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Bills Opponent Preview: Washington Commanders QB Sam Howell

A quick glimpse of the second-year man

Washington Commanders v Denver Broncos Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/Getty Images

The Buffalo Bills look to get a winning streak going this week as they take on the Washington Commanders. Despite being in the NFC, the Commanders have become a bit of a familiar foe the last few years. One thing that’ll be new this season is second-year quarterback Sam Howell. A fifth round pick of Washington’s last season, Howell mostly lurked the sidelines in 2022. In 2023 he showed enough growth to be named the starter. Two games isn’t much, but let’s run through some stats and GIFs to see what Buffalo is in for.

Pass Distribution Charts

Our first look are the Week 1 and Week 2 Next Gen Stats charts. These show the location of every pass attempt, complete with color-coded legend to give an easy snapshot of the result for each throw. Here’s Week 1:

One turnover and one touchdown isn’t bad. I’ll let you do the math if you’re interested (I do plenty of that for you already), but his completion percentage and yards per attempt are respectable. Fine, I can’t help myself. He had a 61% completion percentage and 6.5 yards per attempt. Scan this over well, I’ll come back to it after the Week 2 chart.

Week 2 was even better with a 69% completion rate and 7.7 yards per attempt. His season averages are 65.7% and 7.2 yards per attempt — good for 16th and 13th in the league respectively. Yes, that’s solidly average in both categories, but that’s pretty darn good for a second-year player.

I said I’d come back to Week 1. Check out the throws of 20+ yards. He’s only attempted three, and one of those was barely beyond 20. It looks like early on this year offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy isn’t letting Howell air it out. You might also note maybe they’ll start trusting him more, as all three were complete.

I’m not a big fan of stats without the greater context, so here’s some greater context in the form of the Commanders’ play-direction chart in the passing game so far this year. I left the defensive stats in too, in case you’re curious.

I brought out this graphic to highlight the league rankings. This early in the season, the deep-passing rankings are iron pyrite (aka “fool’s gold”). Look at how low the sample sizes are. Three passes toward the deep middle warrants the seventh-highest total so far.

For the shorter ranges, the left side of the field stands out. Not only is Howell coming out as the fourth-highest average gain, Washington isn’t shy about throwing it there either, with the 11th most attempts. Even crazier, that’s all being done with a fairly bad completion percentage.

What does all of that mean? Howell’s short passes aren’t completed as often as his peers, but generally toward the deeper side of “short.” There’s an easier way to say that: For short left passes, the team is a bit “boom or bust.”

Aside from that oddity, most of the numbers scream “average.” Before we do a little film review from Week 2 to check in on Howell’s potential, I want to reiterate how little he played last season. He was active for only the final game in which he started. In the upset win over the Dallas Cowboys he was only asked to throw 19 times.

If you assumed from that last piece of info that the Bills were likely about to take on a very weak opponent, the rest of the data suggests that Howell is already showing up like a true NFL starter. Now on to the tape!

The Tape

Play 1 — Havel the Rock

The GIF does most of the heavy lifting for this play and what I wanted to show. I know we can all think of a quarterback or two who can be skittish in the pocket. Sam Howell does not seem to be that quarterback and shows off great poise. He couldn’t step into the throw well on this play either, so factor that in when you see the ball was on target.

Play 2 - Autobots, roll out!

Think of this play in the summary. Howell automatically moved to his right and the blocking suggested the offensive line was trying to give up the inside “pressure.” This play seems schemed for this exact outcome. That’s not a knock either. All teams will select plays with a pre-planned read/throw. If you’re curious, I did a rough calculation of average throwing velocity and came up with a bit under 40 mph.

Play 3 — Step up

The pressure from Denver forced Howell to dance in the pocket a bit. After a journey of self-exploration through the magic of choreographed dance, Howell attempted to avert crisis with one last heroic effort. Bills fans know what this type of decision looks like.

Play 4 — One-Winged Angel

Similar to our first play, Washington’s line allows pressure on the play. While under duress from those trying to stop him, Howell still managed to launch a comet with precision. Despite the number of defenders in the area, the timing and ball placement made this cloud-striking pass a decently safe bet.

Play 5 — Time is a square

The play is designed for Howell to pull the trigger quickly and get the ball to cross over the defender for an easy completion. I won’t name names, but someone would like to hop back a few seconds to prevent a tragedy.

Play 6 — Balls to the Wall

So far through two games, Howell has shown the ability to fluctuate between safe tosses and gunslinger. When going gunslinger mode he’s been successful so far, but Commanders fans will just have to accept that some of these throws are going to go the other way. Is Howell the long-term answer at QB? Only time will tell if he can keep it all together to lead his pack, or fall apart and become a lone wolf.

In summary

To do this quickly, Sam Howell looks pretty good for a sophomore player. The pass-distribution charts seem to reflect a fairly high number of predetermined passes, which would be expected with a young quarterback. And to be fair, we’ve seen quarterback Josh Allen and offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey start leaning on the quick-strike game this year as well. Howell also has some gunslinger in him that to this point has had primarily good results. Poise and ball placement seem like strengths with decision making an “incomplete” in my eyes due to low sample size.