The Washington Commanders have wrapped up their preseason opener, and despite two rushing touchdowns from Sam Howell, they could not hang onto the lead and suffered a 23-21 loss to the Carolina Panthers. Here are five takeaways from the afternoon.
1. The starting offense looked as clean as it has all camp.
It may have taken two drives for the Commanders offense, led by Carson Wentz, to gain much traction, but it looked impressive when it managed to stay on the field. After punting the ball and coughing up a fumble, Washington orchestrated a 14-play, 82-yard drive that ended with a Brian Robinson touchdown.
Wentz was the star of the series, as he ended his day completing 10-of-13 passes for 74 yards. Many of the highs he showed in Week 3 of camp were apparent on the third drive. His passes were on point to receivers like Terry McLaurin and Curtis Samuel, and he looked in complete control of the offense as he navigated through his options.
"I thought that third drive was good for us," Wentz said after the game. "Obviously a loss is not fun, but I thought there was a lot we could learn from on both sides of the ball that were good for us."
While a win would have been a nice end to the afternoon, the main goal for Wentz and the offense was to show some form of progress against another opponent. That scoring drive was a foundation to build on for the rest of the week.
2. There were still some growing pains.
The positives of the day were not enough to overshadow the issues that plagued both sides of the ball.
As great as the scoring drive was for Washington's confidence, it still took the offense a full quarter to get any kind of traction. The Commanders stalled on the game's opening drive with a three-and-out, and after a Panthers field goal, Antonio Gibson gave the opponents a short field with fumble that set Sam Darnold up at Washington's 19-yard line.
The same could be said for the defense, as they spotted the Panthers 10 points to start both halves. Plays like Daniel Wise’s sack in the second quarter (it was part of a drive that ended in a turnover on downs for the Panthers) and a three-and-out in the fourth quarter were bright spots, but they were bookended by backbreaking mental errors. The Commanders failed to get off the field on three third-down attempts during the Panthers' final drive, and a facemask call put the Panthers in range for the game-winning field goal.
Fortunately, it's just Week 1 of the preseason, but there are rough patches to smooth out for the rest of the month.
3. Brian Robinson runs with purpose.
The Robinson hype train began to rumble forward this afternoon.
The one-yard touchdown to get Washington on the board was just part of the rookie running back's day. He finished the game with eight touches for 41 yards, but it was how he ran that got people's attention. He ran forward with patience, hit his holes with purpose and knew how to operate in space. All his yardage came on Washington's scoring drive, as he accounted for half of the team's 82 yards in the series.
Ron Rivera said after the game that Robinson showed the staff why the Commanders drafted him in the third round. His style is a welcome change of pace for the backfield.
The Washington Commanders open the 2022 preseason with a home matchup against the Carolina Panthers at FedExField.
4. Special teams and down-and-distance woes.
Rivera opened his postgame presser by addressing two issues that irked him during the game: the Commanders didn't get enough out of their kickoff returns, and they couldn't get off the field on defense.
"It's a little infuriating for me," Rivera said. "There's no excuse for that."
Washington returned five kickoffs Saturday afternoon, and three failed to get past the 20-yard line. With the exception of the scoring drive, all three of those drives ended in four plays or less. "You can't keep your offense starting outside the 20," Rivera said. Matt Cole had the longest return of the day with 27 yards, but it's clear that Washington still needs an answer for who will return kicks in 2022.
Of the 25 second downs Washington's defense faced, 18 were with a distance of at least seven yards. Seven of those plays were followed by either a first down or manageable third down situations. A good case study for that was the Panthers' opening drive, as Baker Mayfield faced three third downs of five yards of fewer and converted all three.
"You can't do that," Rivera said. "That's too hard. We've got to be better."
5. Sam Howell showed growth.
Like the rest of the offense, it took Howell some time to get some positive plays, but the fourth quarter was a sign of how much the rookie has grown in a month.
Howell ended the day completing 9-of-16 passes for 143 yards and two rushing touchdowns, both of which came within about six minutes of each other. The first was a 17-yard run up the middle of the Panthers defense, while the second was a one-yard push that tied the score at 20.
But Howell's passing ability was more noteworthy, and as Rivera said, he showed much of what he put on display in college. He stuck in the pocket, showed off his arm strength and hit his targets with accurate passes. Two of his better throws came back-to-back: one to Kyric McGowan, and another to Marken Michel.
There's still plenty of room to grow for Howell, but his development is on schedule.
"I was just pleased to be able to put some points on the board," Howell said. "I try to do what I can and execute on every single play that's called. I think I definitely put some plays out there, though, and there's some things I can improve on and build on from this game."