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Commanders' O-line looks to build, improve upon Week 1 performance

09102023 Week 1 - AZ vs WAS KC39648

Of all the questions that surrounded the Washington Commanders' offense, and there were a decent handful of them, how the offensive line would perform after being reworked and bolstered through draft picks and free agent signings was among the biggest.

And after months of waiting to see the Commanders open the season against the Arizona Cardinals, the answer to that question was...somewhere in the middle.

Some view the offensive line's performance last Sunday as the latest example of the group underperforming, while others will stand by the claims that the group played well enough to win. There's some evidence to support both stances, whether it's the pressure numbers or Pro Football Focus giving the Commanders the eighth best pass blocking grade in the NFL.

For the Commanders' offensive line itself, the players don't care what is said about them by voices outside the building, positively or otherwise. To them, it doesn't matter, because regardless of how others may feel about the results, the offensive line knows it needs to play better.

"No one's hanging their head," Andrew Wylie said in the locker room after Wednesday's practice. "But we know there's a lot more work to do."

On the surface, the numbers from Week 1 don't look great. Sam Howell was sacked six times -- the second worst mark in the league -- and was pressured on 13 dropbacks, according to PFF. What's also concerning is that Arizona often only rushed four players, using simulated pressures in an attempt to confuse Howell and the offense.

While that did work on some plays, a closer look at the film shows that the offensive line was not to blame for all six of the Commanders' sacks. At least two of the sacks can be credited to Howell, as he tried to scramble but was touched by a defensive player before stepping out of bounds behind the line of scrimmage. On another, this time at Arizona's 37-yard line in the second quarter, Howell elected not to throw a pass to Terry McLaurin on an RPO try to run up the middle for a one-yard loss.

Howell also had plenty of time to throw, with his average of 2.87 seconds being the 12th longest in the league, according to Next Gen Stats. Howell was quick to take the blame for some of the sacks given up on Sunday.

"I'm always gonna err on it was my fault just because I think I could've done a better job," Howell said. "There were some of them where I just ran out of bounds at like a yard or two behind the line of scrimmage, which is just dumb. Just throw the ball away. And obviously the strip sack for the touchdown, that was on me. I was just trying to do too much, especially down there backed up."

The offensive line can appreciate that kind of ownership from Howell.

"It's not always on him, but he's just saying it's on him because he wants to play better and do better for us," Charles Leno Jr. said. "That's just showing accountability and maturity at a young age."

PFF also believes that Washington's offensive line played better than expected. Leno got the ninth highest grade from the analytics site for an offensive tackle with a 74.9; Sam Cosmi got the best pass-blocking grade for an offensive guard (88.4); and Saahdiq Charles was not far behind with an 84.6.

But when asked whether he cares about numbers, even if they're positive, Leno had a simple answer: "No."

"At the end of the day, what I care about is my teammates and my peers," Leno said. "That's the recognition I want. Everything else, I couldn't care less about."

What Leno, as well as his teammates, believe is that they need to play better if they hope to win against a slate of talented defenses, starting with the Denver Broncos on Sunday, and the offensive line wants to do its part.

While many of the sacks allowed last Sunday can be credited to other circumstances, the group wasn't blameless. Nick Gates didn't execute a slide protection well enough in the third quarter, which led to Howell being taken down for a six-yard loss.

It's a simple matter of miscommunication, but the error came at a heavy cost.

"We missed a protection," said head coach Ron Rivera. "We thought something was going to happen, and because of that, we came off of a switch too soon."

No matter how many sacks are allowed in a game, the offensive line feels that the number should always be zero.

"The responsibility is for us to keep him safe," Cosmi said. "It's really an offensive effort to keep him protected, not only from us, [but also] running backs, tight end and himself. So, we all as a unit and as a group...take accountability of sacks, but at the end of the day, it comes on the O-line to protect him."

The way Cosmi sees it, the best way to accomplish that is through consistency.

"Staying consistent in our rules, our techniques," Cosmi said. "Just working each week on our opponent and understanding our personnel and their scheme. We take that challenge every week and attack it as a unit."

That approach should lead to the improvement the offensive line seeks.

"I think we can be something very special," Cosmi said. "We have a group of guys that are very talented. So, I feel like going forward as the weeks progress, [we'll] play our best ball. That's what we're going to bring every Sunday."

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