- The Washington Times
Monday, September 12, 2022

ASHBURN — Ron Rivera noticed Scott Turner called Sunday’s 28-22 season-opening win over the Jacksonville Jaguars with a bit of “moxie.” 

Rivera said the Commanders offensive coordinator dialed up passing plays even when conventional wisdom suggested the team run. He deployed creative formations: Two-back sets in the shotgun. Passing downs with four targets bunched to one side of the field.

All while sticking to the game plan. Rivera said the coordinator didn’t try to “force anything,” despite Washington temporarily losing the lead in the fourth quarter.

“Sometimes discretion is a better part of valor,” Rivera said Monday. “And you take that.”

It helps, of course, that Turner had weapons he could deploy and trust. 

The Commanders’ reworked offense was just one of the many glaring differences in Sunday’s season opener when comparing the team’s performance to last season. New quarterback Carson Wentz targeted a total of 10 players — seven of whom made catches — and the team had five different runners attempt a carry. That kind of spread-it-around versatility was missing from last year’s unit, particularly as playmakers like wideout Curtis Samuel and tight end Logan Thomas all missed significant time with injuries. 

On the other side of the ball, Washington’s defense also looked different. While not perfect by any means, the defensive line was able to coordinate its rush with coverage in the secondary — leading to mistimed passes and overthrows. Rivera praised defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio for being “steady,” noting how engaged he was with players.

Rivera and Co. spent the offseason hoping that a series of tweaks would lead to better results. In addition to trading for Wentz, Washington drafted first-rounder Jahan Dotson and banked on the return of injured players to boost the offense. On defense, the Commanders implemented new mix-and-match coverages in an attempt to play to the unit’s strengths. 

There’s still a lot of season left. But so far, returns are positive.

“I feel like we were rushing four as one, and I feel like last year and the previous years we really got away from that,” defensive tackle Jonathan Allen said. “It was more four 1-on-1s as opposed to us working together and playing well together.”

Here’s just how different Washington’s offense was: Before hauling in a 49-yard bomb in the fourth, wide receiver Terry McLaurin had just one catch for nine yards. In prior years, a quiet McLaurin performance often led to offensive struggles. This time, the Commanders were still able to move the ball.

Samuel, who was limited to just five games last year because of injuries, exceeded his 2021 production (six catches, 27 yards) in just one game as he finished with eight receptions for 55 yards and a touchdown. Dotson hauled in two touchdowns, including the game-winner. And running back Antonio Gibson had more than 100 yards from scrimmage (58 rushing, 72 receiving).

“We have a lot of things planned for the future,” Dotson said. “A lot of guys that can make plays.” 

To be clear, though, Rivera saw mistakes when reviewing Sunday’s game. 

Wentz, despite his four touchdowns, threw two interceptions. The first, Rivera said, came when the quarterback was late on the throw, while the second was the result of a great read from Jaguars defensive end Travon Walker. The turnovers were part of a cold stretch from the Commanders that paved the way for Jacksonville to climb back from a 14-3 halftime deficit. 

Defensively, the Commanders allowed 383 yards — which would have been their seventh-most last season. Rivera said the unit didn’t properly execute a few “banjo” calls, or man coverage that plays like a zone. He also noted how linebacker Jamin Davis was put “in a couple of tough positions,” and the team had to be better at avoiding those looks. 

Rivera added the team’s starting defensive tackles played more than he would have liked after rookie Phidarian Mathis exited on the second drive with a knee injury. Daron Payne and Allen played 55 and 54 of 70 snaps, respectively. 

Mathis, it turns out, suffered a season-ending meniscus tear and was placed on injured reserve. The team signed defensive tackle Donovan Jeter to fill the second-rounder’s spot. 

But Rivera said he saw the team’s mistakes as “correctable.” There was nothing that suggested, he said, that players weren’t good enough.

“There’s still some things we can improve and get better at,” Rivera said. “A lot of things that I know Jack and the staff worked on this offseason are starting to come to fruition. It’s not quite where we want it to be yet, but I do think the guys most certainly played well.”

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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