy these first three weeks. Part of that is based on the situation of the game. In each game they’ve played this year, the Commanders have fallen behind and dug themselves into a hole where they’ve needed to pass the ball more in order to catch up. Another part of that is probably by design to try and make use of all the weapons the Commanders have at wide receiver. It’s also worth noting that Bieniemy does come from the Andy Reid coaching tree and Reid was always known to favor the pass; one of his biggest criticisms as head coach of the Eagles was not running the ball often enough.
I also wonder if part of it is Bieniemy testing Howell and trying to speed up his development. We know during the offseason, the team barely ran the ball during OTAs and minicamp to try and get Howell as many reps as possible to help him learn the offense and all the different things Bieniemy was throwing at him. It’s been clear from these opening few games that Howell does need reps against live opponents to help him see different looks and speed up his mental process, so part of me wonders if Bieniemy is leaning into that early in the season to help Howell get those reps so that the game starts to slow down for him as the season progresses.
But perhaps if Howell continues to take too many sacks from not processing things quickly enough, there’s some adjustments Bieniemy could make to try and help out Howell’s development. One of those adjustments could be running the ball more, but not just for the sake of running the ball. I’d like to see Howell more involved in the run game with read-option elements to help slow down the defensive ends.
Howell isn’t at Patrick Mahomes’ level of being able to read and diagnose those two deep safety defenses consistently and carve them up, so by using his ability as a runner with the read-option could force the teams into more single high coverages to help stop the run, which in turn opens things up in the passing game. We saw back in 2012 just how effective the play-action passing game could be off the back of a read-option based run scheme. If teams have to bring an extra safety into the box to even up the count in the run game against the read-option, there’s only so many coverages they can play behind that. Kyle Shanahan and Robert Griffin III shredded those defenses on the same handful of play-action passes because they knew exactly what coverages they would get from those fronts.
What bold changes must the Washington Commanders make heading into their Week 4 clash against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field?
Commanders should adopt man coverage on Eagles WR duo
One of the biggest failings during the Washington Commanders’ blowout loss against the Buffalo Bills was their inability to successfully counteract the exceptional weapons on offense. Quarterback Josh Allen gave Jack Del Rio’s unit nightmares from start to finish, finding soft holes in the team’s Cover 2 coverage scheme en route to big gains and significant points.
While completely abandoning Cover 2 seems unlikely given Del Rio’s preference for the scheme, changing it up at the Philadelphia Eagles is something that should be considered when the situation dictates. Specifically, they go man-to-man against their two prominent wideouts in pursuit of limiting influence.
At least from the outside looking in, the Commanders appear to have the personnel for such a task. Kendall Fuller’s begun the campaign in exceptional form and although A.J. Brown’s physicality could be a problem, there’s nothing to suggest the veteran cannot more than hold his own based on this season’s production.
If Fuller struggles, perhaps the bigger Benjamin St-Juste might be an option to consider versus Brown, who is one of the league’s most prolific threats for a reason.
There’s also the small matter of DeVonta Smith to consider. Even though he’s been blended in gradually so far, this looks like the sort of challenge that might bring the best out of Emmanuel Forbes looking at the pair’s well-matched physiques and explosiveness.
That’s a lot to ask of a rookie in such a hostile environment. But it’s exactly why the Commanders identified Forbes as their top priority at No. 16 overall in the 2023 NFL Draft.
Practice notes | Sam Howell eager to ‘play like himself again’ vs. Eagles
He’s determined not to let that performance define him.
“I think the player I was on Sunday is not who I truly am as a player,” Howell said.
For the first three starts of his career, Howell looked as good as one could hope for a quarterback who was still developing. He was still holding onto the ball, but he was directing the offense well, dissecting defenses and using his legs to buy time. He also showed growth from Week 1 to Week 2, taking better care of the ball and electing to take an incompletion rather than force a throw that required pinpoint accuracy.
On Sunday, however, the growing pains were there and played a role in hindering the offense that did move the ball well in spurts. He held onto the ball too long at times, and his decision making led to him making ill-advised throws into coverage.
QB Sam Howell | ‘The player I was on Sunday is not who I truly am as a player’
The rough spots in Howell’s game are expected, because the team knows that he is still growing and learning how to be an NFL quarterback. As understandable as it may be, Howell is not using that as an excuse.
“I can’t go out there and make the excuse that I’m young because the teams we’re playing, they don’t care,” Howell said. “The scoreboard doesn’t care. So, I got to do my job at a higher level in order for this team to go where we want to go.”
Washington Post (paywall)
After holding the Cardinals to fewer than 100 rushing yards in their opener, the Commanders gave up 122 rushing yards to the Broncos and 168 to the Bills — just in time to face a team with an offense capable of inflicting even more damage on the ground. The Philadelphia Eagles run the ball more than any other in the league (they’re averaging 37.7 carries per game through Week 3), thanks in large part to their offensive line, their April trade for running back D’Andre Swift and the mobility of quarterback Jalen Hurts.
“When he’s healthy, he’s top of the league,” defensive tackle Jonathan Allen said of Swift. “I hated seeing him go to Philadelphia this year. He’s really great back; [I have] a lot of respect for him. [He’s] quick, athletic, explosive; he does it all.”
The Eagles amassed 259 rushing yards against the Minnesota Vikings in Week 2 and 201 rushing yards against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on “Monday Night Football” earlier this week. Their average of 185.7 rush yards per game is second-best in the league, behind the Miami Dolphins, and their effectiveness in areas where Washington has been especially weak is even more concerning.
Consider: Washington’s defense has allowed opponents to convert first downs on 29.6 percent of their rushes, the fourth-highest rate in the league through Week 3. Philly has converted first downs on 32.7 percent of its runs.
The Eagles present a three-pronged challenge: Their offensive line is one of the most efficient in the league, Swift is one of the league’s most effective rushers, and Hurts can also create trouble on the ground. In fact, Hurts already has more rushing touchdowns (three) than Washington’s running backs combined (two).
“[Mobile quarterbacks] will be a challenge for us going forward. … Look at the schedule and just start naming which [quarterback is] going to sit back there,” Del Rio said before Commanders’ win in Denver. “Peyton Manning was a great player, Tom Brady, great player. But they weren’t going anywhere. Very few [quarterbacks] are like that in the league anymore.”
Podcasts & videos
Talked to Logan Paulsen about the protection issues. What can be done? OK, Howell is learning so what can help the pass pro as he learns? Smart insight from Logan.. on Facing the Eagles DL and more. @ESPNRichmond https://t.co/EPZA5CCGNw— John Keim (@john_keim) September 28, 2023
Episode 666 - Sam Howell on Wednesday handled talking about his bad game vs. Buffalo extremely well. Says a lot about him. Now it's time to play better.— Al Galdi (@AlGaldi) September 28, 2023
I also discuss Ron Rivera's comments on Emmanuel Forbes, the Eagles & more & talk #Orioles vs. #Nats.https://t.co/XTCQy87G9G
Former Washington QB Jason Campbell talks Sam Howell with Craig Hoffman
Locked on Commanders: Washington Commanders Logan Thomas at Practice | Potential Eric Bieniemy Adjustments For Sam Howell
The Washington Commanders got back to work and began preparing for their Week 4 matchup against the Philadelphia Eagles.
NFC East links
“I think it’s very good,” Washington Commanders coach Ron Rivera said on the NFC East. “This is as competitive as I’ve seen it in a while.”
The Commanders come into the week with a 2-1 record, which would have them tied for the lead in over half of the divisions in football. But with the Eagles at 3-0, the Commanders are tied for second alongside the Dallas Cowboys.
“I think it’s very good,” coach Ron Rivera said. “This is as competitive as I’ve seen it in a while. I remember back in the day when you had to worry about Washington and you had to worry about Philadelphia and you had to worry about New York and Dallas. There was a time when all four were just constantly vying for the division. It’s kind of cool to see it kind of spark back up and come back to life and hopefully we can maintain our part of the bargain.”
As the only team in the NFC East to not win a playoff game last season, the Commanders have to prove themselves a little more in the division. Washington has a talented roster, but the team has work to do if it wants to reach the top.
The Commanders went 2-3-1 in the division last year and even won their road test in Philly in the middle of the season. That win gave the Commanders a fighting chance to make the playoffs, but they squandered it down the stretch.
Blogging the Boys
Philadelphia is now the only unbeaten team in the division. That probably won’t change this week.
Here are the NFC East standings after Week 3:
- Philadelphia Eagles 3-0 (0-0 in division)
- Dallas Cowboys 2-1 (1-0 in division)
- Washington Commanders 2-1 (0-0 in division)
- New York Giants 1-2 (0-1 in division)
We get a division rivalry game this week as the Commanders travel to Philadelphia. It’s hard to imagine Washington sticking the Eagles with their first loss of the season, but they did split their games in 2022. Division games are breeding grounds for oddities and anomalies, for which a Commanders win would certainly qualify.
Dallas returns home to host a reunion with Ezekiel Elliott and his new family from New England. This game felt much less threatening a week ago, but now the Cowboys are limping into it and Bill Belichick got about three hours of tape on how to exploit their issues. What was already going to be a tough three-game stretch against the Patriots, 49ers, and Chargers is only going to be harder now.
The Giants get a long rest between Thursday and Monday night games and will welcome the Seahawks in Week 4. Seattle has won their last two after dropping the season opener, which includes an impressive win over the Lions. New York needs this one badly, both to stay at .500 and to avoid talk of a lost season.
Big Blue View
From the Giants’ most productive defensive player, McKinney has become a nonfactor
Three games into the 2023 season, the New York Giants have been an abject disappointment in virtually every area. The areas of seeming personnel improvement have not translated to the field, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Almost as notable, though, is the continued disappearance of one of their most important holdovers: safety Xavier McKinney.
McKinney broke out as one of the best young safeties in the NFL in 2021, his second year in the league after the Giants drafted him in the second round (No. 36 overall) in 2020. He recorded 93 combined tackles (59 solo), 15 defensive stops, 10 passes defensed, five interceptions, and a 79.2 targeted quarterback rating. His 75.4 Pro Football Focus grade ranked 14th out of 64 qualified safeties, and his 78.4 coverage grade ranked 10th.
Since Wink Martindale took over as defensive coordinator, though, McKinney has struggled. In his first year as a defensive captain in 2022, he played in nine games, recording 45 combined tackles (29 solo), eight defensive stops, five passes defensed, no interceptions, one forced fumble, one sack, and a 97.7 targeted passer rating. His PFF grade fell to 57.8 with an identical coverage grade.
So far in 2023, it hasn’t been much better. He has a 62.6 grade through three games, ranking 44th out of 69 qualified safeties, and a 64.0 coverage grade, which is 36th. He has 18 total tackles (13 solo), and two defensive stops with a targeted passer rating of 83.8.
Even worse, McKinney’s missed tackle rate, which has always been better than the safety average in the past, has suddenly ballooned. The average missed tackle rate for a safety in 2022 was 11.6%. From 2020-22, McKinney posted rates of 4.2%, 9.3%, and 8.7%. In 2023, though, his rate is a whopping 14.3%, which is in the 32nd percentile among safeties. Perhaps it’s simply the ebb and flow of a small sample size, but with the Giants’ tackling woes as a whole, it’s certainly alarming.
Is this why Schoen did not extend him?
Could it be that Martindale sees McKinney as a poor fit for his scheme, which is why GM Joe Schoen will not discuss a contract extension? On the surface, it would seem that McKinney’s poor 2022 season is the reason for waiting, but what if it’s that Martindale doesn’t want the player?
The Giants ranked 27th in the NFL in their rate of running Cover 3 in 2022. They ranked last in their usage of zone as a whole. Maybe McKinney is best suited to play deep for a zone-based team. It would explain why his production has taken such a hit since Martindale took over.
NFL league links
2. Sam Howell, Washington Commanders
We knew virtually nothing about Howell as he entered the season as Washington’s starter. He fell to the fifth round in the 2022 draft, sat for the majority of his rookie season and started only in Week 18 after Taylor Heinicke urged the coaching staff to play Howell instead. He looked good in that 26-6 win over the Cowboys, but his 19 pass attempts in the game were his only throws of the season.
Well, we now have 99 more attempts of regular-season Howell action to add to our sample. There are things to like. The raw product he puts out there is compelling and sometimes extremely impressive. In terms of negative plays, though, he looks every bit the quarterback who has made four NFL starts. He won’t make it through the season playing this way.
Let’s start with the positives. Howell is fun to watch when things are working. Some of the throws he has made have been world-class. This throw to Terry McLaurin is both the right decision (deep post versus quarters coverage) and inch perfect. McLaurin has to make a great catch, but this pass is thrown into a spot where only he can come down with the football.
For a 6-foot-1 quarterback, Howell has more zip on his passes than you might think when he gets the time to set his feet and deliver. He’s capable of hitting throws to either sideline from the pocket. The 23-year-old also has scrambled for 42 yards and three first downs on five tries, including the game-winning touchdown against the Cardinals. If you catch him on the right snap, he looks like he should have been a top-10 pick.
In whole, though, Howell is too destructive to keep the 2-1 Commanders afloat for long. He admittedly is coming off of a disaster game against a great Bills defense, but no quarterback can survive with this sort of penchant for ending drives. He has a 5.1% interception rate and a 16.1% sack rate through three games. The latter figure is the NFL’s worst mark, while the only passer with a more significant interception rate is Jimmy Garoppolo.
Interceptions are more damning than sacks, but I’m more concerned about the sack rate of the two. A 16% sack rate is something out of the 20th century. Howell has been hit on more than 24% of his dropbacks this season; the only quarterback who has been hit more frequently is Russell Wilson.
The propensity to take sacks both runs the risk of injury and makes concepts that would be appealing in the playbook vectors for potential disaster. As an example, Howell’s physical ability should make him a candidate to throw on the run. Changing a signal-caller’s launch point slows down the pass rush, gets the quarterback outside the pocket, allows him to reduce the progression and creates scramble opportunities. All of that makes his life easier.
NFL Next Gen Stats defines a quarterback on the run as one traveling more than 8 mph. On those plays, Howell ranks last in the NFL in total expected points added (minus-23.0) and EPA per dropback (minus-1.3). The problem? On 18 dropbacks, he is 8-of-13 for 59 yards, but he has thrown an interception and taken five sacks. Some of those are plays in which he is running for his life, but if offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy can’t trust him to run a naked bootleg without taking a sack, it’s going to cut off what my friend Nate Tice likes to refer to an “easy button” for young quarterbacks.
The interceptions aren’t exactly ideal, either. Howell was a little unlucky to have AJ Epenesa snatch a ball out of the air for a pick-six in Week 3, but Howell’s four other interceptions on the season have come on off-platform throws in which he wasn’t able to drive the ball. Quarterbacks can’t get away with those throws in the NFL unless they have Justin Herbert-level arm strength, and Howell is never going to be that guy. Some quarterbacks make a habit of repeating the same mistake, with Zach Wilson’s propensity for throwing late on the run to the middle of the field as an example. Howell has to recognize he can’t make those throws and adjust accordingly. Ideally, he’s going to be able to anticipate those receivers coming open over the middle of the field earlier, which will prevent defenses from laying waste to him in the pocket.
Even leaving aside the Bills game, Howell wasn’t quite as impressive over the first two weeks as it might have seemed. His numbers against the Broncos were inflated by 88 yards on screen passes, which is nearly double the production of any other quarterback on screen passes in a single game this season. Only five other quarterbacks have had games with more yardage from screens over the past five years. Howell had three different screens gain at least 20 yards; the last time that happened in a game was when Nick Foles did it for the Eagles in 2013, which was coach Chip Kelly’s first season as an NFL coach. Those are great calls from Bieniemy, but his quarterback wasn’t exactly shouldering the load on those plays.
Unlike other quarterbacks on this list, the Commanders have an extremely viable backup. Jacoby Brissett started 11 games for the Browns last season and ranked 10th in Total QBR. His career sack rate is higher than the league average, but at 7.6%, that’s about half of Howell’s through three games. Crucially, Brissett doesn’t turn the ball over, as his career interception rate is just 1.5%. The Commanders rank eighth in points per possession allowed since the start of 2022; their best way of winning games might be by playing defense and protecting the ball on offense.
For now, the Commanders are moving forward with Howell as the starter. Hopefully, what we saw against the Bills was one bad start and a lesson for him to learn as he continues on his path toward becoming a franchise quarterback. With the Eagles coming up Sunday, though, his ability to avoid sacks and protect the ball will be tested. If he can’t hold onto it, coach Ron Rivera will have no choice but to give Brissett a try.