In college, receiver Terry McLaurin said his coach called Cover Zero “disrespectful.” In fact, the defensive coordinator said: We are better, more talented and more athletic than you, your receivers can’t beat our corners one-on-one and your quarterback can’t get them the ball before our pass rush catches him. McLaurin scoffed at the idea of a corner, running flat-footed 10 yards from the ball before the snap and covering it over the top with no safety help.
“With the receivers we have, to be completely honest, no one should be able to zero-blitz us,” McLaurin said.
The Commanders’ young players are in the spotlight with victory
At the beginning of Sunday’s game, Howell countered the zero crossing by giving acoustic signals for quick passes. This time he barked another “check,” and the Patriots defenders crawled closer to the line, preparing to blast another speedy batter. But then Howell dropped back, knocked off the ball and threw a perfect throw into the outstretched arms of receiver Jahan Dotson, who had won one-on-one downfield. The touchdown tied the game and was the key to the Commanders’ 20-17 win.
While there are many reasons why Washington beat New England, the offensive linemen emphasized that breaking coverage was a big reason. Coming into Sunday, the Commanders were struggling to keep clean sheets and had only managed five wins in 20 games. Several players said they had been thinking about the embarrassing loss to the New York Giants all week because of their emphasis on keeping clean sheets in practice; Patriots coach Bill Belichick, like Giants defensive coordinator Wink Martindale, loves blitzing and man-to-man coverage.
“We knew Bill would try to bring something [cover-zero] a lot,” Howell said. “We just tried to use it to our advantage.”
“Sam did an incredible job with his zero checks,” said right tackle Andrew Wylie. “He hit about three or four of those things and they were all successful.”
“Over-preparation for [cover-zero] “It obviously paid off for us,” said right-back Sam Cosmi.
In the first six weeks, defenses against Washington mostly used zeros in the red zone or in obvious passing situations. The tactic seemed designed to exploit Howell’s weakness of sometimes holding the ball for too long. Normally he got the ball out at zero and took a sack on nine dropbacks, but the extra pressure worked; his throws regularly went astray or at least missed slightly. He completed only two of eight attempts.
In New York, Martindale’s air raids exacerbated underlying problems. The offensive had difficulty communicating, blocking and executing. Howell had his best clean sheet of the season – hitting McLaurin from an angle and converting on fourth-and-1 – but that didn’t help mask the team’s frustration. McLaurin commented (in diplomatic McLaurin-ese) about the offense’s inability to counter pressure with a throw downfield.
“We were prepared for the Giants, but I think after frankly being embarrassed in a lot of situations, we had to focus on the little details,” McLaurin said Sunday. He noted that there were too many plays where Howell, the receivers and the offensive line were “on different pages,” adding, “Communication was emphasized all week.”
Still, Washington couldn’t break the deadlock in the first period in New England. Howell threw a short cross route behind Dotson, who dropped it. But on the next three zeroes, Howell appeared confident, making adjustments and communicating with his teammates. They weren’t spectacular plays — gains of seven, three and five yards — but they kept the offense on schedule and two of them helped produce drives. (Running back Brian Robinson Jr.’s nine-yard touchdown run was also zero.)
Jenkins: Bill Belichick is unchanged, at the height of his dynasty and at the end
However, in the third quarter, Belichick seemed to think Howell hadn’t shown him enough. Washington drove to the New England 33-yard line, and on second-and-10, Belichick chose zero coverage. Howell looked over to the sideline at substitute Jacoby Brissett.
“It seemed like there were problems with communication,” said TV broadcaster Kenny Albert. “Brissett helps out at the games.”
Washington reached the line of scrimmage with about 17 seconds on the game clock. At 10, Howell issued the zero check for a “maximum” seven-man guard. At five, tight end Logan Thomas pointed closer to the line to block. On a snap, Tyler Larsen grabbed the ball.
The first four times he faced Cover-Zero on Sunday, Howell threw the ball quickly, in 2.6 seconds or faster. But this time, because of his adjustment, Washington had seven blockers against seven rushers. Howell had a clean pocket, in part because Larsen, who had replaced Nick Gates, was stronger in pass protection. Howell threw the ball downfield to Dotson after 3.0 seconds for the decisive touchdown.
In the locker room, teammates raved about Howell. Linemen praised his communication. The recipients praised his attitude. Defensive tackle Jonathan Allen said it felt like the team had found its franchise quarterback for the next “five to 10 years.”
“Those are huge plays,” McLaurin said of the Dotson touchdown. “The way to stop teams from doing zero is to hurt them like that. After we shot them so far, we didn’t see zero anymore.”
I’ll report to the Commanders halfway through the season
To Howell, the difference between the Giants and Patriots was obvious.
“I was better prepared,” he said. “I did a better job.”
The players emphasized that the offense still has a lot of room to grow. They want it to be more consistent, more balanced and “more murderous,” as Dotson put it, meaning they want to eliminate their opponents early. McLaurin, who was frustrated two weeks ago, smiled now and emphasized that his biggest takeaway from the game was that the offense proved it could do zero damage.
“This probably won’t be the last time we see each other [zero]McLaurin said. “We have a young quarterback and [defenses] wants to send everything to him. But when he’s that balanced and we have guys who can run… I think that makes teams think twice about it.”
https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/2023/11/06/commanders-offense-patriots-blitz/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=wp_homepage The offensive adjustment that helped the Commanders beat the Patriots