We’re back with perhaps my favorite weekly segment at Buffalo Rumblings. The Buffalo Bills are on the road this weekend, heading to Landover, MD to play an intraconference game against the Washington Commanders. While the teams play in separate conferences, there’s recent history here that gives each side a modicum of familiarity due to current head coaches Sean McDermott and Ron Rivera. But there’s plenty unknown along both sidelines, especially as it relates to the Commanders who enter this week at 2-0 and tied for third place in the NFC East.
Kyle Smith of Hogs Haven joined me this week to chat all things Commanders for our Five Questions series. Read on after the break to learn more about second-year quarterback Sam Howell, offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, and the best attributes of Washington’s defensive line comprised of four former first-round NFL Draft picks. Plus, we also discussed the best ways to attack the Commanders on offense and defense, and Kyle provided some thoughts on this weekend’s matchup as it relates to your potential gambling interests with DraftKings Sportsbook.
At the end of our conversation, you’ll find a link to my responses to Kyle’s questions about the Bills. Take it away, Kyle!
1) Quarterback Sam Howell has been something of a revelation, at least to those outside of the Washington fan base. What’s behind his early success, and what do you see for Howell in the NFL, long term?
How Sam Howell ended up as a fifth-round pick has always been something of an enigma to me. After he was drafted — and we were temporarily saddled with the terrible Carson Wentz, I wrote a piece both looking back at how Howell had fallen from a potential top 5 pick to a fifth rounder in one season of college ball as well as projecting his future with the team. Long story short, after an incredible 2020 season, he lost several key weapons to the NFL and found himself, almost literally, running for his life in 2021. His fundamentals — a strong arm, good accuracy, and a relentless commitment to trying to improve — hadn’t changed, but his production numbers cratered dramatically, and, combined, with his stature (he’s 6’) caused his draft stock to drop.
I think his early success is the product of a few things. I think basically sitting for a year did him a lot of good, in terms of working on things that needed to improve, like his footwork. This year, I think the addition of Eric Bieniemy as his coordinator has been a great match. They seem to have a strong rapport, and Howell appears to appreciate EB’s hard-driving style. As a Washington fan, I’m a bit traumatized by thinking about the “long-term” prospects for QBs here, but my gut says Howell is capable of starting here for many years to come, as long as he continues to develop and improve his game by doing things like releasing the ball a bit faster.
2) Washington bringing in offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy was one of my favorite moves of the offseason. I’m still shocked he hasn’t found a head-coaching opportunity. What has his addition brought to the team, and how have fans taken to him as OC?
The idea of bringing in EB as the offensive coordinator this year was almost universally applauded, in part because there was very little chance he was going to be worse than the outgoing coordinator, Scott Turner. The questions about whether EB “called the plays” in KC loomed when he came over, but I think most fans thought: “If this doesn’t work out, no big deal. He’ll be gone with Rivera after the 2023 season.”
Instead, he’s brought an offensive urgency that hasn’t existed in DC for a very long time. The talent on Washington’s defense is well-discussed, but it’s offense has almost been an afterthought. Quarterbacks have been asked, for years now, simply not to throw up on themselves and give away the game. That’s generally led to pretty pathetic offensive output. It’s only been two games, but the pacing of Washington’s offense, and the creativity in play calling are already pretty evident. The Bills will be a great test this week. It’s also appearing like EB has brought an intensity to the team’s training efforts that is benefiting both sides of the ball.
3) With a defensive line comprised of four former first-round NFL Draft picks, Washington means business up front, defensively. It’s a huge test for any team, but especially one that loves throwing the ball as much as the Bills. What do you believe Washington’s D-line does best, and who is the biggest key to it all?
When Washington’s D-line is at its best, it functions as a unit bringing relentless pressure up the middle with Daron Payne and Jon Allen, and collapsing the pocket on the edges with Montez Sweat and Chase Young. Jack Del Rio relies on that overpowering front four to fuel his defense, which - as a rule - is seen as pretty risk averse. Del Rio isn’t a huge blitzer and really seems to build his defensive scheme around the idea of minimizing big plays.
With Chase Young likely to be back, fully healthy, against the Bills, I expect the line to be focused on containing Josh Allen, first and foremost, with the goal being to beat offensive linemen one-on-one and rattle Allen into making mistakes. The biggest key to that will be the ends sticking to their scheme and maintaining gap integrity, rather than playing for the chance at a sack.
4) On game-planning to stop the Commanders from both sides of the ball: What would you look to employ on defense, and what has been its kryptonite on defense through two games?
Washington’s offense is still so new, it’s a little difficult to answer this question. One shortcoming has been Sam Howell’s propensity - through two games - to hold onto the ball longer than he probably should. The offensive line has pass-blocked pretty well so far, but the team’s sack numbers look terrible, in part because Howell has made some poor decisions. Until he gives me a reason not to, I would put lots of pressure on the tackles, who seem to be the weakest part of this line, and try to force Howell to beat me in the short passing game, where Matt Milano might be able to create some havoc.
Washington’s defense has been vulnerable to misdirection early in games this season, and it continues to have issues with linebacker play, particularly in coverage. Mobile QBs often have the capacity to run pretty freely on this defense, and tight ends and RBs out of the backfield have routinely had success catching short to mid-range passes. The absence of Dawson Knox is less than ideal for the Bills this week.
5) Are you at all surprised by the current line (Washington +6.5) at DraftKings Sportsbook? How do you see things playing out on Sunday?
I’m not surprised, as the general sentiment — for good reason — is that the Bills are a team who could challenge for the Super Bowl and Washington is a team who will be lucky to finish .500. I expect the game to be fairly close, and I think if the defense can rattle Allen early on, Washington could win. The weather will be a major X-factor in the game, and could suppress scoring. My expectation though is that the Bills will win a close match.
My thanks to Kyle for taking the time to chat about this weekend’s Bills-Commanders game. Be sure to check out Kyle’s companion piece over at Hogs Haven. Linked both from our front page and once again via a direct link here.