Halfway through 2023, the Commanders are already looking to next season

The Washington Commanders have had their share of memorable stretches in recent years. There was the winning streak that led them to a surprise playoff run in 2020. There was the string of losses late in 2021 that derailed the season. And, of course, there was the bitter end to 2022.

But few stretches have had more impact on the franchise’s future than these past four games. After losing to the lowly Chicago Bears and New York Giants (with a win against the Atlanta Falcons sandwiched in between) and then dropping a second game to the Philadelphia Eagles, the Commanders traded their starting defensive ends, Chase Young and Montez Sweat, on Tuesday. In that span, the team also benched two starters and dropped to 3-5.

“It’s an opportunity to see what else we have,” Coach Ron Rivera said Wednesday of the trades. “It’s an opportunity to go out and win football games using different guys.”

The team made the moves with the longer term in mind; the Commanders couldn’t keep all four starting defensive linemen on lucrative deals, and moving Young and Sweat brought back draft capital. Washington’s focus has shifted to 2024, but nine games still remain, so let’s take stock at the season’s approximate midpoint.

With Sweat and Young gone, who’s up next at defensive end? Coordinator Jack Del Rio said the team will use “everybody” to help fill the void. That presumably includes fifth-round rookie KJ Henry, who has yet to play a defensive snap, and seventh-rounder Andre Jones Jr., who has played only five.

The onus mostly falls on Casey Toohill and James Smith-Williams, Washington’s top rotational ends, as well as veteran Efe Obada. (Toohill is now the team’s sack leader, with four.) In 2021, after Young suffered his knee injury, Toohill and Smith-Williams started four games together. The Commanders won all four. In the games since, the two have rotated in and out to provide relief to the starters and step in on certain packages.

Will the defense fall off completely without Sweat and Young? Not necessarily. Remember, Washington played much of 2022 without Young. Smith-Williams started 14 games, and Obada started one.

In that 15-game stretch, the Commanders’ defense ranked fourth in total yards allowed (308.9 per game) and opponent third-down conversion rate (32.4 percent), eighth in passing yards allowed (197.2) and seventh in total defensive expected points added per game (3.68), per website TruMedia.

Brewer: The Commanders’ plan has come full circle — and right between the eyes

What is the long-term plan at defensive end? It’s possible not even the team knows the answer. Toohill, Smith-Williams and Obada are headed for free agency in March. How well, and how much, Henry and Jones play in this stretch could factor significantly. But so too will the decisions of the coaching staff and front office, and it’s unclear who will be around at season’s end.

What does this mean for Rivera? The team is 3-5. It just traded two of its top players. It has new ownership and could be headed for a third straight season of missing the playoffs.

That track record wouldn’t bode well for any coach’s future. But it may take a lot for the Commanders’ ownership group to move on from Rivera before the end of the season, in part because of the makeup of the rest of the coaching staff. Elevating Eric Bieniemy to interim coach would take him away from the offense, and the team has preached the importance of developing Sam Howell.

One of the main focuses of the season has been figuring out whether Howell can be a long-term starter. After the trades, it has become even more important.

The second quarter of the season ended with one of Howell’s worst performances (New York) and one of his best (Philadelphia). Against the Eagles, his quick release shined and he was only sacked once. In the games to come, Howell can further the team’s belief in him by becoming more consistent.

No player has been consistent enough over the past four games to truly stand out. Even wide receiver Terry McLaurin, one of the Commanders’ most reliable players, has had his share of miscues (two drops late against the Eagles in Week 8). But there have been a couple of significant moments.

Jamison Crowder’s 61-yard punt return against the Falcons: Crowder has been a boon for special teams as a reliable returner. He showed up big against Atlanta, sparking a team-wide turnaround that led to a win.

Joey Slye’s 61-yard field goal against the Eagles: In the final seconds of the first half, Washington set up in field goal range. But Chris Paul, starting at left guard, was flagged for a false start, leading to a five-yard penalty that would test Slye’s leg. Slye converted the 61-yarder to give Washington a 17-10 lead at the break and set a franchise record for the longest field goal.

Who called the shots on the Commanders’ trades? Your questions, answered.

Jahan Dotson’s 108 receiving yards against the Eagles: After multiple games with costly drops and few targets, Dotson had his second career 100-yard receiving game in Week 8. He had eight catches on 10 targets, including a 21-yard touchdown and a 23-yard reception.

Where to start? There are so many candidates, including the offensive game plan against New York and big-time drops by top receivers in multiple games. But let’s focus on two that loom largest.

Rivera not preparing the team for Chicago: Going into the game, the Bears were cratering, losers of 14 straight, with an overwhelmed coach and unhappy stars. Then they embarrassed the Commanders, winning at FedEx Field, 40-20. It was the type of loss that will stand out at the end of the season.

Not challenging Philadelphia’s fourth-and-four conversion: Late in the third quarter in Week 8, as the Commanders clung to a 17-10 lead against the reigning NFC champions, Eagles wideout DeVonta Smith hauled in a pass to convert on fourth and four — or so it seemed. Replay showed Smith losing control of the ball, and had Rivera challenged the ruling, Washington probably would have gotten the ball near midfield with a chance to pad its lead.

Instead, Philadelphia scored and went on to win, 38-31. Multiple players urged Rivera to challenge the play, and he said he didn’t because he hadn’t gotten a good view of the replay on screen or heard from anyone watching in the booth.

Late in the Commanders’ loss to the Bears, after Emmanuel Forbes Jr. gave up a string of big receptions to Chicago’s DJ Moore, Rivera benched the rookie cornerback. In the previous game, against the Eagles, Forbes surrendered four big plays.

According to Pro Football Focus, Forbes has allowed 22 catches on 30 targets in coverage, for 446 yards and three touchdowns. Opposing quarterbacks’ passer rating when targeting him in coverage is 134.7.

Since the Bears game, Forbes has played just nine defensive snaps. He played five against the Eagles in Week 8 and gave up catches of 20, 27 and 25 yards in coverage on three of them.

The offensive line has changed as well. After a dreadful game against the Giants at MetLife Stadium, Nick Gates was replaced by Tyler Larsen at center. Gates signed a three-year, $16.5 million contract with the Commanders in March and has given up five sacks and 19 pressures, both the second most among centers, according to PFF. With Larsen at center in Week 8, Howell took only one sack.

Nov. 23, 4:30 p.m. (Thanksgiving)

The third quarter of the season, much like the second, includes the two worst teams in the NFL by point differential: the Patriots (minus-90) and Giants (minus-92). Washington lost both such games in the second quarter.

Seattle did the opposite of Washington at the trade deadline, acquiring pass-rusher Leonard Williams from the Giants, and has a solid offense with quarterback Geno Smith.

After trades, Commanders players say they’re not ‘fully set on rebuilding’

Washington’s first meeting with Dallas will be a classic Thanksgiving matchup. It’s the first time they will meet on Turkey Day since Washington thrashed the Cowboys, 41-16, in 2020, one of the best wins of Rivera’s tenure.

If the Commanders want to make a push for the playoffs, they will probably have to win at least two of the next four games. A difficult final quarter looms, with home games against Miami, San Francisco and Dallas and road games against the Los Angeles Rams and New York Jets.

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