The offensive adjustment that helped the Commanders beat the Patriots

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Late in the third quarter, when the Washington Commanders seemed ready to fall short again, quarterback Sam Howell changed the game with his mind. He saw the New England Patriots in an aggressive, man-to-man coverage look with zero safeties deep, which is known as cover zero. The defense was about to blitz.

In college, receiver Terry McLaurin said, his coach called cover-zero “disrespectful.” Effectively, the defensive coordinator was saying: We’re better, more talented, and more athletic than you are, your receivers can’t beat our corners one-on-one, and your quarterback can’t get them the ball before our pass rush gets him. McLaurin scoffed at the idea of a corner, flat-footed 10 yards off the ball before the snap, covering him without safety help over the top.

“With the receivers that we have, to be quite frank, nobody should be able to zero blitz us,” McLaurin said.

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Earlier in Sunday’s game, Howell had countered zero by calling audibles to quick passes. This time, he barked out another “check,” and Patriots defenders crept closer to the line, readying to blow up another quick hitter. But then Howell dropped back, patted the ball and lofted a perfect throw into the outstretched arms of receiver Jahan Dotson, who’d won one-on-one downfield. The touchdown tied the game and keyed the Commanders’ 20-17 victory.

Though there are many reasons Washington beat New England, offensive players stressed beating cover-zero was a significant one. Coming into Sunday, the Commanders had struggled against zero, only succeeding five times in 20 plays. Several players said the embarrassing loss to the New York Giants had been on their minds all week as they emphasized beating zero at practice; Patriots Coach Bill Belichick, like Giants defensive coordinator Wink Martindale, loves to blitz and play man-to-man coverage.

“We knew Bill was going to try to bring [cover-zero] a lot,” Howell said. “We just tried to use it to our advantage.”

“Sam did an incredible job with his zero checks,” right tackle Andrew Wylie said. “He hit, like, three or four of those things, and they were all successful.”

“Overpreparing for [cover-zero] obviously paid off for us,” right guard Sam Cosmi said.

In the first six weeks, defenses mostly used zero against Washington in the red zone or in obvious passing situations. The tactic seemed designed to take advantage of Howell’s weakness of sometimes holding the ball too long. He usually got the ball out against zero, taking one sack in nine dropbacks, but the extra pressure worked; his throws were regularly tipped or at least slightly off-target. He only completed two of eight attempts.

In New York, Martindale’s blitzes amplified underlying problems. The offense struggled to communicate, block and execute. Howell had his best zero rep of the season — hitting McLaurin on a slant to convert on fourth and one — but it did nothing to mask the team’s frustration. McLaurin vented (in diplomatic McLaurin-ese) about the offense’s inability to counter pressure by throwing downfield.

“We were prepared for the Giants, but I think, after quite frankly getting embarrassed in a lot of situations, it forced us to focus on the little details,” McLaurin said Sunday. He noted there were too many plays when Howell, the receivers and offensive line were “on different pages,” adding, “The communication, it was emphasized all week.”

Still, Washington couldn’t beat zero on the first third down in New England. Howell threw a short crossing route behind Dotson, who dropped it. But the next three zeroes, Howell looked confident making adjustments and communicating with teammates. They weren’t splashy plays — gains of seven, three and five yards — but they kept the offense on schedule, and two of them helped scoring drives. (Running back Brian Robinson Jr.’s nine-yard touchdown run was against zero as well.)

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In the third quarter, though, Belichick seemed to believe Howell hadn’t shown him enough. Washington drove to the New England 33-yard line, and on second and 10, Belichick dialed up cover-zero. Howell looked over to the sideline toward backup Jacoby Brissett.

“It appeared as if there may have been some issues with the communication,” TV broadcaster Kenny Albert said. “Brissett helping signal in the plays.”

Washington got to the line of scrimmage with about 17 seconds on the play clock. At 10, Howell barked out the zero check for a seven-man “max” protection. At five, tight end Logan Thomas motioned in tighter to the line to block. At one, Tyler Larsen snapped the ball.

The first four times he’d faced cover-zero on Sunday, Howell had thrown 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’d replaced Nick Gates, has been stouter in pass protection. Howell, at 3.0 seconds, launched the ball downfield to Dotson for the pivotal touchdown.

In the locker room, teammates buzzed about Howell. Linemen praised his communication. Receivers lauded his poise. 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 you get teams out of doing zero is if you hurt them like that. After we got that deep shot on them, we didn’t see any zero.”

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For Howell, the difference between the Giants and Patriots was obvious.

“I was more prepared,” he said. “I did a better job.”

Players emphasized the offense still has plenty of room to grow. They want it to become more consistent, more balanced and more “cutthroat,” as Dotson put it, meaning they want to close out opponents early. McLaurin, frustrated two weeks earlier, was smiling now, stressing his biggest takeaway from the game was that the offense had proved it could hurt zero.

“That probably won’t be the last time we see [zero],” McLaurin said. “We got a young quarterback, and [defenses] want to send everything at him. But when he’s poised like that, and we got guys that can run … I think it makes teams think twice about it.”

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