The opinions expressed in this article do not reflect those of the team.
The Washington Commanders are set to take on the Jacksonville Jaguars at home on Sept. 11. Senior Writer Zach Selby and team analyst Logan Paulsen break down three keys for the Commanders to come away with a win.
1. How will the defensive front account for Trevor Lawrence's mobility?
Logan: Trevor Lawrence's 6-foot 6-inch frame does not hint at mobility or speed at first glance. In fact, his only recorded 40 time is one he ran in high school, clocking a respectable 4.78. While an official time for the golden-haired signal-caller might not exist, his mobility and speed jumps off the tape and is something the Commanders defense needs to account for.
After the Kansas City game, and the masterful performance of Patrick Mahomes, the buzz word for the defense, specifically the defensive line was "rush lane discipline." This is the most basic element of keeping mobile passers like Lawrence in the pocket. It is a nebulous concept, but one that is centered around limiting the space for the passer to operate.
An edge rusher reaches a conflict when they get to the same level as the quarterback. The rusher's instinct is to continue to push up the field, turn the corner and attempt an individual pressure. However, this instinctive rush where the rusher runs up the field often creates space and put the rest of the defense at a disadvantage. In this example, the edge rusher needs to have the awareness to stop their rush and transition to a bull/power rush to compress the pocket. Doing this makes it more difficult for the rusher to get a sack or pressure on the quarterback, but it forces the passer to stay in the pocket. This allows other members of the pass rush to compress the pocket and fields of vision. This type of rush never shows up on a stat sheet, but it is critical to operating a successful defense.
This type of rush discipline is difficult to maintain for the entire game, especially with the offensive line's numerical advantage. With five offensive linemen verses a four-man rush, one of the rushers is often double teamed making the margin of error even smaller. I am excited to see how Jack Del Rio helps the defensive line to mitigate the offensive lines advantage and allow the defensive line to eliminate Lawrence's effectiveness as a rusher.
The Washington Commanders went through their second day of preparation for their Week 1 game against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Check out the top images from Thursday's practice. (Photos by Emilee Fails and Kourtney Carroll/Washington Commanders)
Zach: Washington has generally struggled with mobile quarterbacks in the past. One of the more damning examples was Daniel Jones, who amassed 95 yards on nine carries.
Mobility is not a staple of Lawrence's game -- he had 334 yards and two scores -- but it is a wrinkle that he will utilize on occasion. Logan already touched on rush lane discipline, but I will add that this has been an issue in the past (their struggles against the Buffalo Bills were proof of that), but defensive line coaches Jeff Zgonina and Ryan Kerrigan have been stressing a "four rushing as one" philosophy in practice.
I would also like to see the front crash the middle of the pocket and take away any opportunities for Lawrence to escape. To do so, the Commanders will need defensive tackles Jonathan Allen, Daron Payne and Phidarian Mathis to step up with their pass-rushing prowess. Allen and Payne have proven they can handle that; Allen is coming off a career-high nine sacks, and Payne generated 47 pressures in 2021 with 15 quarterback hits.
Mathis is known primarily as a run defender, but he can also be a problem for offensive linemen against the pass. He led all SEC defensive tackles in sacks from 2019-21, despite only being a starter during his final season.
2. How will the offensive line adapt in pass protection to Wentz's tendency to hold the ball longer?
Logan: The schedule makers have placed a wild card squarely in the lap of the Commanders offensive line. Jacksonville's new defensive coordinator, Mike Caldwell, is a disciple of Todd Bowles, a man known for his aggressive defensive philosophy. Caldwell has embraced his mentor's blitz-happy approach. Jacksonville has also collected a stable of solid pass rushes who through the preseason showed and ability to win one on one pass rush matchups.
This alone would be enough to cause Commanders offensive line coach John Matsko to lose sleep. However, the offensive line must also contend with Scott Turner’s vision for the offense. Turner has expressed a desire to push the football down the field more frequently, using the vertical passing game to create space for the intermediate passing game and run game. On the surface, pushing the ball deep with a quarterback who holds the ball too long against a defense looking to create pressure is not an ideal matchup for the offensive line
If Turner entered the game with only this on his mind, the offensive line would be in trouble. However, Turner has been around long enough to understand he must insulate the offensive line with a solid game plan and good play calling. If Turner handles these moments effectively and is discerning about when to take a shot, the offensive line will have a chance against Jacksonville.
Zach: Technically, Taylor Heinicke took longer to throw the ball than Carson Wentz. According to Next Gen Stats, it took Heinicke 2.97 seconds to get rid of the ball in 2021, which was the fourth-longest in the league, and was .14 seconds longer than Wentz's 2.83.
The difference is that Heinicke escapes the pocket, where Wentz is more stationary. The offensive line will need to hold their rushers for an extra second while Wentz surveys his options, which can feel much longer in the moment. I would expect the running backs and even tight ends like John Bates to stick close to the line of scrimmage to help alleviate some of the pressure off the line.
And while Wentz is known for stretching the field, he will not be asked to do so on every play. He has several players with exceptional athleticism, Terry McLaurin being the prime example, who can win quick routes with ease. That could make life much easier for the offensive line against a restructured Jaguars front seven with three first-round picks.
3. What is one matchup to watch on Sunday?
Logan: As Wentz makes his first start for the Commanders, the matchup of his No. 1 pass-catcher Terry McLaurin versus whoever is covering him is something I am going to be watching with both eyes open.
Jacksonville's starters at corner are Tyson Campbell and Shaquill Griffin. Griffin has more experience, but based on his production last year, he seems to have lost some of what made him special in Seattle.
If I were Caldwell, I would give a lot of thought to matching second-year player Tyson Campbell on McLaurin. Campbell started slow in 2021 but progressed nicely as the year went on. He gained more confidence as a coverage player, showing the twitch and length that caused Jacksonville to take him in the second round. The rumors coming out of Jacksonville's training camp this year are that Campbell is poised for a big year. Jaguars' fans are already speculating that he is going to catapult himself to the top of the cornerback position rankings.
After watching the second half of his 2021 season, I can see why the fans are excited. However, if they want to crown Campbell, he must perform against the best. Campbell made plays in the second half of the season, but they were against lesser offenses and skill players. McLaurin has proven he is one of the NFL's top 15 wideouts. His patient routes, vertical speed and competitiveness at the catch point may be too much for Campbell to handle. I believe this matchup favors Washington and will serve as security blanket for Wentz.
Zach: I believe this game is going to be won up front, which should be clear by the previous questions, and I'll have my eyes on one matchup: Montez Sweat against left tackle Cam Robinson.
Robinson does not have a Pro Bowl or All-Pro on his resume, but he has been a solid left tackle and mainstay of the Jaguars' offensive line. Last season was one of the best he has had as a pass-blocker, as Pro Football Focus gave him a career-high grade of 76.6. He also allowed just one sack in 2021.
Robinson did allow 31 pressures last, though, and Sweat could take advantage of that. Sweat took a step back in 2021, but he also dealt with multiple personal tragedies on top of breaking his jaw and contracting COVID-19. Sweat still has the speed, physicality and short area quickness to make things difficult for any offensive tackle and their quarterback.
Lawrence will inevitably escape the pocket at some point in the game, and when that happens, Sweat can use his 4.4 speed to hawk him down.