Commanders Corner: Rallying on the road keeps the club on the fringe

Washington Commanders quarterback Sam Howell passes in the first half on an NFL football game against the New England Patriots, Sunday, Nov. 5, 2023, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)(AP/Michael Dwyer)
It would have been easy for the Burgundy and Gold to fold this past Sunday on the road, especially after losing another one-possession game to NFC East-leading Philadelphia (witness their debacle against Chicago in Week 5).

Washington has now played five games against last place teams, looking really bad in losses to the Bears and the New York Giants while needing second-half rallies to pull past Denver, Arizona, and now, New England.

They also went to Foxborough, Massachusetts, minus their top-two pass rushers after the team (wisely) traded 11.5 of their 25 sacks on the season in the form of Montez Sweat (wish they could have kept him) and Chase Young (the knee injury ruined any proper evaluation of him at this point). They could have wilted after blowing a 10-0 first half lead, punctuated by an interception in the end zone late in the second quarter.

But the Commanders rallied and won 20-17, their fourth one-possession victory of the season, and remain on the fringe of the Wild Card race over halfway into the season. Put your winter weekend getaways on hold for the moment friends.

Howell About That: Sam Howell threw for 325 yards and a touchdown while tossing an interception that he would be the first one to tell you he’d want back. He also improved to 3-1 on the road this fall after recovering from a late first-half hiccup, and bucked the trend of first-year quarterbacks melting against Bill Belichick-led defenses. Howell also currently leads the NFL in completions and attempts while staying on pace for a 4,000-yard plus season (4,667 for those curious). In a season with plenty of questions, he’s been the right answer for the most part.

Hold the Line: The offensive line only allowed three sacks after giving up one the week before. Quite a market correction for a front five that had allowed 40 over the first seven weeks. The insertion of Tyler Larson and Chris Paul into the lineup also has paid dividends in the running game: a season-high 124 yards against the Pats and an average of 104 over two weeks after the team was rushing for 86.1 over the first seven weeks.

Robinson Rolls: Brian Robinson Jr. rushed for 63 yards (most since Week 3) on 18 carries (most since Week 2) while scoring the team’s first touchdown of the day. Unfortunately, he also fumbled which set up the Patriots’ first score of the day (New England had two three and outs on their first three possessions). Antonio Gibson was a nice change of pace with 34 yards on 5.7 carries plus five catches for 42 yards.

Pass Catch Fever: Terry McLaurin tallied five catches for 73 yards, while Jahan Dotson continued his midseason resurgence with four receptions for 69 yards and a touchdown. Jamison Crowder recorded four more catches, while Byron Pringle came up huge in key situations, making three catches for 55 yards on third down.

Third and Awesome: Pringle was the top target for a unit that moved the chains on 9-17 third downs. The play-call mix was four runs (3-4) and 13 passes (6-13), while Howell completed 7-11 attempts for five conversions while getting sacked once and scrambling once for a 24-yard gain on third-and-23. His top option was Pringle: three completions on three targets for three conversions.

Howell did have a planned run that lost two yards while Robinson converted both of his runs as did Antonio Gibson on his one attempt. Yardage breakdown: 4-6 on short-yardage, 0-3 when needing four to six yards and 5-8 on third and long (including the first five of the day). For the season: 13-23, 10-27, 17-65. Floored how their success on short-yardage (57%) for the year mirrors the percent of times needing 7+ yards to move the chains.

D earns a B-: I don’t know if it was more on a Patriots offense that entered the afternoon ranking 31st in scoring, but the Burgundy and Gold held the Pats to 3-12 on third down while intercepting Mac Jones on the final drive of the day. Jamin Davis led the way with nine tackles and while the pass rush failed to post a sack in the first week minus Montez Sweat and Chase Young. They didn’t allow Jones to go off. The blemish of the day was Rhamondre Stevenson’s 64-yard touchdown run (other than that they held him to 23 yards on eight carries).

Special Situations: Tress Way averaged 47.8 yards on his five punts, with four landing inside the 20 and the fifth being a touchback. Joey Slye recorded touchbacks on all five of his touchbacks while kicking field goals of 30 and 37 yards and converting both extra points. Antonio Gibson began the day returning a kickoff out of the end zone 37 yards and also had returns of 18 and 17 yards. Jamison Crowder posted punt returns of 14, 14, 6 and minus 3 yards (he had a 12-yarder wiped out due to a hold). Punt coverage limited the Patriots to minus-two yards on two returns (New England flagged multiple times on punt returns as well).

Flying Flags: Only four penalties this week with two on special teams (holding and illegal formation), one on offense (false start), and one on defense (roughing the passer) that drew deserved scrutiny as rookie KJ Henry did nothing but tackle Mac Jones and perhaps fall on him. That was the costliest of the penalties as it turned what would have been a fourth-and-17 at the New England 47-yard line into a first down at the 23, setting up a Patriots field goal. False starts and offensive/special teams holds lead the pack with 10 accepted penalties through nine games, while Charles Leno and Anthony Wylie each have four accepted infractions to tie for the dubious honor.

Dissecting the Division: Philadelphia (8-1) not only leads the East but the entire NFC with a game and a half cushion over surprise Detroit. Dallas (5-3) owns the second Wild Card spot and No. 6 seed while Washington (4-5) is one game back off the final playoff spot in the NFC and is in eighth place because of the head-to-head tiebreaker over Atlanta. The New York Giants are two games behind the Burgundy and Gold in last place of the East and holds down 13th place over Chicago because of a better conference record.

Comparing the Quartets: Break up the AFC North! The division went 4-0 to improve to 22-11 on the season and all four teams have winning records, with each making the playoffs if the season ended today. The NFC South remains the sad sack with a 13-21 composite mark. The NFC East is 19-16 after nine weeks. The AFC owns a 31-18 lead over the NFC with 31 games remaining in the interconference schedule.

In the Booth: The Commanders drew the No. 5 team from FOX of Kenny Albert and Jonathan Vilma. For the longest time, it felt like Albert did a ton of Washington games and this is the first one he’s done this season. They’re in the late window next Sunday at 4:25 p.m. with the No. 1 crew likely drawing Dallas and the New York Giants. So I’m thinking we get Kevin Kugler and Mark Sanchez for the team’s Week 10 game at Seattle.

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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