The opinions expressed in this article do not reflect those of the team.
The Washington Commanders are looking to get back on track with their first NFC East matchup of the season against the Philadelphia Eagles. Senior writer Zach Selby and team analyst Logan Paulsen give three keys to the Commanders' success.
How do you account for Jalen Hurts' dual threat abilities as a rusher and passer?
Logan: Jalen Hurts has been on fire through the first two games of the year. I don't think his rushing acumen has surprised anyone, but his improvement as a passer has been shocking, making him a true dual threat. The question then becomes, "How do you stop him?"
First, let's tackle what he does as a rusher. He is a huge part of Philadelphia's run game on early downs, utilizing zone reads, RPOs, designed QB runs and scrambling on roll outs to continuously put the defense in conflict. To stop the RPO's and zone reads Minnesota tried to "muddle rush," which consists of having the read player slow play the look and not give Hurts a decisive read.
This has been effective against quarterback designed runs in the past because it confounds the quarter back reads. However, Jalen was still able to put Minnesota's defense in conflict when the ends slow played their rush. Unlike other RPO and zone read teams, Philadelphia has combined these styles in some cases. That allowed Hurts to turn the Vikings' indecisiveness into an opportunity to push the ball down the field.
After watching Hurts exploit this, the Commanders need to do something different. I would advocate for a defense that attacks the quarterback, ensuring that the Eagles get back to a relatively conventional rushing attach. There are problems with this as well, but I would prefer that to Hurts having the ball in his hands.
The passing game needs to operate in a similar way. In Philadelphia's first game, Detroit threw the house at Hurts, creating a ton of pressure. However, the aggressive style was not without its drawbacks. Hurts often escaped sacks and scrambled for first downs. Minnesota chose a different philosophy, and Hurts was able to pick them apart. I think the solution resides somewhere in the middle. Run zone pressures enough to get Hurt's eyes off the down field passing attack while avoiding man coverage, which allows Hurts to hurt you as a scrambler the way he did Detroit. There is a small window for schematic success, but I think Jack Del Rio has shown an ability to find that sweet spot, similar to the game against Tampa Bay last season, and will be looking to make a statement this week.
Zach: Hurts' ability to diagnose coverages has always been one of the biggest questions surrounding the young quarterback. He did not have many chances to address that concern against the Lions, who brought plenty of pressure in Week 1. His Monday night matchup against the Vikings was an emphatic statement that he can operate as a pocket passer.
To me, the key to limiting Hurts rests on figuring out the lynchpin of Philadelphia's offense: the RPOs. The Eagles' have thrown the ball on 47.9% of their plays, which ranks 29th in the NFL, but they have a propensity for explosive plays because of how good Hurts is at selling the run, which slows down the defense and makes it easier to discern the right decision on plays.
So, the Commanders need to force Hurts into making quicker decisions. They need to take advantage of Hurts' time to throw of 2.86 seconds, which is the 10th-slowest in the league, while also keeping him in the pocket to limit scrambles. As Daron Payne alluded earlier this week, the front needs to stick to their rush lanes to close Hurts' escape routes.
Granted, that is tough to accomplish against Hurts. However, if Washington can do that consistently, it gives them a good chance of removing a big piece of the Eagles' production.
How do Washington's receivers match up against a secondary that includes Darius Slay and James Bradberry?
Logan: Washington's three wide receivers have the potential be one of the best groups in the league, but they face a significant obstacle in Philadelphia's secondary. The Eagles' secondary is a defensive three-headed monster consisting of Darius Slay, James Bradberry, (at the outside corner spots) and Avonte Maddox as the nickel. All three have played well this season, but Slay and Bradberry have been exceptional. By PFF's metrics, both have graded in the top five as coverage players.
Slay and Bradberry are both physically gifted players, showing great length, foot speed and balance, but where they really shine is in there understanding of how they fit into the defensive scheme. They are excellent at understanding where their help is, which allows them play fast and break on footballs. In my opinion, this has allowed them to be the best tandem in the league through two games.
Eagles defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon deserves a ton of credit for their success. Unlike Detroit, who puts their corners in high-leverage man situations almost all the time, Gannon does an excellent job playing different variations of zone for most snaps and being selective about when to play man. There is no doubt in my mind that Terry McLaurin, Jahan Dotson and Curtis Samuel could easily win these man-to-man matchups, but the variation in defensive coverages gives Slay and Bradberry an advantage.
The question then becomes, "How does Washington win the matchup?" The answer is in Scott turner's play calling. Both Slay and Bradberry are hungry for turnovers and take chances in zone coverage. The Commanders' offense has route concepts that would challenge Philadelphia's coverages and take advantage of Slay and Bradberry's aggressiveness. Hopefully, he gets into a rhythm with his play calls early, and the Commanders' receivers have a huge day.
Zach: Slay is the top-rated corner in the NFL through two weeks, according to PFF. What's more, he, Bradberry and Maddox are all in the top 20 in terms of cover grade.
Despite Carson Wentz’s reputation for looking to make the big play, most of his pass attempts have come within 10 yards of the line scrimmage. Getting the ball in the hands of McLaurin, Samuel and Dotson quickly has been a priority, although the aggressiveness that Logan alluded to has me concerned about Slay and Bradberry breaking on those quick throws.
Washington's trio of starting receivers are all exceptional route runners, so I expect the offense to rely on that against Slay and Bradberry. McLaurin will face off against Slay plenty of times, and while neither is going to consistently have the upper hand, I trust McLaurin's hands in those contested situations.
Dotson has proven he is one of best rookie receivers in terms of route running, but I think that will be tested heavily against the Eagles. He used his short area quickness to great effect in Weeks 1 and 2, and I believe Philadelphia's secondary, which is much more talented than that of Jacksonville and Detroit, to eliminate that advantage.
With Samuel, this week could present more of an opportunity to get him the ball in more unique ways. Turner has done a good job of that overall, but there could be more plays where he gets the ball into Samuel's hands.
The Washington Commanders have wrapped up their week of practice ahead of the Week 3 matchup against the Philadelphia Eagles. Check out the top photos from Friday afternoon. (Photos by Emilee Fails and Kourtney Carroll/Washington Commanders)
Who are some players on either side of the ball that Washington will need to account for?
Logan: When Zach and I outlined this section, I was fully expecting to talk about Haason Reddick, the Eagles' splash free agent signee from this offseason. But when you watch the tape, the man who jumps off the screen is Josh Sweat. I couldn't help but smile as I watched him. He's a poor man's Joey Bosa, who understands the delicate dance and the brutal physicality that is pass rushing in the NFL. Washington's offensive line has already faced top edge rushers from the 2022 NFL Draft, but Sweat is going to be their biggest challenge.
Sweat moves between the right and left sides of the offense but spends most of his time on the offensive left, which means he will be going toe-to-toe with Charles Leno. Leno has a large bag of tricks to help slow pass rushers, and he will need to have all of them at the ready in his matchup with Sweat.
Zach: Outside of Hurts, A.J. Brown is the player who stands out the most offensively. Brown was an explosive player with the Titans, but the Eagles have been using him in such a way that further highlights his ability to flip the field on any given play.
Brown is a rare type of player. Not only does he have the physical stature to win one-on-one matchups, but he also has the quickness to get open against any defensive back lined up against him. What's more, Brown is not just an outside threat; the Eagles line him in the slot (58 snaps) almost as much as the outside (71) snaps, and 43% of his yards have come after the catch.
I am interested to see who the Commanders line up against Brown. From a purely statistical perspective, it could be Kendall Fuller on the outside and Benjamin St-Juste when he lines up in the slot. St-Juste has allowed the second lowest quarterback rating on the team through two games (55.4), while Fuller has allowed an 82.1.
I believe both have the length to hold their own against Brown, but the reality is that the entire secondary will need to be ready to face off against him.