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The Commanders are the NFL’s worst team in play action. What gives?

Commanders quarterback Carson Wentz throws an incomplete pass as he is hit by Cowboys defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence during Washington’s Week 4 loss. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

Though there are several broad reasons the Washington Commanders’ offense is struggling — including injuries, penalties, tough matchups, poor individual execution, difficult downs and distances and at times predictable play-calling — one specific and surprising part of the underperformance has been play action.

In 37 games as offensive coordinator, Scott Turner has used play action at one of the NFL’s highest rates. It is a staple of his scheme, along with shotgun, motion and certain personnel groupings, and it has been effective in the past. Last season, with quarterback Taylor Heinicke, no team in the league got more out of play action than Washington, according to the advanced metric Expected Points Added (EPA).

This year, with quarterback Carson Wentz, Washington has been abysmal. On 57 play actions, Wentz has completed 28 of 53 passes (52.8 percent) for 232 yards, with three touchdowns and two interceptions. By EPA, Washington not only ranks last in the NFL in play action but is 11 times as bad as the second-worst team (Carolina).

Turner suggested the numbers are skewed because, in a small sample size, the Commanders have had five big negative plays: two sacks, two interceptions and a fumble. But even without those five plays, Washington still ranks as one of the league’s worst at play action.

So what’s wrong? Does the blame fall on Wentz (or others) for not executing? Is Turner not adapting to his personnel or opponents? Are these just natural growing pains for a veteran quarterback adapting to a new scheme? Could it be circumstantial? (Washington has often trailed big this season, which means defenses don’t have to fear the run.)

“The biggest thing we need to do is eliminate the mistakes, and then if we stay out of second and 15, we’ll be better in play action,” Turner said. “If we take a sack on first down, our play-action pass isn’t going to be good on second and 20.”

This weekend, play action could be pivotal against the Tennessee Titans. In the past two years, the Titans have been among the league’s best at it, in part because defenses respect elite running back Derrick Henry and in part because quarterback Ryan Tannehill excels at passing out of it. But also: Tennessee’s defense seems particularly susceptible to play action.

Since 2021, the Titans’ defense has been largely the same with coordinator Shane Bowen, safety Kevin Byard and star linemen Jeffery Simmons and Denico Autry. It has consistently played poorly against play action. This year, the Titans’ success rate — the percentage of plays on which they have prevented positive EPA — against non-play-action plays is second best in the NFL, at 65 percent. Against play action, the Titans’ success rate is 42.1 percent, fourth worst leaguewide.

If Tennessee’s offense remains run-first and relatively inexplosive, the odds it can build a big lead are lower. If the game remains close and the Commanders aren’t forced into obvious passing situations, their play action has a better chance to be effective — especially against a defense as vulnerable as the Titans’.

Scott Turner’s latest play call: Moving from the booth to the sideline

Coach Ron Rivera and Wentz said one key to improving play action is committing more to the run. Through the season’s first three weeks, Washington was one of the league’s pass-happiest teams. Rivera said running more would make the fake more “sellable” and added the potential return of running back Brian Robinson Jr., a physical presence between the tackles, “might have an impact.”

Though the suggestion of running to set up play action is intuitive, data contradicts it, as it does a lot of conventional wisdom about the function of the running game. In 2018, after studying whether effective rushing helps improve play action, data scientist Ben Baldwin concluded for Football Outsiders there is no evidence that is true.

But early this season, as defenses around the league have played pass-first more than ever and rushing has become more effective, the idea that running might successfully set up play action could become true. If offenses force defenses to respect their ability to run, defenses will have to devote more defenders to it and fewer to coverage.

Last week in Dallas, Washington seemed to be following that blueprint. The Cowboys opened the game scheming to stop the pass, and the Commanders ran the ball well, rushing 14 times for 101 yards. The average of 7.21 yards per carry was the franchise’s best in a first half since 2019. But penalties and mistakes consistently put the offense in second and third and long, obvious passing situations that forfeited the advantages of the effective running.

Early in the third quarter, on first and 10, Washington lined up under center. Dallas’s defense should have expected a run because 18 of the 20 times Washington went under center Sunday, that’s what happened. But as Wentz pulled the ball back and turned to bootleg right, he saw Cowboys defensive end Sam Williams bearing down on him.

Dan Quinn, the Cowboys’ defensive coordinator, plays with an aggressive front that stops the run on the way to the quarterback. He likes to call gap-control pressures, which fill up all the gaps in the offensive line and lessen the effect of play action. On this play, Quinn had called a pressure, and Williams, the backside defensive end, happened to be in perfect position to defend the bootleg. He didn’t bite on the run fake and was about to hit Wentz.

If Wentz had time, he might have hit a receiver on a deep crossing route for at least 15 yards. But instead he threw short to tight end Logan Thomas, who lost a yard. In addition to the penalties, those types of subtle details were what prevented Washington from translating run effectiveness into play-action success.

In his news conference Thursday, Turner took some blame.

“The two passes that we ran [from under center], those weren’t good,” he said. “We got to make sure we’re doing a better job in those instances.”

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

In the big picture, Turner and Wentz said, another way to increase play-action effectiveness would be to sync the running and passing concepts so everything looks the same. And though running the ball doesn’t necessarily mean better play action, an uptick in rushing attempts might help Wentz anyway. In four games, Turner has asked a lot of Wentz mentally; he has dropped back 198 times, most in the NFL.

“The run game being efficient, being solid and being explosive, I think can kind of open up [play action],” Wentz said. “Being committed to the run — which, I think we did a good job last week — [and] just sustaining it, I think can kind of make everyone’s life easier.”

If Washington wants to reestablish its identity as a play-action team, there might be no better matchup than this one.

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