The Washington Commanders lost 23-21 to the Carolina Panthers in the preseason opener, but upon closer inspection, the game revealed a few notable developments, including an emerging plan on defense, what a healthy Curtis Samuel could do for the offense and one big change by offensive coordinator Scott Turner.
Scott Turner: New spot, similar scheme
Despite having a new quarterback, many parts of offensive coordinator Scott Turner’s scheme looked familiar. In three series with the first team, he used high rates of play action and pre-snap motion to create some easy throws. Last season, Washington was among the league leaders in both categories.
Perhaps the biggest difference for Turner was location. For the first two years as coordinator, he called plays from the booth. On Saturday, he called them from the sidelines. After the game, on his way out of the locker room, Turner explained he made the switch “just for communication.”
Rivera complimented Turner and quarterback Carson Wentz for finding a good rhythm.
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“You can almost see Carson anticipating … the call, step right into the huddle and really just take command of it, spit it out, and then get to the line,” Rivera said. “You know, we weren’t close to delay of games, we weren’t running out of play clock time and that told me that we had a really good day.”
Defensive personnel coming into focus
Despite two key players sitting with injuries — cornerback Benjamin St-Juste (hamstring) and defensive end Chase Young (ACL) — the three series of first-team defense hinted at how coaches plan to fill the two positions without locked-in starters.
In the slot, Washington used corner Danny Johnson at nickel, though when St-Juste is healthy, he’ll likely start over Johnson. In the big nickel subpackage, Kam Curl slid from safety to slot and second-year safety Darrick Forrest replaced him. Forrest seems to have the edge on rookie safety Percy Butler for the role.
“The one thing about Darrick that you like is that he is a high-impact guy,” Rivera said. “He runs around. He runs into things. He is physical by nature, and he’s got tremendous athleticism.”
The end who replaced Young opposite Montez Sweat was James Smith-Williams. The team appears to like Efe Obada and Casey Toohill as the second set of ends.
A glimpse of healthy Curtis Samuel
In his first preseason game, receiver Curtis Samuel had two catches for 14 yards — about half of the entire output from his injury-plagued last season (six catches, 27 yards). But numbers belie Samuel’s true impact. Turner seemed to use him in motion more than any other receiver, perhaps trying to force the defense to account for Samuel’s versatility and explosiveness.
If Samuel can remain healthy — Rivera said the team continues to follow the plan to get him back in shape — then he could become the elusive, yards-after-catch weapon the offense lacked last year. Turner hinted at it by calling a screen to him on the second play of the game.
“I’ve seen it in camp,” Wentz said. “I’ve seen … how explosive he is with the ball in his hands, so that’s good for him to get out here, and it’s good for me to feel that and start developing that chemistry in-game.”
Rookie running back shines
After top running back Antonio Gibson fumbled on the second drive, rookie Brian Robinson Jr. impressed with six carries for 26 yards and a touchdown. In one series, he showcased several skills — catching a screen, using vision to find a narrow hole, running physically on a short-yardage situation — and looked every bit the polished back who spent five years at Alabama.
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On the 1-yard touchdown run, Turner showed faith in Robinson by motioning two tight ends from left to right and then running left.
“Brian showed us why we drafted him, and that’s the downhill, physical presence on the inside,” Rivera said. “He runs with a good lean. He moves the pile, one of those things to create energy and sets a tone for the offensive line. … I was pretty excited of what we got.”
Robinson said he hadn’t expected to play as early as he did, and that while he was ready to step in, he’d need more reps to feel acclimated to the NFL.
“I still don’t feel comfortable,” he said after the game. “I still don’t feel like I’ve played enough to gain the comfortability that I need to play at this position. But the series that I was in gave me a good feel for what’s to come. The more I continue to get game reps, the more comfortable I’ll get.”
Washington announced an attendance of 44,855, which reflects the number of tickets sold, not the number of fans who went through the turnstiles.
This season, Washington is hoping to rebound from its dreadful 2021, when it finished 31st in the NFL with an average home attendance of 52,751. The crowd appeared smaller than the announced figure Saturday, but before the game, team president Jason Wright spoke highly of the progress the business staff has made, including that the rebrand is ahead of schedule and that ticket sales are up in large part due to the rebuilding of the base of season-ticket holders.
“We feel like we’re in a really good spot,” he said. “We’ve got other teams calling us to figure out what we’re doing, which is good.”