Week 1: Commanders season outlook and three keys to victory

By Waleed Aslam

After a long seven months without football, the NFL season is finally upon us. Blockbuster trades, key free agency signings and new head coaches are sure to make this year as exciting as ever. The new-look Washington Commanders are looking to bounce back after a disappointing and injury-ridden 2021 season. During this past offseason, the front office traded for former Eagles and Colts quarterback Carson Wentz to hopefully solve the organization’s long standing quarterback issue. Additionally, the Commanders drafted several ready-to-perform players in the draft who will hopefully make an immediate impact on both offense and defense.

Heading into 2021, there were expectations that quarterback play would finally improve  after the acquisition of Ryan Fitzpatrick. Add in the impressive playoff performance from Taylor Heinicke, the Commander’s were hoping their passing attack would finally head in the right direction. However, they continued to struggle, posting below-average passing statistics across the board. With the arrival of Wentz, Washington will be looking at their third different opening day quarterback in as many years. Fans and coaches are hoping that Wentz can transform the offense into an above-average unit that could cause problems in the division. Here are three keys for the Commanders to start the season off with a victory:

Defense has to return to 2020 form in the first game of the season against Jacksonville Jaguars

After an outstanding 2020 campaign, the defense was absolutely abysmal last year. Injuries certainly played a role in this, but even prior to injuries there were noticeable dips in performance from starters. The linebacker core is without a doubt one of the weakest in the NFL. Last year’s first round selection Jamin Davis hasn’t lived up to the hype yet after being selected 16th overall. Former second overall pick Chase Young had a down year before tearing his ACL in week 10, forcing him to miss the rest of the season and at least the first four weeks of 2022. Young’s PFF rating dropped 12 points to a 75.1 while he only managed 1.5 sacks. Washington’s biggest defensive downfall was allowing teams to basically convert every third and fourth down. They were by far and away the worst team regarding this metric, giving teams more chances to move the ball up the field.

However, there is hope. According to Football Outsiders, third and fourth down conversion percentages for NFL defenses usually trends towards the average, proposing that the Commanders defense should not be taken lightly. This variance in performance over the past two years is conversing, so consistency on defense is one of the most important X-factors for the team. With plenty of talent including Montez Sweat and pro-bowler Jonathan Allen, the front seven must not dissapoint. Going against former teammate and now Jacksonville Jaguar Brandon Scherff, the defensive line has to apply consistent pressure to second-year quarterback Trevor Lawrence. However, pressure is not the only element the defense must focus on. Next Gen Stats ranked Lawrence, a generational prospect out of Clemson, third best in evading pressure last year. This puts further emphasis on the coverage by linebackers as Lawrence can scramble away from pressure. Additionally, the secondary cannot afford to make mistakes like dropping open interceptions or missing easy tackles. If all parts of the defense can play in unison, Jacksonville will be in for a scary surprise.

Limit turnovers

Turnover issues were a major reason why the Commander’s offense struggled last year. Dealing with a slight shoulder injury, running back Antonio Gibson fumbled the ball six times, a large increase compared to only one fumble in his rookie year. Though he still has great potential, Gibson must have better ball security this year so the offense can consistently move into scoring range. Before the season started, the team announced rookie running back Brian Robinson Jr. to become the team’s starting running back after impressive play throughout the preseason. The team relegated Gibson to third down and special team duties after discouraging performances in preseason games. However on August 28, Robinson was shot multiple times in an armed robbery attempt. Fortunately for Robinson, the bullets didn’t cause any structural damage and he returned to the team’s facility just a few days later. He is now on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list, meaning he will miss at least the first four games of the season. With Robinson’s potential extended absence, Gibson has recovered into the starting role. He must improve his yards per carry and make less mistakes for Jacksonville’s defense to be on edge throughout the game.

Carson Wentz has to be efficient

The third and, arguably, most important key to a victory in Week 1 is the performance of Wentz. As a former MVP candidate who performed well in 2021, Wentz provides something new: a strong, reliable arm. This should extract more out of Washington’s surrounding talent, such as star receiver Terry Mclaurin, proven speedster Curtis Samuel and first round selection Jahan Dotson. Last year Wentz performed around the middle of the pack, with a good touchdown to interception ratio but with a smaller load and poor efficiency. He had plenty of moments in the season where he made great passes and was efficient, but he had an equal amount of mistakes caused by inaccurate throws and poor decision making. As a quarterback with a high ceiling and a low floor, the entire season could depend on his performance. If he can revert to his 2017 campaign in Philadelphia, the Commander’s offensive attack would be potent. The Jaguars had a poor defense last year, but with players such as Josh Allen, Shaquill Griffin and first overall pick Trayvon Walker, Wentz cannot take anything for granted. In order for the Commanders to succeed in Week 1, Wentz needs to hit his open receivers and trust his best playmakers.

If the Commanders can finish business at home by limiting the Jaguars offense, not giving the ball away and moving the ball on offense, the start of this season could be a glimpse into the bright future that the team possesses. The Jaguars are an up and coming team that have struggled in the past few years but have loads of untapped potential, similar to the Commanders. A convincing win over the Jags would increase confidence exponentially for Washington and, hopefully, lead to another playoff berth and many more exciting memories.