For the first time in a month, the Patriots are favored heading into kickoff.
A visit from the 3-4 Commanders should instill confidence in a team that could desperately use some juice. The Pats (2-6) lost more than a game last weekend at Miami, dropping a 31-17 final and their leading receiver, Kendrick Bourne, on the trainer’s table with a torn ACL. Quarterback Mac Jones will miss Bourne, whose yards after catch became vital to a Patriots offense with minimal explosion.
However, his absence could allow rookie Demario Douglas to flourish, and fellow young wideouts Tyquan Thornton and Kayshone Boutte should see more playing time versus a porous Washington secondary. Defensively, the Pats are facing the most pass-heavy offense in the league. What will Bill Belichick cook up against former Chiefs offensive coordinator and new Commanders play-caller Eric Bienemy?
Here’s what to watch for:
When the Patriots run
Steady, but unspectacular.
Over the past four weeks, the Pats’ running game has found a down-to-down rhythm it lacked earlier this season. The Patriots rank 10th in rushing success rate, meaning they stay on-schedule better than most offenses, even if they aren’t generating explosive gains. Unfortunately for Rhamondre Stevenson and Co., the Commanders rank among the NFL’s top 10 stingiest run defenses during that same stretch, despite facing run-heavy teams like the Bears, Falcons and Eagles.
Against Washington, the Patriots’ offensive line must create wider rushing lanes. Stevenson and Ezekiel Elliott averaged just 0.7 yards before contact in Miami. If the Pats can’t move the Commanders off the ball inside, where they’ve been most successful, look for them to attack off the edges after Washington traded top defensive ends Chase Young and Montez Sweat earlier this year.
When the Patriots pass
Thanks to the aforementioned trades that shipped Young and Sweat out of Washington, Jones should have plenty of time to throw. But will that translate to more success?
He averaged more than 2.5 seconds inside the pocket per passing play, yet failed to clear 200 passing yards and threw a costly interception. Jones must begin attacking downfield to prevent the Commanders from playing downhill against the Pats’ preferred quick passing concepts. The Patriots have attempted one deep pass in the last two weeks.
Among their best deep-threat options: wide receivers Douglas, Thornton and Jalen Reagor and, down the seam, tight end Mike Gesicki.
When the Commanders run
Through eight games, Washington has called runs on less than 32% of its offensive snaps, so it’s unlikely Sunday will come down to the ground game. But, if it does, expect Brian Robinson to be holding the ball.
Robinson is the Commanders’ leading rusher, with 95 carries for 384 yards and four touchdowns this season. The former third-round pick led Washington in rushing last year as a rookie, reaching 797 yards on barely 200 carries. He’s backed up by versatile pass-catching back Antonio Gibson.
Quarterback Sam Howell will also get involved in the running game, having rushed 24 times for 130 yards and a score this season. Though most of Howell’s runs are scrambles, having covered 122 yards on improvised plays and just eight on designed quarterback runs.
Linebacker Jahlani Tavai could play a quietly critical role for the Patriots, as someone who’s played off the ball and on the edge for this defense. Tavai finished last game at middle linebacker after Ja’Whaun Bentley suffered a hamstring injury. That also forced backup linebacker Mack Wilson into action, and Wilson, while athletic and hard-hitting, has a history of tackling issues.
When the Commanders pass
Having taken 41 sacks, no quarterback has gone down more often this season than Howell. The former fifth-round pick pats the ball like he’s burping a baby in the pocket, which should give the Patriots chances to set Washington back.
But when Howell does fire, he can be dangerous.
“He’s having a really productive year this year,” Belichick said this week. “He’s athletic, he can run, he’s tough. … He’s got the second- or third-most pass attempts in the league – whatever it is, it’s a lot. He‘s been hit, gets up, shows good toughness, really competitive guy. They’ve been in a lot of close games. He’s made some big plays for them.”
Downfield, Pro Bowl wideout Terry McLaurin figures to be the focal point of the Patriots’ defensive game plan. McLaurin leads the Commanders in all major receiving categories and will threaten any of the Pats’ cornerbacks with his deep speed. Though, Howell will spread the ball around.
Five different Washington pass-catchers have 20 or more receptions, including McLaurin, Curtis Samuel (35 for 332 yards), Jahan Dotson (30 for 291 yards), tight end Logan Thomas (29 for 280 yards) and Gibson (20 for 185 yards). While Dotson has disappointed in his second season, his matchup in the slot against Patriots cornerback/safety Myles Bryant may be one the Commanders try to exploit Sunday.