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'A hell of a play': Commanders praise Howell for his 24-yard third-down run

Washington Commanders quarterback Sam Howell plays against the New England Patriots during an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 5, 2023, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)
Washington Commanders quarterback Sam Howell plays against the New England Patriots during an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 5, 2023, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

Sam Howell has been making strides by the week, and his performance in the Washington Commanders' 20-17 win over the New England Patriots -- 325 yards with a touchdown and an interception on 29 completions -- is the latest evidence of how far the former fifth-round pick has come in his development.

There was one play that impressed his teammates the most, though, and it kept getting brought up in the locker room after the victory.

"That was just a hell of a play by him," said wideout **Terry McLaurin.**

The play came on third-and-23, and rather than relying on his arm to keep the Commanders' drive alive, Howell chose to use his legs. It required him to take a few hits along the way, but the young quarterback powered through the contact for a 24-yard run that gave his offense an opportunity to close the gap on a 14-10 deficit.

The play didn't lead to points, but it did earn his teammates' respect.

"That's really what Sam is capable of doing," head coach Ron Rivera said following the win.

Let's set the stage here: after going up 10-0 over the Patriots, who hadn't lost to Washington at home since 1996, Mac Jones and the New England offense took advantage of a fumble and a Washington drive that fizzled out in five plays to go up 14-10 off a 14-yard pass to Hunter Henry and a 64-yad romp to the end zone by Rhamondre Stevenson.

The Patriots also got the ball back in the third quarter, so the Commanders needed to do something to stop the bleeding, or at least run down the clock to prevent New England from scoring again before halftime.

For about seven plays, things seemed to be going well. Howell completed a 13-yard pass to Byron Pringle on third-and-10, and a 14-yard reception by Dyami Brown put Washington at the Patriots' 43-yard line. That's when things started to unravel.

The Commanders were gifted with a first-and-5 after an offside penalty by Anfernee Jennings, only to be backed up because of a false start by Charles Leno Jr. That was followed up with an incompletion intended for McLaurin, and then a 13-yard sack pushed Washington all the way to its own 44-yard line.

Check out the best photos of the Washington Commanders' Week 9 matchup with the New England Patriots. (photos by Emilee Fails/Washington Commanders)

If Washington had been forced to punt the ball back to New England, it would have given Jones at least one minute to possibly move into field goal position and extend their lead. Howell, however, was calm in the situation, and that demeanor was appreciated by his teammates in the huddle.

"He's got that confidence once he comes into the huddle," said center Tyler Larsen. "He's not the most vocal guy. You can feel it once he come into the huddle."

Howell dropped back to the 33-yard line before stepping up in the pocket. There weren't many options for him to work with, as the Patriots had locked down players like McLaurin and Pringle. So, Howell decided to tuck the ball and get as many yards as he could.

Joey Slye was preparing for the possibility that Washington would need to punt the ball away, and as Howell crossed the Patriots' 45-yard line, he was getting ready to try for a field goal (after all, he drilled a franchise record 61-yard attempt the week before against the Philadelphia Eagles). But then Howell kept going.

"He got hit at the 40 and I honestly thought he was going to go down there," Slye said.

It wasn't just a regular hit, though. Howell first made contact with defensive backs Jalen Mills and Adrian Phillips at the 46-yard line, and as Howell tried to protect the ball, it looked like he thought he might go down, too.

But Howell managed to slip through both defenders, and after regaining his balance, he finished the play by getting just enough yardage to convert the third down.

As he jogged back to the huddle, Howell got a few taps on the helmet from Logan Thomas and some more praise from his teammates.

"He makes big plays when we need them the most," Jahan Dotson said. "That long third-down conversion run, that was big for us. We needed that."

Plays like that are what the Commanders have come to expect from Howell, who is now joined by Patrick Mahomes as the only two quarterbacks this season to rush for a first down on a third down of at least 20 yards. He has a quiet style of leadership, but that works out when his play does all the talking for him.

"Sam is a competitor," Jamison Crowder said. "He gives us a chance to win every week. That was huge. You see guys making plays like that, you want to follow suit and get onboard. Go out there and give it your all."

The swing in momentum from that play could even be felt by the Commanders' defense.

"That was big. That set the tone and the energy for the offense," Kendall Fuller said of the conversion."Sam has [rallied us] all year and that is what we rely on him to do. It was definitely a big play for our team."

While Howell has thrown the ball more than any quarterback in the league -- he has 353 attempts so far and is projected to have 667 by the end of the season -- running the ball is part of his skill set. He had 1,009 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns during his three years at North Carolina, including 828 in 2021.

It may not be something that he's going to lean on as much as other quarterbacks in the league, but he can use it when necessary.

"He did a really nice job, so he does have some ability if he has to scramble," Rivera said. "He can pick up valuable yards."

Although Howell still has a long way to go with his development, he's already shown that he's making serious progress. As of Monday, he's second among all quarterbacks with 2,471 yards this season, and he's the fastest quarterback in franchise history to surpass 2,500 passing yards in his first 10 games.

If Howell can pair his growing abilities as a passer with a few scrambles like that to keep defenses guessing, it adds another wrinkle that will make him even more difficult for opponents to prepare for.

"When you have to account for a guy who can throw the ball down the field and get first downs using his legs," McLaurin said, "it puts a lot of pressure on the defense."

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