The opinions expressed in this article do not reflect those of the team.
The Washington Commanders will be back at FedExField in Week 5 for a matchup against the Tennessee Titans. Here are three keys to the game, presented by KIA.
How does Washington's offensive interior matchup against Tennessee's defensive interior?
Logan: To say Washington's offensive line has struggled in pass protection the past two weeks is an understatement. Whether players are physically losing one-on-ones or having busts in protection, the offensive line's performance has been disappointing.
Their performance has not been without reason. Trai Turner has not looked like himself coming back from the quad injury and has been replaced by Saahdiq Charles, who has shown tremendous athleticism throughout his time with the Commanders. However, his lack of consistency, with regards to health and play, has kept him off the field. He had a solid outing against Dallas, showing his tremendous athleticism and explosive qualities. However, he also showed why he is still developing as a player.
In addition to the changes at right guard, injuries to Wes Schweitzer and Chase Roullier have forced recently signed Nick Martin into the starting lineup. Martin performed admirably in his first outing but is still familiarizing himself with the offense.
This group of interior players have their work cut out for them this week blocking one of the best interior players in the NFL: Jeffery Simmons. Simmons is the second-highest graded interior defensive player this season, finding himself behind Chris Jones of Kansas City and one spot ahead of Arron Donald. I still believe Donald is the best defensive player in the NFL, but Simmons' grade shows why he is the closest thing to Donald in the NFL. He plays with great strength and awareness. On passing downs, he had violent hands and quick feet which allow him to generate pressure in passing situation. He is a special player and right now is playing as such.
I believe Charles has the potential to be a solid player, which excites me about his upside, but Scott Turner needs to ensure that this matchup does not wreck the game. This can be done by cultivating a protection plan that supports Charles by sending slides towards Simmons whenever possible, such as working a first- and second-down plan that limits obvious third down passing situations. As we have seen over the last couple of weeks, those situations are inevitable. Charles will have to compete against one of the best interior players in the NFL. It is a huge challenge, but in Charles's first extended playing time last year against Philadelphia, he gave Fletcher Cox all that he could handle. Hopefully, he brings the same mindset for Simmons.
Zach: As Logan pointed out, Washington's offensive line has had a rough start, but the interior is where much of the ire stems from. Andrew Norwell played well against Dallas, but I would expect the Titans to try and takes advantage of the matchup between Simmons and Martin or Charles.
It is going to come down to how Charles handles himself, and I believe that while he has not had many starting opportunities, he has flashed on occasion. Turner said this week that Charles brings some athleticism to the position, but that is not limited to operating in space on screen passes (although he did that well against Dallas).
For offensive linemen, athleticism also mean mirroring defenders as well as showing quickness to keep up with defenders and having solid footwork. Charles has shown that at points, and he will need it against Simmons, who possesses sneaky quickness.
The Washington Commanders have completed their week of practice for the Week 5 matchup against the Tennessee Titans. Check out the photos from Friday afternoon. (Photos by Emilee Fails/Washington Commanders)
How can Washington limit explosive plays in the run game?
Logan: As the league becomes more and more pass-happy, the Titans have stayed true traditional football philosophy. They have built a roster and an offensive line around running the football, mostly to support their bell cow back, Derrick Henry.
Henry is a monster for the position, standing 6-foot-3 and weighing nearly 250 pounds. He is a true outlier at the position in an era that favors smaller pass-friendly backs. But despite Henry's tremendous stature, Tennessee is not what I would call a power running team like Dallas. Don't get me wrong; they do have power gap scheme-based runs, but where they excel is in the outside zone game.
Outside zone is beautiful in its simplicity. The blocking surface, offensive line, tight ends and fullbacks try to get their helmets to the play side armpit of the defender. If the run is going to the right, they try to get their helmets to the right of the defender. The back sets his angle to the outside leg of the play side tight end.
Based on this description, it sounds like the run is designed to go to the outside, but that would be wrong. Outside zone is designed to make the defense think the runner is supposed to go outside and use the defenders' rules against them to find the cut back.
This is not daunting in a one-on-one situation. The defender can easily feel the movement of the tackle and keep position. However, when you apply this to the entire defensive front, it becomes more problematic. As the defense moves in the direction of the run, all the players to not move at the same rate, and inevitably a player finds themselves out of position. It's the runner's job to find this crack in the shield.
Henry is exceptional at this. His vision makes him adept at finding the cut back and his power makes him tough to stop when he gets there. So, what is the solution? The solution is simple, but that doesn't make it easy: Play gap-sound, disciplined defense.
This is the Achilles Heel of the outside zone. If the defense does what it is supposed to do, the outside zone won't have a big impact. However, the offense bets on the fact that the defense can't be disciplined on every play. In fact, many of Jon Allen’s plays have come when he releases from his gap. If they are going to stop Henry and the Titans' outside zone game, Allen, and everyone else will have to do their jobs and consistently stick to their assignments.
Zach: Most people associate Henry as a dominant downhill runner (he is), but that is not his only tool. He is also freakishly fast for a person of his size, and as Logan explained, he is an exceptional outside runner.
But there is another aspect to Henry's in addition to what he does on outside zone plays. Henry is a master of bouncing outside when inside creases are closed up and churning out positive plays. Part of that comes from defenses being so dedicated to stopping runs in the interior that they leave themselves open for bigger plays at other spots on the field.
I will preach the same gap-sound, disciplined football as Logan, but I will emphasize that even more when it comes to the defensive ends, outside linebackers and buffalo nickel players. These players cannot get sucked into the action on the inside, because if they do, they could find themselves either chasing Henry or getting personal experience in how strong his stiff arm is.
What are some key individual matchup?
Logan: A matchup that sticks out to me is that of Titans defensive coordinator Shane Bowen and Turner. The Commanders' offense has struggled over the last two weeks, and Turner has shouldered a lot of the criticism for the offenses' difficulties. The Titans and Bowen are a good group, but they are not of the same caliber as Philadelphia and Dallas.
Bowen's defense is similar to that of Washington. Bowen likes to play cover three as their base defense on first and second down while sprinkling in some Tampa 2, quarters and run stopping pressures. On third down, they play more man and will bring some exotic pressures but not to the same level as Dallas or Detroit. Tennessee is very much a "bend, but don't break" group.
Bowen seems to stick to this formula, only changing up the percentages depending on the opponent. For Example, Tennessee played more split safety structures and cover 2 against the Bills and Raiders, probably because they were worried about the explosive weapons of those respective offenses. However, they kept to their base principles.
If I were Turner, I would expect to see slightly more pressure from Tennessee than they have shown over the first four weeks of the season. The Commanders have struggled against pressure, and Bowen would be foolish not to try and exploit that weakness. However, based on what Bowen has shown so far, he is not going to deviate far from his principles.
I think Turner can take advantage of this. He and Carson Wentz saw a version of Bowen's Defense through the offseason. Turner should know how to exploit the coverages because Washington follows a similar plan. This feels like a "get right" week for Turner and this offense, but only Sunday will tell.
Zach: The Titans' cornerbacks are talented and athletic, but they are also one of the youngest and most inexperienced groups on the team. Kristian Fulton played most of the 2021 season but missed half of his rookie year with a knee injury; Roger McCreary, a second-round pick, is a rookie; and 2021 first-round pick Caleb Farley missed most of his rookie year with a torn ACL.
Even without Jahan Dotson, I like the matchup between the Titans' corners and Commanders' wide receivers. Both Terry McLaurin and Curtis Samuel are standout route runners and know how to find soft spots in zone coverage. What's more, assuming Cam Sims gets more opportunities with Dotson out, he could use his 6-foot-5 frame against McCreary and Fulton, both of whom are 5-foot-11.
And if the Titans do use man coverage on third down, as Logan said, that would play into the Commanders' hands. McLaurin and Samuel excelled against man coverage against Detroit and know how to win one-on-one matchups.
Washington's offense has been up-and-down at best, but one area it excels in is third down conversion. Their 43.9% conversion rate is the sixth best in the NFL, and seeing those one-on-one matchups could help keep that number high.