Commanders Corner: Stampeded by Buffalo

Washington Commanders quarterback Sam Howell (14) is introduced before an NFL football game against the Buffalo Bills, Sunday, Sept. 24, 2023, in Landover, Md. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)(AP/Evan Vucci)
Sometimes, the dreams that don’t come true are better than the nightmares that do. And sometimes they’re the same. The Washington Commanders were searching for their first 3-0 start since 2011, and unfortunately, they wound up with their worst home loss since 2013.

After staying close to Buffalo for three quarters, the Burgundy and Gold fell apart in the fourth, as the Bills tallied three touchdowns and rolled 37-3. Despite the red zone interception and fourth and goal incompletion, I was optimistic when the Commanders had the ball around the two-minute warning.

Offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy had twice dialed up drives that yielded field goals at the end of the first half of this year, and each gave the Commanders some needed momentum entering intermission.

Not so much this week, as a Sam Howell interception would set up a Buffalo field goal, representing more than just a six or 10-point swing. The good news is that most of the teams they’ll face this year won’t be as good as the Bills. The bad news is they’ll have to.

Howell-a-Hurting: We knew these days would happen. Unless your name is Patrick Mahomes, you’re not going to consistently shine during your first full year of starts. And in his fourth career start, Howell completed 19 of 29 passes, but for 170 yards (under 10 yards per completion), with zero touchdowns and four interceptions.

They all hurt to different degrees, but the one that stung me was during the two-minute drive at the end of the first half. There was talk of lifting Howell when the score was 30-0 or 37-0 to save his health (or sanity), and the coaches opted not to. One trusts their judgment knowing full well how a young quarterback can be ruined on either front here in Washington (we’re thinking about you, Patrick Ramsey).

Running Robinson: Brian Robinson Jr. did the best he could with limited opportunities, gaining 70 yards on 10 carries. After three weeks, the second-year pro has 47 of the team’s 64 carries (73%). On Sunday, the Burgundy and Gold ran the ball just 13 times in 51 plays from scrimmage.

Hold the Line: While the front five helped Robinson and company gain 105 yards on 13 tries (8.1 per carry), Howell was sacked nine times. Now the word on the street is the second-year pro holds the ball too long, but nine times too long? The Achilles after three weeks has been pass protection, with the 19 sacks allowed the most in the NFL.

Run TMC: Terry McLaurin led the team with six catches, but for just 41 yards. You are going to see tons of short stuff when somebody has to throw quickly to avoid sacks. McLaurin, after three weeks, has 13 catches for 126 yards. I know this is a small sample size, but McLaurin needs to be netting more than 15 yards per reception like he did last year as well as during his rookie season.

Third and Disastrous: The offense moved the chains on 1 of 9 times on third downs, with eight pass plays called and one run play (Robinson losing one yard on third and goal from the one). Howell went 2 of 6 with three interceptions and two sacks on the money down.

The first pick came on the first drive of the day just as the team was reaching the outskirts of field goal range, while the second set up a Bills field goal right before halftime. The third was returned for a touchdown. Howell’s top option: three passes to Antonio Gibson for two catches and one conversion. One completion to Robinson was wiped out due to penalty and an incompletion was voided due to an illegal contact penalty.

Distance breakdown: 0-2 on third and short, 1-2 when needing four to six yards, and 0-5 on third and long. For the season, that’s now 3-6, 2-5, and 3-20. Yes, almost two-thirds of the third downs are long-distance.

D earns a C: One week after allowing 33 points to an 0-3 Denver, the unit bent and bent throughout the first half before breaking in the fourth quarter when they allowed two more scores. Linebackers Cody Barton and Jamin Davis notched 13 and 11 tackles respectfully to lead the way, while Kendall Fuller added eight stops with an interception to pace the secondary. The front four was stymied after 10 sacks in the first two weeks, downing Josh Allen once (and that sack for -3 yards by Montez Sweat was wiped out when Washington accepted a 15-yard penalty for tripping). Situationally, things were not good as Allen completed five of his first six passes for conversions on third down and the Bills moved the chains on 9 of 15 attempts.

Special Situations: Tress Way averaged 50 yards on three punts with a long of 57. Joey Slye made his only field-goal attempt from 51 yards out to keep the team from being shut out, while both of his kickoffs were touchbacks. Antonio Gibson had kickoff returns of 17 and 28 yards while there were no punt returns. Punt coverage allowed a 23-yarder that helped set up the Bills’ first touchdown of the afternoon.

Flying Flags: Only two accepted penalties on three flags: one on offense (ineligible receiver downfield on Nick Gates), one on defense (offsides that was declined on James Smith-Williams), and one on special teams (holding during a punt on David Mayo). That makes it six offensive/special teams holds for the season — the most frequent infraction. And Mayo’s hold was the most costly, turning a first and 10 for Buffalo at the Washington 45 into a first and 10 at the Commanders’ 35. The Bills would score on the next play to take a 10-0 first quarter lead.

Dissecting the Division: Philadelphia leads the NFC East after three weeks at 3-0, while Dallas (2-1) owns the division games tiebreaker over Washington. The New York Giants (1-2) looked just as bad on short rest in San Francisco as they did on long rest against Dallas. This week, they’ll have an extra day off before playing next Monday.

The Giants’ first sequence of normal rest? The following week when they go from meeting Miami to battling Buffalo. Have fun dealing with that duo.

Comparing the Quartets: Monday night’s results move the NFC East to 8-4 and one game ahead of the AFC East, AFC North, and NFC West. At the bottom, it’s still early, but the NFC North and AFC West are off to 4-8 starts (nothing like the sinking stones that are the Bears and Vikings). The NFC owns a 6-4 lead over the AFC.

Broadcast Booth: CBS’ No. 4 team of Andrew Catalon, Matt Ryan and Tiki Barber called Sunday’s game. And despite the three-man booth, the broadcast didn’t feel too jumbled with analysts trying to one-up each other. Simply put, this didn’t feel like a team doing their third regular season NFL game. It’ll be interesting to see how high up the pecking order the game with Philadelphia will be (I’m guessing it’s going to be the No. 2/top 1 p.m. game for FOX).

Dave Preston

Dave has been in the D.C. area for 10 years and in addition to working at WTOP since 2002 has also been on the air at Westwood One/CBS Radio as well as Red Zebra Broadcasting (Redskins Network).

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