With training camp now in the rearview mirror and the 2023 season just days away, the Washington Commanders have begun shifting their focus to the season opener against the Arizona Cardinals on Sept. 10.
It's always difficult to forecast the outcome of NFL games, especially for Week 1, when none of the 32 squads are close to hitting their stride, but there are some factors that favor the Commanders in the upcoming matchup. The defense is entering its fourth season playing under coordinator Jack Del Rio, and while the offense is adjusting to Eric Bieniemy and his new system, there's plenty of talent to surround new starting quarterback Sam Howell with.
The Commanders will be facing off against a Cardinals team, now coached by Jonathan Gannon, that they know little about, though, and that will present some challenges for them over the next 10 days.
"You prepare for what you see through training camp," Ron Rivera said after Thursday's practice. "And then you prepare for where they're from."
In this scenario, the Commanders at least have a foundation to work from. Gannon was most recently the defensive coordinator for the Philadelphia Eagles, spending two seasons with the team before getting the job offer from the Cardinals. Arizona does not have the same personnel as the Eagles, who finished second in yards allowed, first in sacks and third in turnover differential last season, but the Commanders know that several of Philadelphia's tendencies will show up on film with Gannon and defensive coordinator Nick Rallis -- also from Philadelphia -- leading the unit.
The Washington Commanders wrapped up their final practice this week. Check out the best photos from Thursday. (Photos by Emilee Fails/Washington Commanders)
On offense, the Cardinals are led by Drew Petzing, who was the quarterbacks coach for the Cleveland Browns last season. Cleveland had a dominant rushing attack in 2022, ranking sixth in yards per game, and Gannon comes from an Eagles team that was slightly better on the ground in average yardage.
Gannon got firsthand experience at witnessing how effective the Eagles' offensive approach can be at times. They rely heavily on RPOs (run-pass option plays), and that fueled a unit that was third in yards per game.
What the Commanders don't know is who will start at quarterback for the Cardinals between Josh Dobbs and Clayton Tune. Gannon has not named a starter yet, so Washington will need to prepare for both going forward. The team has already begun discussing plans for how to put itself in the best situation against either signal-caller.
"The thing about it for us more than anything else is they're relatively new in terms of what they do offensively, schematically," Rivera said "In his eyes, both quarterbacks have a different skillset, which we see and so because of it, yeah, you're going to have to do certain things and say, 'okay, if this guy's in, we'll do this, this guy's in, we may do that.'"
The good news is that the Commanders still have 10 days to prepare for whatever challenges they might see in Week 1.
"We'll be ready," Rivera said.
Let's take a look at some other observations from Thursday's practice.
"The guy is practicing, doing everything we need him to do. I have no idea what the doctor is going to do. I do know he'll continue to progress and get himself ready to go. Until then, there's nothing to say [until] we have the medical report."
"We're going to rely a little bit on the young guys to help round out the rest of that group. We like the backups. We think James Smith-Williams and Casey are very capable guys. A year ago, when those guys were playing a lot, they contributed to where we ended up as a defense. We feel good about what we've done and just knowing that we have a chance to get, eventually at some point, getting both Efe and Phidarian out there. I'm pretty comfortable with that."
-- Prior to the start of practice, senior director of player personnel Eric Stoke spoke to the media about his thoughts on the Commanders' 53-man roster. The conversations on how to fill each spot were intense, he said, but it was a collaborative process that led to "a lot of...open communication."
"We had an open forum where everyone was able to speak their opinions about the players and more importantly have an opportunity to listen to others' opinions as it pertains to the players. So, I just thought that having that type of transparency was probably one of the things that we did, I think even at a higher level than what we had done at the past and I think that's why everyone is in such a good place with where we are."