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The Commanders’ offense has stalled — and a fearsome Cowboys D awaits

Washington offensive coordinator Scott Turner and quarterback Carson Wentz will be under extra scrutiny Sunday in Dallas as the team tries to rebound from an ugly, 24-8 loss to Philadelphia. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

In the days following last week’s loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, one of the worst performances in 36 games under offensive coordinator Scott Turner, the Washington Commanders preached calm. Players and coaches acknowledged the showing was “unacceptable” but insisted they understood the issues and were working to correct them. They suggested that the struggles were an accumulation of minor errors rather than something fundamental, such as talent or scheme, and that a breakthrough was near.

Looking back at the game film, there’s evidence to support that. Many plays were doomed by moments of poor execution. The line struggled, but it wasn’t all on one player or position group.

One good example was the second-quarter sack of Carson Wentz. Wentz saw a coverage with two deep safeties, meaning the middle of the field was open. As Wentz froze the safeties with his eyes, right guard Trai Turner unnecessarily dropped from helping the center to chip the defensive end rushing right tackle Sam Cosmi, perhaps a byproduct of not having many preseason reps together.

Daron Payne makes getting to the QB look easy. It isn't.

Instead of helping, Turner bumped the end by Cosmi. Wentz felt the pressure, dropped his eyes, tried to escape and made a mistake of his own by fumbling. Another split second, and Wentz might have found wide receiver Terry McLaurin deep. Instead, a series of mistakes led to a turnover.

Turner called the loss “pretty humbling” but resisted the idea that the offense needs to have a clear-cut identity, such as when it was run-first during the four-game winning streak last year.

“Our identity is to be multiple and be able to attack you in different ways, whether it’s the run, the pass, the short pass where you get the ball out quick and being able to throw the ball down the field,” he said. “That’s what the good offenses do. They do a little bit of everything.”

Yet it won’t be easy for Washington (1-2) to spark its offense at the Dallas Cowboys (2-1) on Sunday afternoon. Dallas has a veteran defensive coordinator in Dan Quinn and one of the most talented fronts in the NFL, headlined by edge rusher Demarcus Lawrence and linebacker/end Micah Parsons. The Cowboys are allowing only 17.3 points per game, eighth fewest in the NFL, and rank eighth in defensive DVOA, an advanced metric that incorporates several factors, including strength of opponent.

Dallas’s strengths are particularly concerning for Washington because of how the Commanders’ offensive line struggled against Philadelphia, which racked up seven of its nine sacks rushing just four. Adding to the concern: Nick Martin, a veteran signed Sept. 20, will become the team’s third starting center in as many weeks because of injuries.

No teams digs a 20-point hole like the Commanders under Ron Rivera

“You’ve got to be really good with your one-on-ones,” Coach Ron Rivera said of what he wants from his line at Dallas. “That’s what [the Cowboys] do with all the movement, the different formations, different alignments, mugging up in the line. They’re trying to force one-on-ones.”

While the line disadvantage shrinks Washington’s margin for error, the offense still has the playmaking talent to overcome it. The Commanders will probably depend on parts of the offense that have shown flashes of promise, such as Turner’s play-calling and Wentz’s decision-making.

In Week 1 against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Washington laid out a blueprint to beat pressure. Turner called quick-hitting pass plays, such as screens and slants, and Wentz made quick decisions. Wide receiver Curtis Samuel and running back Antonio Gibson churned out yards after the catch to keep the offense on schedule. The patience helped ultimately open up Wentz’s long touchdown down the right sideline to McLaurin — which covered up Wentz’s bad interception on the previous possession.

In three of the past four halves, Washington hasn’t found a rhythm. Sometimes the line allows pressure too quickly. Sometimes receivers don’t run crisp enough routes. Sometimes Wentz is inaccurate — 16.2 percent of his throws have been off-target, according to the website TruMedia. That ranks sixth highest in the NFL and would be a career high.

The curious case of Terry McLaurin and his lack of first-half targets

The problems those things create are captured on second down. In the past two weeks, Washington has performed well on first down: The average distance to convert on second was 7.4 yards, seventh shortest in the NFL. But on second down itself, the Commanders have actually gone backward. On third down, Washington’s average distance to convert was 7.9 yards, seventh worst in the NFL.

Two big parts of the second-down struggle are Turner’s play-calling tendency — 34 passes, 14 runs — and Wentz’s propensity to take sacks.

“We can run the ball more frequently,” Turner said Wednesday, adding, “We got to be more effective when we do it.”

Turner said he believes the backs are performing better than the statistics say for a few reasons, including their number of short-yardage runs. But even the question “Run or pass?” prompts a larger question. In the offseason the Commanders assembled a stable of playmakers, and this past week Rivera suggested the team hasn’t figured out the best way to use them.

In three weeks, the Commanders’ offensive touches have gone to Gibson (50), Samuel (30), running back J.D. McKissic (25), McLaurin (13), wide receiver Jahan Dotson (10) and tight end Logan Thomas (eight).

The list should include some caveats — Washington designed plays to McLaurin that were missed, Thomas is still working his way back from ACL surgery in the offseason — but overall, Turner feels like the players are being put in a position to succeed.

“We have guys doing what they do best,” he said. “It hasn’t necessarily shown up all the time, and I think those roles will continue to grow and evolve as the season goes on.”

If Turner throws less, it both limits the mental burden on Wentz and minimizes his chances of making a massive mistake. Avoiding mistakes gives the team a better chance to play complementary football and avoid falling in a deep hole as it has the past two weeks in losses to the Detroit Lions (a 22-0 deficit) and the Eagles (24-0).

“[When you’re down big early], your game plan goes out the window a little bit,” McLaurin said. “That’s why it’s so important to sustain drives and create explosive plays and score in the red zone — because you get to stay in a rhythm. Coach Turner gets to stay in more of a rhythm of wanting to call the plays of how we kind of scripted them and how we practice versus: ‘We just got to get first downs. We just got to get points on the board.’ ”

After Washington’s struggles, Dallas might come into Sunday expecting more runs and quick passes. But when asked about how he approaches that sort of game, Rivera said, “It’s not necessarily having to do something different as maybe do something better.”

This game figures to be a test of Turner’s ability to adapt his play-calling quickly to a defense as well as Wentz’s ability to execute. This week, Wentz emphasized it’s important not to be overwhelmed by the big-picture struggles.

“The so-called play that sparks the momentum, it doesn’t always have to be a big play,” the quarterback said. “Sometimes it’s just if we need three yards to get a first down, let’s get 3½. Let’s get what we need to just kind of make that play and just kind of feel a little more confident, a little more momentum on our offense.

“It’s always a fine line, especially when you’re down and you’re struggling to press and try to make a big play,” he continued. “I don’t think I’ve seen guys doing that around here, which is encouraging. That’s the easy thing to do when you’re down maybe a couple scores or you’ve had a sluggish start, to try to force the big play. I’ve seen that backfire in my own career as well. So there’s things to learn from that. There are times to not shy away from being aggressive and taking the shot and trying to make the big play. Just trying to play each play within itself and just take a one-play-at-a-time mentality. I’ve seen guys do a pretty good job of that. Hopefully we can just do it some more.”