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Commanders’ play-calling prompts questions about passing game

Washington Commanders quarterback Carson Wentz speaks to his offensive line during the second quarter Sunday at Dallas. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
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ARLINGTON, Tex. — For the first three weeks of the season, Washington Commanders offensive coordinator Scott Turner called pass plays at one of the NFL’s highest rates — not just in obvious throwing situations but on first and 10 and second and medium and even third and short.

In part, Turner went so pass-heavy because Washington twice trailed big. But his willingness to put so much responsibility on someone as volatile as quarterback Carson Wentz suggested confidence in the passing unit as a whole. Turner seemed to believe spinning the wheel with his quarterback, offensive line and talented skill players could lead to more good than bad — and it’s why Sunday was so concerning for the passing game.

In the 25-10 loss at the Dallas Cowboys, Turner asked a lot less of Wentz. Turner’s game plan countered Dallas’s strong front and compensated for Washington’s leaky offensive line by relying more on the running game and quick passes. In theory, the offense should have resembled the best parts of Week 1 against Jacksonville and Week 2 at Detroit, with short throws racking up yards after the catch and opening up other areas.

But it didn’t. Not even close.

Washington’s running game excelled, but its passing attack struggled mightily. Wentz attempted 42 passes and completed 25 for 170 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions that ultimately weren’t pivotal. Of the 126 passing performances in the NFL this season through Sunday, Washington’s yards per attempt (4.05) ranked dead last.

Why did the passing game struggle? Maybe penalties put the Commanders in such difficult situations that they didn’t have much of a chance. Maybe the Cowboys are just that good. They had limited two elite quarterbacks — Joe Burrow and Tom Brady — to pedestrian production in previous weeks.

It’s also clear Wentz and the offensive line could have played better.

In his postgame news conference, Coach Ron Rivera said some parts of the passing game were “working pretty well” at points but that the team didn’t sustain them. He said the coaching staff would watch film to delineate the fault between Wentz and the offensive line.

Facing problems big and small, Commanders are doomed by their own mistakes

“We’re going to get those things straight,” he said. “We’re going to have to see what gives. I don’t want to jump to conclusions because, as plays go on, certain things happen. You’ll see certain players get open if the quarterback has time, and you’ll see sometimes decision-making …” He trailed off. “Those are all things we’ve got to get right.”

The less bleak conclusion for Washington might be that Sunday’s struggles fall more on Wentz. Despite all the team sacrificed for him and all it has riding on him, a down week wouldn’t be surprising. In his first four games, Wentz has validated his reputation as a high-variance quarterback, and if the coaches determine it was an off week or a byproduct of something specific Dallas did, the Commanders could believe Wentz will rebound.

But if the problems were more protection, that could be deeply troubling. Washington has lost two key parts of its interior line, Chase Roullier (knee) and Wes Schweitzer (concussion), and on the third series Sunday it benched right guard Trai Turner in favor of Saahdiq Charles. And no matter who was in, the line couldn’t consistently do the job, accounting for five holding or false start penalties that totaled 35 yards and allowing pressure on 40 percent of Wentz’s drop-backs, according to statistics website TruMedia. To create those pressures only took an average of 2.14 seconds, the sixth-fastest rate in any game this season.

If Washington sticks with the five linemen it played most of the game, and if they don’t show dramatic improvement, it would raise two questions: Is it fixable? And was the line built well enough in the offseason?

Four takeaways from the Commanders’ 25-10 loss to the Cowboys

In the locker room after the game, right tackle Sam Cosmi admitted the consistent churn of players on the line has made it more difficult.

“It’s not like, ‘Oh, yeah, I’ve been playing with this guy for three years, two years or the whole freaking time I’ve been here,’ ” he said. “It’s like, new guy, new guy. … It does affect us a little bit.”

In his postgame news conference, Wentz volunteered to take most of the blame. He complimented Scott Turner’s “good game plan,” praised third-string center Nick Martin for doing “a really good job” and lamented an inability to translate rushing success into passing success.

“I’ve got to be more accurate. I’ve got to make better plays, better decisions,” he said. “[I’ve got to] give those guys a chance. Early, I thought we did some decent things, but the penalties and mistakes, those things definitely cost us, and it’s hard to — in second and 15, third and long — consistently convert against a really good defense like that.”

Perhaps the most telling sequence of the game Sunday came at the end of the first half. As Dallas drove deep into the red zone, Rivera made an aggressive decision to conserve the clock. He declined a 10-second runoff after a penalty and called a timeout at 1:15 with Dallas about to face second and six at Washington’s 9-yard line.

Yet after Dallas scored, Washington gave away most of the clock it saved. Turner called a run, a short pass and another run. Rivera finally took another timeout with 17 seconds left. It seemed the Commanders wanted a free roll — enough time for Wentz for take a shot downfield but not enough for it to hurt if things went south.

In a sense, Washington was right to play conservative-aggressive. Wentz threw down the left sideline and was intercepted, and it didn’t matter because Dallas ran out the clock.

But the approach leaves a lingering question: Did Washington not trust its passing game in Sunday’s specific circumstances, or has it lost some faith overall?