While most of the fans' attention was on the Washington Commanders' receivers making all the flashy plays during Tuesday's practice, the offensive line was on the other end of the field practicing what some would consider the more important work: making the blocks that would allow the skill players to get the ball in their hands.
The focus of the drill centered around picking up stunts by the defensive line, and the reps were separated with the tackles and guards as well as the guards and centers working in tandem. On the left side of the line, Chase Young and Jonathan Allen used their speed, power and quickness to work around Charles Leno and Chris Paul while also pushing their opponents into the pocket -- a win for the defense.
The right side of the line fared better. Sam Cosmi and Andrew Wylie recognized the moves Daron Payne and Montez Sweat were making, passed off the defensive linemen with ease and won the rep, earning some praise from their fellow offensive linemen and Juan Castillo.
The drill summed up much of how the Commanders' offensive line, which underwent significant overhaul this offseason, has performed in training camp. It hasn't all been great, which is somewhat expected from a group that is still getting to know each other while learning a new system, but there has been steady progress as practices have gotten more physical.
"Our young O-line, they're doing a heck of a job," said offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy. "There's been ups and downs. There's been some days that haven't been as good, but there's been some days they've done a hell of a job and the thing that I'm loving about that group is that they're having fun together."
The group that Bieniemy inherited is a stark contrast from what he had with the Kansas City Chiefs. After giving up three sacks in Super Bowl LV to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who forced Patrick Mahomes to run backwards and sideways a total of 468 yards, the Chiefs invested heavily in the offensive line, signing guard Joe Thuney, trading for tackle Orlando Brown and bringing in new depth players.
The result: the Chiefs have had one of the best offensive lines in the past two seasons. In 2022, the group was first in pass-block win rate and third in run-block win rate according to ESPN, allowing Mahomes to lead the league in passing yards and touchdowns.
Meanwhile, the Commanders were on the opposite end of that spectrum with rankings in the bottom half of the league in pass block win rate (27th) and run block win rate (19th). They gave up 48 sacks, not all of which were caused by the offensive line, which was the sixth-most in the league.
Like the Chiefs, the Commanders recognized the problem and focused on improving the group this offseason. Wylie was brought in by Bieniemy from Kansas City to be the starting right tackle, moving Cosmi over to right guard. Nick Gates was signed from the Giants as the starting center to stabilize the injury-laden position. Left guard is still a mystery, but Saahdiq Charles and Chris Paul are in a competition for the role.
In the draft, Washington took Ricky Stromberg and Braeden Daniels with third- and fourth-round picks, respectively. The team also signed Mason Brooks as an undrafted free agent and signed Jaryd Jones-Smith from the XFL. All those moves made a group that the team felt good about on paper.
"I think the depth...is very good," said head coach Ron Rivera. "We're a young football team this year. We really are, and we expect those guys to be in development mode and we're expecting certain guys that get opportunities to step up and play really well."
It took some time for those expectations to turn into results on the field. That difference between the offensive and defensive lines, the latter of which is full of first-round picks who have been working together for three seasons, was apparent in the first week of camp, as incumbent starter Sam Howell had little time to throw with Young and Allen consistently crashing the pocket.
Like everything else in training camp, context matters when evaluating the group. The Commanders didn't put on pads until Week 2, when the offensive line was able to more effectively counter the defensive line's physicality. And from the team's perspective, there's a benefit to getting reps against what many consider to be a top five defensive front every day.
"Those guys get to help them to become better professionals," Bieniemy said. "So, what better challenge than to face the front four that we're seeing every single day? I love it, I live for it, and I can see the improvement in our guys."
Much of the noticeable growth has come in Week 3 with Rivera saying Wednesday that "the last couple of practices probably have been the best of training camp." The defensive line is still winning reps, but their victories are less frequent with players like Paul, who has been taking most of the starting reps at left guard, holding his own against Allen and Charles Leno using his nine years of experience to match Young's rejuvenated athleticism.
The players can feel the difference, too.
"It is the highest level of competition that we're getting on the offensive line, going up against these guys on defense and we're truly making each other better on both sides of the ball," Wylie said. "It's been a great camp so far."
The Washington Commanders held their final practice before the preseason opener against the Cleveland Browns in front of fans for "Kids Day." Take a look at the top photos from Wednesday morning. (Photos by Emilee Fails and Kourtney Carroll/Washington Commanders)
The rapport between Wylie and Cosmi is perhaps the best example of how far the chemistry among the offensive linemen has come in three weeks. The two work well together in pass protection, and they're able to clear lanes in the running game, which has become less muddled since the pads first came on Aug. 1.
It didn't take long for Wylie and Cosmi to click, either.
"Andrew is my guy, we've gelled," Cosmi said. "It's a great connection between me and him. We're on the same page and in this short amount of time, which is hard to do. So being able to have him and him knowing this offense like he does, it just helps us be better and grow."
Progress like that should please Bieniemy, even though he understands getting the offensive line to a place where everyone is pleased with the results will take time.
"Has it all been perfect? Nah, it's not what training camp is about," Bieniemy said. "It's about working and fine tuning and learning how to grow together and become one as a team and then once we start putting the pieces together, everything else will make us into that fine, oiled machine moving forward."
The fans were back in the stands as the Washington Commanders began Day 12 of training camp. Check out the top photos from this morning. (Photos by Emilee Fails and Kourtney Carroll/Washington Commanders)
There is an abundance of confidence and hope in what the Commanders' offense could be in 2023, but the unit won't be able to accomplish any of that if the offensive line fails to improve.
There have been signs lately that the growing pains will be worth the patience.
"It's not going to be easy," Rivera said. "Nobody said it would be, but I do expect us to get better and better every day. I expect us to get better and better when we start playing."