The Washington Commanders held on for a 17-15 win over the Cleveland Browns in the preseason opener. Here are five takeaways from the victory, presented by Maryland Lottery.
1. Sam Howell looked sharp as QB1.
There were plenty of questions about Sam Howell and how he would look as the Commanders' starting quarterback, and the former North Carolina Tar Heel answered those questions by looking about as sharp as a quarterback could in a preseason game.
Howell finished the night completing 75% of his passes (9-of-12) for 77 yards and a touchdown, but what should be more encouraging to Washington fans is how comfortable he looked directing the offense. He got the ball out quickly, delivered his passes to receivers with accuracy and avoided any mental mistakes.
Even better was how Howell responded to adversity. On the drive after Washington gave up a safety to the Browns, Howell led the offense on a 10-play drive that covered 80 yards, completing five of his seven passes and topping the series off with a 26-yard touchdown to Jahan Dotson.
Friday's game was the biggest obstacle Howell had faced up to this point on his path to being the Week 1 starter. Suffice it to say, he passed that test.
Check out the top photos from the Washington Commanders' season opener against the Cleveland Browns. (Emilee Fails/Washington Commanders)
2. Washington's receivers made some clutch catches.
Not long after Dotson's day was over, the second-year receiver let everyone know just how confident he was in his abilities.
"I can move everywhere, I can run every route on the route tree," he told sideline reporter Logan Paulsen.
It's hard to argue with his assertion, especially after the play he made to get Washington on the board and take the lead. With the Commanders facing first-and-10 at the 26-yard line, Dotson leaped to grab Howell's pass, tipped it to himself and ducked under two defenders before jogging into the end zone.
"Jahan is so special," Howell said. "He's so polished, man. He's such a good wide receiver."
But Dotson wasn't the only receiver to make an improbable catch on Friday. On the ensuing Commanders drive, Dyami Brown hauled in an impressive sideline throw from Jacoby Brissett for a 14-yard gain. Two plays later, Byron Pringle somehow made a catch over a defender while falling down for a 32-yard pickup, putting the offense at the Browns' 12-yard line.
Washington fans know that the team has a strong group of wideouts, but they got a reminder Friday night of just how deep the group has become.
3. The secondary was balling out.
The Commanders invested a good chunk of their offseason resources into shoring up the depth in the secondary, and the group shined throughout the team's first preseason game.
We'll start with Jeremy Reaves, who finished the game with three tackles. Two of his stops played a significant role in preventing the Browns from going up two scores. On the ensuing drive after the safety, Reaves had back-to-back tackles, including one that prevented backup Josh Dobbs from converting a third-and-11.
Next, we'll move over to Christian Holmes, who perhaps had one of the strongest performances by any defensive player. The former seventh-round pick had two pass breakups, one of which would have led to a first down by Cedric Tillman. Holmes' physicality played a role in preventing Tillman from securing the pass, as he laid a hit on the wideout from behind.
And let's talk about Emmanuel Forbes for a bit. The rookie only played in the first quarter with one tackle, but it was a critical stop at the goal line that prevented running back Demetric Felton from getting in the end zone.
It's nice to see that all the effort Washington made to strengthen the secondary has paid off.
4. More turnovers.
Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio wanted to emphasize creating more turnovers in 2023, and he got exactly that from his defense.
The first came in the closing seconds of the first half, when Cleveland was trying to sneak in a score before the break. Dobbs targeted David Bell on the play but overthrew the wideout, giving Percy Butler an easy opportunity to get the pick. The play ensured that Washington would enter the third quarter with a two-possession lead.
The next play came in the fourth quarter, and this time, it was a group effort. Milo Eifler stopped Hassan Hall short for a loss of one yard and also stripped the ball from the back's grasp. That allowed John Ridgeway to pounce on the loose ball, giving the Commanders the ball at the Browns' 34-yard line.
Del Rio wants to give the offense more scoring opportunities. Getting two in the team's first bit of live action is a good place to start.
5. Commanders need to clean up their play at times.
If there were any issue Washington had in its preseason opener, it was that both the offense and defense played sloppy at times.
Let's start with the defense. Missed tackles and open running lanes were a problem for the unit in the first half, and quarterback Deshaun Watson was able to capitalize on the mistakes. Some of the most egregious gaffes came on the opening drive, like when Watson avoided a sack from Chase Young and escaped for an eight-yard gain that converted a third-and-4. Moments like that will need to be cleaned up moving forward.
Then there was the offense, which committed some momentum-killing penalties in the first half. The first came on the Commanders' opening drive, when a holding penalty backed the unit up from the 43 to the 33-yard line. That play eliminated the progress Washington had made on the previous four plays and later forced the team to punt.
And then there was the holding penalty in the end zone that led to a safety on the second drive. Moments like those are examples of how one error can completely disrupt a drive.
The good news is that all these issues happened in the preseason, giving the Commanders plenty of time to fix them.