The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Carson Wentz’s sacks top a long list of issues the Commanders must face

Carson Wentz took a career-high nine sacks in the Commanders' Week 3 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

Washington Commanders Coach Ron Rivera watched the tape, and his initial diagnosis, he said, was accurate.

The Philadelphia Eagles’ nine sacks of Carson Wentz on Sunday in a dismal 24-8 loss were the result of mistakes across the board. For some, the offensive line should shoulder the blame. For others, Wentz was at fault. But issues downfield and even on the sideline also hindered Washington’s offense.

“I’m an optimistic person,” Rivera said Monday. “But … the guys that need to play better got to play better. That’s the truth of the matter. You go back and look at some of the things that have happened — we had some opportunities in that game.”

After starting the season on a high, thanks to a win over the Jacksonville Jaguars that spurred hope of a fresh start, the Commanders (1-2) have all but collapsed. Their offense has sputtered, their new quarterback has reverted to a past version of himself many hoped he had moved on from, their defense has appeared a shell of its 2020 self, and now, only three games in, they seem stuck in that same rut where they have sat for years.

In a season in which Rivera said he expected his team to take a significant jump, the Commanders have so far been planted firmly on the ground, adding to the palpable frustration for their head coach. But perhaps the biggest concerns now are the play up front and the concerning trend of Washington’s quarterback.

Through Sunday’s games, the Commanders had allowed 15 sacks and 53 quarterback pressures, both NFL highs. Philadelphia produced seven of its nine sacks without blitzing, relying on a basic four-man rush to wreak havoc.

Although opinions differ — especially on social media, where users are quick to cast blame — Ross Tucker, a former NFL offensive lineman and the host of the “Ross Tucker Football Podcast,” believes a handful of Sunday’s sacks were the result of Washington’s line simply getting beaten. But the others, Tucker said, were tied to Wentz’s poor pocket presence and his penchant for holding the ball too long.

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“Typically, it’s because he never wants to give up on a play,” Tucker said. “He believes he can break a tackle or make a guy miss and still make a play. It’s sort of the competitor in him.”

Tucker said Wentz’s style worked in 2017, when he helped the Eagles reach the Super Bowl and was an MVP candidate before suffering a knee injury. But behind Washington’s line, and perhaps with a slightly slower step than he had before his injuries, Wentz has been exposed.

“It’s unfortunate because I think he throws a good ball,” Tucker said. “I think he’s a smart football player, but his pocket presence and protection of the football have always been lacking, and at this point it’s just not going to get better.”

He added: “I can tell you that’s the worst feeling in the world for an offensive lineman, when you’re throwing it a lot and the quarterback’s holding on to the ball and you’re losing so you’ve got to come from behind. I would hate blocking for him.”

After Sunday’s loss, Wentz accepted fault for “most” of the nine sacks and admitted he should have released the ball faster than he did at times. He expected the game film would show even more issues.

“We’ve looked at it,” Rivera said of the film. “We figured it out. We’ve addressed it. Now we’ve got to go out and do it.”

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But the problems don’t end with Wentz. So far this season, the mantra after each game has been eerily similar. The Commanders need to eliminate explosive plays. They need to shore up their pass protection. They need players to play better and coaches to coach better. They just need to win.

“There is a point [where] that urgency is there,” Rivera said. “We’re three games into it, and I’d like to believe that we should play better than we are right now. And that’s what we’re going to work on.”

On Monday, Rivera cited his team’s youth as a reason for its lack of execution. Although most of the Commanders’ starters are veterans — the average age of their offensive starters Sunday is 27.3, and wide receiver Jahan Dotson was the only true rookie to start on either side of the ball — much of the team’s depth is made up of rookies and newcomers.

Rivera added that at times technique has been the issue. Little details in pass protection can be the difference in keeping a defender at bay vs. letting him dip around or bull-rush a blocker for a sack.

“Some of those things are things that … we can do to help them as far as what we want to call for our protections in those particular plays,” Rivera said.

Rivera also noted that, on Sunday, the defense corrected issues of positioning but it didn’t finish plays. For instance, a defensive back would read the play correctly and get in the right spot to be able to eliminate an explosive play, but then he would fail to do so.

“It’s finishing the plays going to the ground,” Rivera said. “Keep trying to get that ball. And, who knows, maybe that ball moves or something like that. But when you’re there — I mean, you’re right there — that’s hard.”

More difficult: watching the Commanders’ offense rely on just one dimension instead of spreading the ball around and marrying the running game with the passing game. Against the Jaguars, seven Washington players caught a pass. Against the Eagles, Washington’s top receiving option, Terry McLaurin, didn’t have a reception until the third quarter, and its leading tight ends, Logan Thomas and John Bates, combined for just four targets, two catches and five yards.

“There’s only one ball,” Rivera said, “and we’ve got to find that combination more that starts with running the ball, whether it starts with throwing the ball early on, throwing the shorter passes or the intermediate passes, you know, take a little bit of pressure off the quarterback, and then every now and then throw in the deep … stuff. It’s a combination of things that we’re working through and we’re trying to find.”