The Washington Commanders were on track to break an NFL record for sacks allowed in a season with Sam Howell being taken down 40 times through seven weeks.
With eight games left, the number is still high, but the onslaught has started to ease up in recent weeks.
Howell was sacked an average of nearly six times per game in Week 1-7. In the last two games, however, the Commanders allowed just four sacks combined. The offense seems to be turning a corner, as they've averaged the fourth most yards in the last three games, and the noticeable improvement in protecting the quarterback is one of the biggest contributing factors.
"It's all kind of coming together, I think, at the right time for us offensively," said head coach **Ron Rivera.**
Just as the cause of Washington's problems with pressure were not solely on one position, the same could be said about correcting the issues.
Up front, the Commanders made two changes following their 14-7 loss to the New York Giants, during which Howell was sacked six times. They switched out Nick Gates for Tyler Larsen at center, and with Saahdiq Charles being placed on Injured Reserve, Chris Paul stepped up to take his place.
It might sound hyperbolic, but the additions have resulted in an almost complete turnaround. Neither Paul, who was competing with Charles for the starting left guard position in training camp, nor Larsen have allowed a sack, and they add a much stouter presence in the interior.
"There's a lot of girth between our two guards and our center," Rivera said on Monday. "I think that's been a big part. They're very stout. Then secondly, I think the big part of it too has really been how veteran Tyler is. His experience, his understanding, and feel for what we're doing and how we're doing it."
Check out the top photos of the Washington Commanders preparing for their Week 10 matchup with the Seattle Seahawks.
Larsen has largely been a backup during his eight-year career but has been reliable when given the opportunity. He's only allowed 73 pressures on 1,356 pass blocking snaps, including just seven sacks in that span.
Howell can also tell the difference.
"I think that unit up front is starting to gel together and they put together two really good games," Howell said. "I think we're just coming together as a whole on offense, and I think we've truly built an identity now on offense and I think that's helping everybody out."
But there are other factors that have contributed to the Commanders giving Howell better protection. They've seen strides from the tight end and the running backs in blocking in recent weeks, which has given Howell the extra time he needs to get rid of the ball.
"Shoot, we even got a couple snaps where we have the receivers chipping and all understanding just how important it is," Rivera said.
There's also the improvement of Howell himself and the changes in the game plan to consider. For the last two weeks, assistant head coach/offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy has emphasized getting the ball out of Howell's hands at a quicker rate with shorter drops, quick passes and screens.
That's accomplishing two things: for one, it allows Howell to get the ball to his playmakers more efficiently; and it gives opposing pass-rushers less time to put pressure on him.
"I think getting the ball out of Sam's hands quicker creates frustration for the defense when a guy gets the ball out early and on time, there's a little bit of frustration that seems to develop [for the defense]," Rivera said.
As for what Howell thinks, he started on Wednesday by deferring to the improvements his teammates made, but he also can feel that he is playing better as well.
"I've tried to improve every single week as far as just getting the ball out of my hands and trying to get down to the check downs faster. I think I've shown improvement in that area every single week. I feel like I'm doing a pretty good job of that right now, and I think I've shown that the past two weeks. I just got to try to continue to find ways to improve in that area and make it easier on those guys up front."
The Commanders seem to have found an answer to one of their biggest problems on offense. Now, Bieniemy wants to see them be consistent.
"We've got to continue making sure that we're doing a great job of over-communicating and getting the proper message communicated to our players," Bieniemy said. "I think our players have done a heck of a job protecting the quarterback. And the quarterback has done a great job of getting rid of the football."
The Commanders still have challenges on the schedule, the next being the Seattle Seahawks, who are tied for seventh with 27 sacks. The NFC West opponent will be a test to see how solid their changes to the protection can be against more talented pass-rushers.
"So right now, I think we're in a good place now," Bieniemy said. "We just got to continue moving forward."