ASHBURN — The morning after his team’s 24-8 defeat to the Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Commanders coach Ron Rivera went from one meeting to another and said he “just listened.”
He likely wanted to make sure the information from his staff was being properly relayed. There were plenty of mistakes to correct, players to single out.
But after two straight losses, Rivera wasn’t about to start sharing those criticisms publicly.
“I’m not going to get out here and start calling players out,” Rivera said Monday. “They know.”
While Rivera opted not to criticize, the coach admitted that Washington is still searching for its offensive identity after three games — the last two of which have resulted in the offense being shut out at halftime.
That didn’t seem like it was going to be the case after Week 1. After all, quarterback Carson Wentz thrived with a plethora of playmakers in Washington’s season-opening win over the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Commanders’ talent at wide receiver, tight end and running back was even enough to help Wentz overcome two costly interceptions as the signal-caller rallied the Commanders to a victory.
But the Commanders’ performance hasn’t been the same since. Wentz was sacked a career-high nine times against the Eagles. Slow starts have especially been a problem: Over the last two weeks, the offense has finished the first half with a combined 106 yards.
“We have a mixture of playmakers and we have to figure out the best way to use them,” Rivera said. “We can’t feel that our best three offensive players are our three wide receivers because if we go into that with that mindset, the tendency is going to be to want to throw it into their hands.
“But what we can do with our ability to run the ball, we have to give that a shot as well. … There’s only one ball, and we’ve got to find that combination.”
With Wentz, the Commanders are taking a noticeably different approach in how they go about attacking defenses. Specifically, offensive coordinator Scott Turner is having Wentz throw the ball significantly more on first down than he did last year with Taylor Heinicke. Through three games, Wentz has thrown a pass on 59% of Washington’s first downs — a 10% increase over last season.
In pure numbers, he’s thrown 55 such passes — the second most in the NFL this season.
But here’s the thing: Wentz hasn’t been effective on those throws. He’s been one of the league’s worst quarterbacks on first down. The 29-year-old’s completion percentage on those 55 passes is only 52.7%. His yards per attempt is 5.7. For context, the league average is 65.7% and 7.35 yards per attempt on first down.
The solution, though, probably isn’t as simple as Washington just running the ball more. The Commanders average fewer yards when rushing on first down (4.5) than they do throwing. Other outlets like FiveThirtyEight have suggested that teams are too conservative on first down and that it’s more efficient to pass.
But in any case, the Commanders’ offense is suffering due to its lack of success on first down. This season, Washington has faced second-and-10 or worse 29 times, which ranks second worst in the league. On such plays, the Commanders are averaging just 2.2 yards and have been sacked a league-high six times — half of which came Sunday against the Eagles.
“All we can do is go back to a drawing board,” wide receiver Curtis Samuel said.
If the Commanders want to run the ball more in 2022, Brian Robinson’s pending return should help. The rookie was on track to have a prominent role in the offense before being shot twice in an armed robbery attempt in August. Robinson, though, is eligible to return in Week 5 and has been making significant progress.
Last year, Washington arguably didn’t find its offensive identity until after the bye week in November. That’s when Turner started to deploy a run-heavy offense, and Washington rattled off a four-game winning streak partly as a result. Back then, Rivera said the bye week allowed his staff to do a critical self-scout and implement the shift.
But the Commanders realistically can’t wait until their bye week this year to make changes. That’s because it doesn’t come until December in Week 14.
The season could already be lost by then if not enough progress is made.