The Washington Commanders are kicking off the 2023 season with a sold-out home matchup against the Arizona Cardinals. Here are three keys to the team getting a win, presented by KIA.
1. Maximize offensive opportunities.
Washington led the NFL in time of possession, averaging just over 33 minutes on offense per game. They were also 28th in yards per play, 22nd in first downs per play, 24th in punts per play and 28th in punts per offensive score.
Obviously, something needs to change if Washington wants the success it believes it can achieve in 2023.
That should start with getting quarterback Sam Howell in a rhythm early in the afternoon, giving him easy throws he can build upon as the game progresses. The Commanders and Eric Bieniemy did a good job of that in the preseason; on the two opening drives against the Browns and Ravens, Howell completed a combined nine of 11 passes for 76 yards.
Only one of the drives ended in points, but both saw Washington move the ball down the field. The Browns drive stalled at the 43 after a sack and a holding penalty, while the Ravens drive lasted 15 plays and 72 yards.
The Commanders have given Howell plenty of weapons to get him in a groove. He has good chemistry with Jahan Dotson, and the rapport he has with Terry McLaurin, which head coach Ron Rivera said was "very important" to the offense, should be on display with McLaurin being fully cleared from his turf toe.
But Washington will also need to find more effective ways to run the ball than it did in 2022. The Commanders were 12th in rushing average last year on 538 attempts -- the fourth-most in the league -- but were tied for 27th in yards per attempt (4.0). To do that, Washington has a healthy and motivated Brian Robinson Jr., who wants to show that he can be more than a power back.
"I can do anything in the offensive playbook," Robinson said. "Like I said, no limits on what I can do. And I let the coaches establish the role based off of how they use us and, you know, I just prepare for it every day."
2. Limit explosive plays from offensive weapons.
The Cardinals are a team in transition, learning a new system on both sides of the ball. However, they do have a handful of weapons on offense that could hurt the Commanders if given the opportunity.
Whoever the quarterback is for the Cardinals will be relying heavily on wideouts Marquise Brown and Rondale Moore. Brown had 709 receiving yards and three touchdowns on 67 receptions, while Moore, who got positive reviews for his growth in training camp, had 414 yards in his second season.
With DeAndre Hopkins off the roster, both are expected to have bigger roles in the passing game.
At running back, veteran James Connor is expected to lead the group after another solid season in 2022. Connor has never eclipsed 1,000 yards, but he is exceptional at getting in the end zone with 44 touchdowns, including a combined 22 in the last two seasons.
The Cardinals were not explosive on offense in 2022, ranking in the bottom half of the league in rushing yards (22nd) and passing yards (18th). But the Cardinals' new scheme, run by Drew Petzing, uses a system that utilizes run-pass-option play to create opportunities for playmakers. That was particularly true with the Cleveland Browns, Petzing's previous team, and their sixth-ranked rushing attack.
Washington improved on allowing explosive plays in 2022, but those problems came back in the final games of the season, when the depth in the secondary limited the team's options. That problem should be fixed in 2023 with a healthy Kam Curl leading a group that has been bolstered by draft picks Emmanuel Forbes Jr. and Quan Martin.
Washington's defense should be up to that challenge on Sunday, but it will be important for the unit to stay consistent all afternoon. If not, the Cardinals have the talent to make life difficult for the Burgundy & Gold.
3. Put pressure on Arizona's quarterbacks.
The Commanders have had to prepare for both Josh Dobbs and Clayton Tune this week, as the Cardinals have declined to publicly name a starting quarterback.
Dobbs, while experienced, has only been with the Cardinals for a few weeks. Tune, on the other hand, has talent but almost zero snaps working against an NFL defense in a game scenario. So, it will be important for the Commanders' pass rush to harass either quarterback as much as possible.
The Commanders are one of the best teams in the NFL to accomplish this goal. Both defensive tackles – Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne -- are coming off standout 2022 campaigns with Payne getting an extension because of it. Montez Sweat played well in camp, and he is expected to be motivated as he enters the final year of his contract.
An added bonus would be for Chase Young, who has been dealing with a stinger, to be on the field for Week 1. That decision is in flux right now, as Young was listed as questionable on the injury report, but the defensive end is doing everything possible to ensure that he will be ready to play.
"We have reps scripted for him," Rivera said. "We have certain periods that he can participate in and again, it's gonna be all up to what happens with the doctor's visit that he has coming up soon and we'll go from there."
What's more, if any of the Commanders' defensive linemen need a break, they have seven other players at the position to use as substitutions.
The energy should be high at FedExField with thousands of fans cheering for the Commanders on Sunday. That should be plenty for the defensive line to feed off of as it tries to collapse the pocket around whoever is lined up under center for Arizona.