The Washington Commanders' last matchup with the New York Giants was one of the worst offensive outings of the season for the Burgundy & Gold. They're expecting a complete turnaround in Round 2 this weekend.
The Giants picked up just their second victory of the season (they haven't won since then) against the Commanders, largely because of how inept their defense made Washington look in a 14-7 contest. All the Commanders' offensive struggles showed up in the game, from the slow starts to the wave of pressure that washed over quarterback Sam Howell and led to six sacks.
Since then, after three straight weeks of Howell putting up at least 300 yards through the air and taking far fewer sacks, the Commanders' offense has looked much better, resembling what is actually a solid unit when it has proper execution.
In a game where the Commanders must win and are expected to do so -- ESPN has them as a nine-point favorite -- the Giants will be a test to see how much the offense has progressed in the last month.
"I just feel good about where we've grown to as far as our offense is concerned," said head coach Ron Rivera."Everything from the play calling because you see EB **[Eric Bieniemy]** get into those rhythms and things happen very quickly and he's gotten more and more comfortable with the guys on the field and the guys on the field executing."
It's clear that the first Giants game was a turning point for the offense.
In Weeks 1-7, for a mixture of reasons ranging from protection to Howell's overall development, the offense simply wasn't functioning properly. Sacks led to slow starts, which then turned into the Commanders finding themselves in double-digit deficits. It all came to a head against the Giants, who brought constant pressure on Howell that prevented Washington from getting a first down until the second quarter.
Since then, the offense has looked...well, normal. At times, it's looked better than that, even if Washington is 1-2 in its last three games. During that span, the Commanders are fourth in total offense, 10th in scoring, second in passing yards and first in third-down conversion rate.
"They're playing with more confidence," Rivera said. "You see that they do feel good about what we're doing, and they have a good grasp of it."
The biggest factor behind all of this is Howell, who is starting to build a case for being the franchise quarterback beyond this season. The numbers are great; he leads the league in passing yards and completions on top of tying for the third-most touchdowns. He doesn't pay attention to the accolades, but the fact remains that those are markers no Washington quarterback has even sniffed for the last five years.
What's more impressive is how he looks in the backfield. He's avoiding pressure, moving around the pocket and getting the ball out at a quicker rate. He's also delivering throws that few quarterbacks can make, like his touchdown pass to Dyami Brown against the Seattle Seahawks that tied the score with less than a minute left in the fourth quarter.
"He's fine tuning all the little detailed things that's helping him to become a better football player, and we just hope that he continues to grow with that arrow moving in the right direction," Bieniemy said.
Check out the top moments from the Washington Commanders' first practice of the week.
There's also Howell's protection to consider. Through a mixture of injuries and restructuring on the depth chart, Tyler Larsen and Chris Paul are now the starting center and left guard, respectively. Neither player is perfect, but they do offer a stouter presence in the interior of the front, which has led to Howell having more time to work.
There are several layers to improving a quarterback's protection, but for what it's worth: since Larsen and Paul entered the starting lineup, Howell has been sacked seven times in three games combined.
"I think the new group is doing a great, they're doing a great job," Bieniemy said. "Obviously, sometimes with no bad luck, you wouldn't have any good luck at all. Sometimes unfortunate things happen. That experience in New York happened for a reason, it's made us a better team, a better unit."
And since that Week 7 game in East Rutherford, New Jersey, Washington's offense has played well against better defenses from a statistical standpoint. The unit put up 31 points in its rematch of the Philadelphia Eagles and 26 points against a talented Seahawks unit on the road. In those games, Howell had eight touchdowns to just two interceptions.
But the Giants are different. One of the Commanders' biggest weaknesses this season has been a failure to respond against pressure, and Giants defensive coordinator Wink Martindale brought a lot of it back in Week 7.
It's going to be the same this weekend.
"Wink is not going to change who he is," Bieniemy said. "We need to make sure that the communication is in line. Then on top of that, when called upon to execute, do your job to the best of your ability. If we're doing that, we'll give ourselves a chance."
The Commanders are certainly aware of the stakes ahead of Sunday's game. They need to win in order to stay in the playoff race. They're also aware that the Giants tend to play them well, regardless of their record or who's in at quarterback.
And of course they want to get the Giants back for what happened a month ago, but that's not their main motivation.
"You play to win the game," Rivera said. "You play to do things the right way and you keep the focus on playing the game. That to me is what's more important. Every one of these games we play are all important whether they're divisional, whether they're in conference or they're out of conference, they're all important."