The opinions expressed in this article do not reflect those of the team.
The Washington Commanders will host the Cleveland Browns at FedExField for a critical Week 17 game to keep their playoff hopes alive. Here are three keys to securing the win, presented by KIA.
1. Contain Deshaun Watson.
Logan: Deshaun Watson was one of the most dominate players in the NFL in 2020, playing alongside the likes of Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen.
Teams were salivating over the opportunity to Acquire Watson when he requested a trade. However, an ugly breakup with the Texans combined with a suspension led to a 700-day hiatus from football.
The rust was apparent in Watson's first game back. The dynamic playmaker was a shadow of his former self, missing open throws and consistently putting the ball in harm's way. However, he has looked closer to his former ability each week.
Against Baltimore, he escaped multiple sacks while delivering exquisite throws into tight windows. Against the Saints, he had four touchdown passes dropped, each of which would have been a top play of the week.
Despite Watson's improving play, the Cleveland offense has struggled since he has taken the helm. On its surface, the offensive struggles are confounding, as Watson, while not playing at his best, appears to be facilitating the offense at a serviceable level. The rushing attack, helmed by Cleveland's two-headed monster of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, is supported by one of the more consistent offensive lines in the NFL.
So why has the Browns' offense become so tepid despite the flashes of Watson's high-level play? The Browns rank top 10 in total offense with the fifth-best rushing attack in the NFL. However, over the last three weeks, the Browns are averaging 4.4 yards per play, which is tied for second worst in the NFL over that span.
The Washington Commanders have wrapped up their week of practice for the Week 17 game against the Cleveland Browns. Check out the best photos from Friday. Photos by Emilee Fails and Kourtney Carroll/Washington Commanders
Their vaunted rushing attack has also slowed. Since Watson has started the rushing attack is averaging 3.8 yards an attempt, which is almost a yard less than there 4.7 season average. The passing efficiency has also declined over the last four game slipping from 6.5 yards a play to 5.7.
The Browns' offense is a run-first scheme that uses the rushing attack to set up play-action pass shots. As the rushing efficiency decreases, the likelihood of calling a play-action pass on a subsequent down also decreases.
Statistically, the need to run the football well does not affect the efficiency of a play-action pass. However, a poor run on first down can affect the play caller's willingness to call a play-action shot on second down. For example, a second-and-10 situation after an unsuccessful run can change the offensive coordinators approach forcing him away from his desired game flow. This is significant for the Browns, who cultivate their big plays off play-action shots.
As a result, the best way to keep Watson unsettled is to keep the Browns rushing attack inefficient. However, the rushing attack has changed since Watson has taken over. Offensive line coach Bill Callahan brought his distinctive style to the Browns, utilizing of pullers, double teams and heavier personnel to create movement while counter punching with outside zone.
There has been a departure from this philosophy by building the running game around Watson. While this might have its long-term advantages, it has hurt them in the short term. Chubb is most effective when running from a stacked position behind the quarterback, attacking the line of scrimmage.
This, coupled with how effective the Commanders front has been at stopping the run, positions Washington's defense to be able to keep the Browns' offense out of sync and away from their explosive plays.
Zach: The Browns could be a legitimate force next season, but for now, they must use these next two games to get Watson more comfortable with the offense. With that said, there are still some moments when Watson shows his unique talent.
As Logan said, Stefanski's system relies heavily on play-action passes. Not only does this give Watson easier reads, but it also slows the pass-rush, giving Watson more time to decipher defenses.
Given how effective the Browns are at running the ball, it can be easy for linebackers and defensive ends to get fooled by the motion. It will be important for players like Montez Sweat and Chase Young to avoid this temptation. Both have the speed to hawk down Watson if he uses his legs, and while the Browns' offensive line is talented, the duo also has the athleticism to crash the pocket around Watson.
A solid pass rush will force Watson to make quicker decisions, and with the quarterback still getting acclimated to the system, that could play into Washington's hands.
2. Integrate Carson Wentz into the offense
Logan: The DMV was buzzing this offseason with the opportunity that Carson Wentz brought. His big arm, coupled with the playmakers, seemed like an ideal match. But after it was clear that Wentz was still learning the offense and the players he was throwing to. His excellent relationship with Jahan Dotson was obvious from the outset, but his lack of it with other players was problematic.
While Wentz caught a lot of criticism early on, he was not the only one to blame. It became clear the offensive line would not be able to pass protect at the level required to run the ideal version of Turner's offense. In Wentz's absence, the offense underwent a makeover, leaning heavily on the run game. This evolution by Turner created games of much lower variance, taking pressure off the offensive line and finding easier throws for the quarterback off play-action passes.
With Wentz reentering the lineup, there are questions about whether the offense will be more explosive and how the playmakers will be utilized. Wentz has dynamic arm talent, and hopefully his hiatus watching Heinicke will give him a better understanding of the offense. Combine that with the Brown's straightforward and struggling defense, and the stars have aligned for the offense to experience a renaissance.
However, it is imperative to remember that wentz has his own limitations, and the offense is not perfect. Throughout his career, Wentz has had a propensity to hold the football too long, inviting pressure. While a better understanding of the offense will help him get the ball out of his hands more quickly, Wentz will still hold the ball and put stress on an already struggling offensive line.
Turner must stick with his conservative offensive approach. There is no doubt in my mind that the installation of Wentz into the starting lineup will encourage more offensive creativity. But what is the tipping point between too being aggressive and too conservative?
Wentz would be best served by leaning heavily on the same things that led to the Commanders' winning streak, which is running the football. Not only did this approach lead to easier throws for Taylor Heinicke and the offense, but it also led to better pockets and easier pass protection assignments. I want to see Wentz comfortable and not challenged too dramatically in his return, and I think this is the easiest way to get that done.
Zach: As Logan said, Wentz does he a tendency to hold the ball longer than he should, which often led to sacks earlier in the year. Turner will certainly need to work around Wentz's limitations, but Wentz in turn must also use his expanded knowledge of the offense and get the ball out at a quicker rate.
Last week's touchdown drive against the 49ers was an example of that. He completed 7-of-10 passes, but what impressed quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese the most was how fast Wentz was at reading the situation, reacting to the extra pressure that the 49ers brought and distributing the ball to his playmakers.
The Browns have not been as statistically successful as the 49ers on defense, but they do possess a talented pass rush led by Myles Garrett, who has double-digit sacks for the fifth straight season. The Browns do not bring much pressure, but their front four are enough to create problems for Washington.
And if Wentz can avoid that pressure, there will be opportunities to make the explosive plays that Wentz seeks with all three of Washington's main receivers being able to create separation at the line of scrimmage.
3. Have an answer for Nick Chubb and Grant Delpit.
Logan: Grant Delpit's number is one that will be called a lot on Sunday for good and bad reasons. His talent is on display practically every play. He speeds to the football with a reckless abandonment that is fun to watch, as he takes on fullbacks, tight ends and offensive linemen despite his slim stature.
Much like the safeties in Jack Del Rio’s defense, Delpit is asked to play both in the post and at the line of scrimmage. While he has the ability and athleticism to play in coverage, he struggles in coverage situations. The angles, which are sound against the run, get loose in coverage, leading to explosive plays and missed tackles where there could be interceptions or big hits.
This inconsistency in the back end is what makes him a plus and a minus for the Cleveland defense. He seems to be at the center of numerous big plays; against New England, he missed a tackle that led to a huge gain; against the Jets, he took a poor angle on a Joe Flacco pass that led to a touchdown. Compare these misses with the interception against the Saints or the numerous tackles for loss, and he really is a feast or famine type of player.
It is the up-and-down nature of his play that makes him a compelling watch this week. He is a player that Washington can take advantage of in the play-action game but can also hurt the Commanders with big plays that favor Cleveland. The version of Delpit the Commanders get will be a mystery until the ball kicks off on Sunday, but either way, he will play a big role in the narrative of the game.
Zach: We have bounced around the subject, but if Washington hopes to stay in the postseason conversation, it must have an answer for Chubb.
Chubb has been one of the league's most consistent backs since the Browns drafted him in 2018. He has a shot to surpass his career high in rushing yards, and he already tied his personal best in rushing touchdowns (12). He has not gotten in the end zone since Week 12, but he been a physical force on the ground with 305 yards in that span.
Fortunately, this plays into the Commanders' strength on defense, as the unit is 13th in rushing yards allowed. One key for Washington will be for the duo of Daron Payne and Jonathan Allen to get past the Browns' interior, which includes guards Joel Bitonio and Wyatt Teller as well as center Ethan Pocic. Their success has allowed Chubb to find holes between the tackles and keep the chains moving on a regular basis.
As Logan mentioned, stopping the run on early downs will be key for the Commanders. It will decrease the willingness to call play-action passes, and it will stymie a key cog of Cleveland's offense.