The opinions expressed in this article do not reflect those of the team.
The Washington Commanders are looking to get back in the win column with a Week 4 matchup against the Dallas Cowboys. Logan Paulsen and Zach Selby break down three keys to the Commanders getting a win.
1. What can Carson Wentz and the offensive line do to improve from last week's performance against the Eagles?
Logan: The Commanders' offensive line had a tough outing against the Philadelphia Eagles' defensive front. However, when there is a comprehensive break down like the one last Sunday, the cause is multifactorial; the offensive line struggling to win their one-on-ones, Wentz holding the ball to long, poor execution in some cases by the receivers and play calling that doesn't protect the group.
The offensive line needs to play better from an individual standpoint and as a group. I am confident this will happen. Not only is John Matsko an excellent offensive line coach, but the Commander's front office has assembled a group of professionals who know what it takes to be successful at the NFL level. This group takes pride in what they do and will improve.
They will also understand how to help each other. When looking back at the play where that Carson fumbled and the Commanders recovered, Sam Cosmi gets a strong power rush from Brandon Graham but seems to have it well in hand. Trai Turner goes to clean up, which is sound process on paper but bumps Graham off Cosmi's block and helps Graham's get the sack. These nuances will get cleaned up as the group spends more time together. They are not the NFL's best group, but they are a solid group of pros who are better than what they showed on Sunday.
Wentz holding the ball too long and receiver execution go together. Wentz has and will continue to hold the ball for a long time, putting stress on the offensive line. However, one way to help is to find ways to get the ball out of his hand quickly. That is where the receiver execution comes into play. If the receiver can win quickly with great separation, Wentz can trust to get the ball out his hands in the rhythm and timing of the play.
This principle is obvious, but it also applies to receivers who are not getting the ball. So much of Scott Turner’s offense relies on receivers to create space for other players in the concept. This is often a thankless job, but it is critical for creating the throwing lanes Wentz needs to be successful and on time.
The last and probably most important element is play calling. This is not only third downs but also first and second down. Most of the Eagles' sacks last week came in obvious passing situations. My question then becomes, "What can Turner do to mitigate these third and long situations?"
The fans have been calling for Scott to run the ball more. I agree running the football is part of the solution, but I also believe that something as simple changing personnel groupings or formations would be maybe even more impactful. This offense is at its most explosive in 11 personnel (three wide receivers and 1 tight end).
Turner has leaned into this spreading out the offense and getting his best play makers on the field. But by doing this, he has given simpler looks for defensive pass rushers. By simply adding tight ends or putting receivers in close splits, the rushers now have uncertainty. These wrinkles can cause enough hesitation in the pass rusher to give the pass protector the advantage.
Does this group have limitations? Absolutely. But I think when this group gets more support from the scheme, they are more than good enough to let this offense cook. I think they will show that this Sunday against Dallas.
Zach: I will touch on two areas that Logan mentioned: Wentz getting the ball out quickly and the running game.
Wentz has the eighth-slowest time to throw, but we do know that the Commanders can operate while getting the ball out quickly. They did so against the Jacksonville Jaguars, with most of his passes going within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage.
I think we will see more of that against the Cowboys. Not only has it been a point of emphasis for Turner and Wentz this week, but Dallas' secondary, particularly Trevon Diggs, tend to give their receivers more cushion. All three of Washington's top receivers are athletic and exceptional after the catch, so hopefully we will see the Commanders press that advantage.
As for the running game, I believe we will see a strong showing from the running game, particularly in the interior. Dallas is not as polished against the run as they are against the pass with the 19th rushing DVOA and the 23rd rushing yards allowed (136). It could be a great opportunity for Antonio Gibson to set the pace.
Check out the top photos from the Washington Commanders' trip to Dallas to take on the Cowboys. (Emilee Fails/Washington Commanders)
2. How can the defense put itself in the best position to succeed against Cooper Rush?
Logan: Cooper Rush has Dallas on a two-game win streak and fans are excited. When I turned on the tape to watch Dallas's offense, I was excited to see what all the hype was about.
What I saw was considerably less exciting than what the Dallas media had led me to believe. Rush was impressive for a backup, casting shades of Taylor Heinicke all over the field. He's a player who you feel good about in spot duty but has long-term uncertainty.
The question then becomes, "How has Dallas been able to win games consistently with Rush at the helm?" Dallas' offense with Rush resembles something commonly seen in the NFL two decades ago. Dallas wants to run the ball on first and second down and keep Rush out of obvious passing situations. In recent history, run-first teams end up in more third and long situations. Dallas has definitively bucked this trend.
Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard have been getting most of the touches, but unlike last year, both backs have been efficient. This has had two major benefits: it has allowed the offense to stay in third-and-manageable situations, and the run focused attack has led to fantastic play action looks for Rush, giving him large throwing windows and plenty of protection.
What does Rush look like in high leverage passing situations? Kellen Moore and the offense has consistently been able to keep him out of these situations. If the Commanders' defensive front can take away Dallas' ability to run the ball and force Rush to win using conventional drop back passes, I think the Rush's rising star will come back to earth.
Zach: I believe there are two things that Washington can do to get Rush off balance: take away his short-field options and force him to attempt throws to his left.
Let me explain the second one first. As Logan mentioned, Rush's style is not exciting, but he does a good job of playing within the system. Through two starts, he has completed 64% of his passes for two touchdowns and no interceptions.
There is an area where he has struggled, though, which is the left side of the field. Rush is 11-of-22 (50%) when targeting that side of the field. On the right, he is significantly better, completing 75% of his throws. That is not unique to Rush, but perhaps the pass rush can force him to scramble to the left and get him in an area of the field where he is uncomfortable.
Rush rarely throws the ball downfield, and he is not the best at hitting explosive plays beyond 20 yards. On top of what Logan said about putting Rush in third-and-long situations, it will be on Kendall Fuller, William Jackson III and the rest of the secondary to eliminate the quick throws from Rush, forcing him to try his hand at longer passes.
Take a look back at some of the Washington Commanders' previous matchup with the Dallas Cowboys. (Photos via The Associated Press)
3. What is one matchup you'll be watching on Sunday
Logan: Staying on brand, my focus will be in the trenches, specifically Montez Sweat and his matchup with Tyler Smith. Smith was one of my favorite prospects in this last year's draft. Despite being technically raw, Smith is big and physical while also possessing freakish athleticism. I thought he would be a steal if the Commanders took him with there second pick. However, as the draft approached, there was buzz about the 6-foot 6, 335-pound Smith moving to guard and rising into the first round.
That was too rich for my blood, but I was not surprised when Dallas took him 24th overall. I believed he would be the perfect developmental guard for 2022. He would have his growing pains, but his technical deficiencies would be hidden in the tight spaces off the offensive interior.
However, after Tyron Smith's injury earlier this year, Smith was moved back to left tackle. He has done better than expected using his tremendous strength on power blocking schemes in the run game and using his tremendous athleticism to get out in space and mall much smaller prey on the edge. Despite his impressive start to the season, he has struggled tremendously in pass protection. If Sweat can hold his own against Smith on first and second down and help force the Cowboys into obvious passing situations, he should be able to dominate and have a very productive day as a pass rusher.
Zach: I believe this game will come down to how Washington fares against the Cowboys' pass-rush. Dallas' defensive line has the best adjusted sack rate in the league, while Washington's offensive line has the 30th.
It is true that Washington's interior has struggled, but I am not as concerned about them as I am for the matchups on the outside. DeMarcus Lawrence and Micah Parsons might be the best pass-rush duo in the league right now. I expect Cosmi and Charles Leno to play against both since Dallas likes to move its defenders around a lot.
Leno has done a good job so far this season against the pass rush. He has strong hands, a good kick step and does a solid job of mirroring his opponents. Pro Football Focus also ranks his pass-blocking grade as the fifth best among tackles.
Cosmi has had a rockier start, but he still has plenty of tools to deliver some great performances. I expect this offensive line to be motivated after giving up nine sacks last week. They will need that motivation going against such a talented group.