This year, under quarterback Carson Wentz, Washington has been lousy. In 57 game actions, Wentz completed 28 of 53 passes (52.8 percent) for 232 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions. Not only does Washington rank last in NFL playing action, according to the EPA, but it’s also 11 times worse than the second worst team (Carolina).
Turner suggested the numbers are skewed because, in a small sample, commanders have had five big negative plays: two sacks, two interceptions and a fumble. But even without those five snaps, Washington still ranks as one of the league’s worst in game action.
So what’s wrong? Does the blame lie with Wentz (or others) for not executing? Is Turner not adjusting to his personal or his opponents? Are these growing pains natural for a veteran quarterback adjusting to a new scheme? Could it be circumstantial? (Washington has often fallen behind this season, allowing defenses to not fear the run.)
“The biggest thing we need to do is eliminate the mistakes, and then if we stay out of second-and-15, we’re going to be better in the game,” Turner said. “If we take a sack on the first down, our game action pass is not going to be good on 2nd and 20.”
This weekend, game action could be pivotal against the Tennessee Titans. The past two years, the Titans have been among the best in the league, in part because defenses respect elite running back Derrick Henry and in part because quarterback Ryan Tannehill excels at passing. But also: Tennessee’s defense seems particularly susceptible to game action.
Since 2021, the Titans’ defense has been pretty much the same with coordinator Shane Bowen, safety Kevin Byard and all-star linemen Jeffrey Simmons and Denico Autry. He has always played poorly against the action game. This year, the Titans’ success rate (the percentage of plays in which they have avoided a positive EPA) against non-action plays is second-best in the NFL at 65 percent. Against game action, the Titans’ hit rate is 42.1 percent, fourth-worst in the entire league.
If Tennessee’s offense stays focused on the run and relatively unexplosive, the odds that it can build a big lead are slimmer. If the game stays close and Washington isn’t forced into obvious passing situations, its play action has a better chance of being effective, especially against a defense as vulnerable as the Titans’.
Scott Turner’s last play: Going from the booth to the sideline
Coach Ron Rivera and Wentz said a key to improving game action is being more committed to the run. Through the first three weeks of the season, Washington was one of the most pass-happy teams in the league. Rivera said running more would make the fake more “saleable,” adding that the potential return of running back Brian Robinson Jr., a physical presence among the tackles, “could have an impact.”
Although the suggestion of running to set the game action is intuitive, the data contradicts it, as does a lot of conventional wisdom about the function of the running game. In 2018, after studying whether effective racing helps improve gaming action, data scientist Ben Baldwin completed for Football Outsiders there is no evidence that this is true.
But earlier this season, with defenses around the league playing pass-first more than ever and running runs becoming more effective, the idea that running could successfully set up game action could come true. . If offenses force defenses to respect their ability to run, defenses will have to spend more defenders and less on coverage.
Last week in Dallas, Washington seemed to be following that pattern. The Cowboys opened the game by scheming to stop the pass, and the Commanders ran the ball well, rushing 14 times for 101 yards. The 7.21 yards-per-carry average was the franchise’s best first-half mark since 2019. But penalties and errors constantly put the offense on second and third and in long, obvious passing situations that lost the advantage of the effective run.
Looking back, Dallas DC’s lightning good play Dan Quinn at 1-10.
Washington ran 18/20 plays under center on Sunday. But this time, a fake. DE didn’t bite. pressure immediately.
One of the small reasons Washington’s ground success didn’t translate into action success. pic.twitter.com/3bolSdHiNy
—Sam Fortier (@Sam4TR) October 6, 2022
Early in the third quarter, on first and 10, Washington lined up under center. Dallas’ defense should have expected a run, because 18 of the 20 times Washington went under center Sunday, that’s what happened. But when Wentz pulled the ball away and turned to the smuggled right, he saw Cowboys defensive end Sam Williams closing in on him.
Dan Quinn, the Cowboys’ defensive coordinator, plays an aggressive frontcourt that stops the run on the way to the quarterback. He likes to call space control pressures, which fill all the spaces on the offensive line and lessen the spin of the game action. He had called for pressure on this play, and Williams, the rear defensive end, was in the perfect position to defend the contraband. He didn’t bite the run fake and almost hit Wentz.
Had Wentz had time, he could have hit a receiver on a deep cross route for at least 15 yards. But instead, he threw short to tight end Logan Thomas, who lost a yard. In addition to penalties, it was those kinds of subtle details that prevented Washington from translating run effectiveness into game action success.
At his press conference on Thursday, Turner took some blame.
“The two passes we made [from under center], those were not good,” he said. “We have to make sure we’re doing a better job on those cases.”
The curious case of Terry McLaurin and his lack of goals in the first half
In the big picture, Turner and Wentz said, another way to increase the effectiveness of the action game would be to synchronize the concepts of running and passing so that everything looks the same. And while running the ball doesn’t necessarily mean better game action, an increase in rushing attempts could still help Wentz. In four games, Turner has asked a lot of Wentz mentally, as he has dropped back 198 times, the most in the NFL.
“The running game is efficient, solid and explosive, I think he can open up [play action]Wentz said. “Being committed to the race, which I think we did a good job of last week, [and] just keeping it, I think it can make everyone’s life easier.”
If Washington wants to reestablish its identity as an action team, there may be no better matchup than this.