The Washington Commanders are traveling to Foxborough, Massachusetts this weekend to take on the New England Patriots in Week 9. Here are three keys to securing a victory, presented by KIA.
1. Simplify things for Sam Howell.
Sam Howell was able to pick at the Philadelphia Eagles' defense, setting career highs in yards, completions and touchdowns. The Eagles, while stout on that side of the ball, run a simple scheme with more traditional coverage concepts. That's not going to be the case against the Patriots.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is 27-9 coaching against first year starting quarterbacks, and part of that is because he makes life so difficult for them. He uses a system that is known for confusing signal-callers, even some of the best at the position like Peyton Manning. Linebackers line up in usual spots; coverages are disguised to look like foreign concepts; and Belichick is willing to employ any method possible to get offenses off balance.
"Every week will be a huge test, but obviously when you're going against Bill Belichick and his defense, there's always a challenge," said assistant head coach/offensive coordinator **Eric** Bieniemy. "These guys are pretty good. They do a hell of a job. They're a well-coached staff, they got some good players. We got to go out and be on top of our game."
Knowing how much Howell tends to struggle against more complicated defenses, as all young quarterbacks do, the Commanders will need to find ways of simplifying the game plan to give him easier decisions. They were exceptional at that against the Eagles, giving Howell quick throws closer to the line of scrimmage and implementing more screens.
The Commanders also use more sprint outs to get Howell on the move. As Howell has said in previous weeks, that can't be used all time because it cuts the field in half, but it also limits what Howell needs to look at before making a decision.
Howell completed 20-of-23 passes either behind or within five yards of the line of scrimmage against the Eagles. So, giving him shorter, quicker throws should lead to more success against the Patriots.
2. Take advantage of the Patriots' depleted wide receiver corps.
The Patriots were already a struggling offense before this week, ranking 26th in yards per game, 31st in points and 25th in third downs. Things are about to get even harder for them, though.
New England will enter its matchup with Washington without two of its best weapons. Leading receiver Kendrick Bourne has been placed on Injured Reserve, while DeVante Parker is in the concussion protocol. That's going to limit the options for Mac Jones, who has already had an inconsistent season. He's tied for the second most interceptions this season, and his QBR of 43.9 is 23rd among all quarterbacks.
Weapons like Hunter Henry and Mike Gesicki will likely get more targets with Parker and Bourne out, but the Patriots' receiving corps being banged up should give Washington a chance to bounce back from what has been a string of disappointing matchups against opponents' top receivers. To this point, the Commanders have allowed a pass-catcher to amass at least 100 yards in six of their eight games.
Keeping the Patriots' wideouts locked down should provide more opportunities for Washington's pass rush, which will be playing without Chase Young and Montez Sweat for the first time this week. If the secondary can get Jones to hold the ball longer, it will allow Jonathan Allen, Daron Payne and the rest of the front to close in around him.
And even if the defensive line can't get him on the ground, the pressure could be enough to rattle Jones. When Jones is under pressure, he completes just 52.8% of his passes, which ranks 25th in the league.
3. Build upon the improved protection from Week 8.
You've probably read something like this before: the Commanders will head into their next matchup against a defense that has struggled to get sacks. Anyone who has watched the Commanders this year knows that those teams tend to have success against the Burgundy & Gold.
That's the case once again in Week 9, as the Commanders, who are tied with the New York Giants for giving up the most sacks in the league, are set to take on a Patriots defense that has just 15 sacks, which is tied for the second fewest in the NFL.
Things didn't go well for the Commanders the last time they faced a team like that. The Giants only had five sacks before their Week 7 game against Washington, but they ended up sacking Howell six times through a mixture of lackluster offensive line play and Howell holding onto the ball longer than he should have.
The cause of that was because of the complex blitz packages that the Giants constantly threw at the Commanders. As a result, the offense couldn't even get a first down until the second quarter. It's almost a guarantee that the Patriots will do something similar.
The good news is that Washington's tweaks to the offensive line seem to have solved at least some of the Commanders' problems. Chris Paul and Tyler Larsen played well against the Eagles' front and got praise from both Bieniemy and Ron Rivera. They helped the offense allow just one sack on Howell, which is by far the lowest number of the season.
Although the Eagles have a more successful front in terms of getting sacks than the Patriots, Sunday's game will be a more difficult challenge because of how much more intricate the Patriots' scheme will be. Therefore, it will be imperative for Washington's offensive line to step up and keep Howell clean long enough for him to get the ball out of his hands.
The Commanders have failed to put together a consistent string of positive offensive performances this season. Doing so against a complex Patriots scheme will be a test to determine whether the Eagles game was a true turning point for the unit.