The Los Angeles Rams are aiming to get back into the win column as they face the Washington Commanders who are 6.5-point underdogs according to DraftKings Sportsbook. LA is one game back of the final NFC playoff spot with four games remaining.
Washington has little chance at a playoff run with the team sitting at 4-9 and head coach Ron Rivera firmly on the hot seat. I had the chance to interview enemy writer LASkin over at SB Nation’s Commanders blog Hogs Haven to gain familiarity with the opposition ahead of their Week 15 meeting.
Q - Second-year quarterback Sam Howell is a polarizing figure in the Nation’s Capital. Howell ranks top-5 across the NFL in passing yards, yet has thrown a league-high 14 interceptions while taking 58 sacks. Where has Howell shown the most promise and what does he need to improve upon in the final four games? Additionally, how much of his staggering sack total has actually been his fault?
A - Howell is not especially polarizing in Washington. In fact, he enjoys tremendous support. A recent poll on our site indicated that only 5% of fans want to draft a QB if the team has a top 5 pick. You don’t get much more consensus than that.
Howell has a strong, accurate arm and can hit WRs anywhere, he is tough as nails, he is relatively difficult to bring down as a runner even though he isn’t fast, and he’s a gamer who can bring the team back from behind. He has completed 66% of his passes, he’s thrown 18 TDs, and he has a Passer Rating of 86. He’s in his second year but he only played in the last game of 2022, so he’s the equivalent of a rookie. His performance so far is as good or better than the first year of many Hall of Fame QBs. It’s too early to know how good Howell can be, but our fans like what they see so far.
The sacks are a combination of factors. By far the biggest problem is the Offensive Line. The line has been awful and it’s getting worse. Early in the year, Howell was holding the ball too long; he’s partly corrected that problem but has more work to do. Also, Eric Bieniemy’s play calling wasn’t doing Howell any favors. Too many plays took too long to develop and did not get receivers open quickly. After the debacle on national TV against the Bears, the play calling has improved, but scheme and personnel problems remain.
Where does Howell need to improve? He needs a faster internal clock in getting the ball out and finding the open receiver. In fairness, that’s a problem for most young QBs. He must cut down on his turnovers, a problem that has been getting worse of late. He has just missed on some deep throws and needs to connect on a higher percentage of those.
Q - While we’re still discussing Sam Howell, I’ve seen conflicting reports regarding his future in Washington. What kind of future do you see for Howell with the Commanders and what is the likelihood of the team selecting a QB in next year’s draft?
A - The new ownership will almost certainly conduct a thorough house cleaning after the season, and there is no way to know what the new general manager and head coach will do. They may opt to take their own quarterback if Washington has a top-5 pick, or they may like enough of what they’ve seen in Howell to focus on putting better talent around him, especially on the OL. I wouldn’t bet one way or the other on what the new guys will decide to do.
Q - OC Eric Bieniemy has had a rollercoaster of a season calling the plays in his first year away from Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes. What about Bieniemy’s scheme have you liked the most and what offensive weaknesses could the Rams exploit on Sunday?
A - The scheme, not surprisingly, looks like the Kansas City scheme, albeit without as much talent. The offense is more modern than it was under the prior OC, Scott Turner. There is more passing, and the pass plays sometimes seem very well-designed. However, even though Washington has good receivers, the receivers don’t seem to get much separation in this scheme. In addition, the run offense is underused and not especially sophisticated. Overall, Bieniemy has not won over the fan base with his scheme or play calling.
The Achilles heel of this offense all year has been pass protection. Teams that have blitzed heavily and creatively have overwhelmed the Washington OL; the Rams should do that. They should double team WR Terry McLaurin, our best player on offense; doing that can remove him completely as a factor in the game. Finally, complex coverages can confuse Howell for a second or two, allowing the pass rush to reach him.
Q - Ron Rivera took over play calling duties after DC Jack Del Rio was fired after a Thanksgiving loss to the Cowboys. His first game calling the shots was brutal as Washington gave up 45 points and 406 total yards to the Dolphins in Week 13. Obviously Miami is a tough opponent to slow down but what went so wrong in that game and how does Rivera stop the bleeding from getting worse in LA?
A - At this point in the season, there probably is no cure for their problems on defense. The defense is playing poorly at all three levels. They traded away their starting defensive ends, Montez Sweat and Chase Young, for the best deals they could get because they were not likely to re-sign either. But that has left a shortage of pass rush talent at DE. Their only even average LB on the roster, Jamin Davis, is out for the season after a shoulder injury last weekend. The backfield is a demoralized mess that has given up one big pass play after another this year. This is a group that played very good zone defense last year, but for reasons unfathomable to the fans, they decided to use man coverage for most of the season and they’ve paid for it. They don’t have the right DBs for man coverage, and worse, their #1 pick Emmanuel Forbes, was an obvious fit for zone coverage only. Their safety play has been erratic.
What can Rivera do? Probably nothing, but there are some things he can try. Go back to the zone system that made them one of the best defenses in the league last year. Get the defensive tackles, Payne and Allen, to step up play at the level expected of them. Do more and more creative blitzing. Finally, get some sense of urgency into the team. If they don’t play with their hair on fire, they have no chance.
Q - The Commanders opened as 6.5-point underdogs with an O/U of 49 at DraftKings Sportsbook. How do you envision this game going down and what does Washington need to do to end their four-game losing streak?
A - I expect the Rams, on their home field, to beat the Commanders soundly. They are competing for a playoff slot, and the Commanders are playing for draft position (again). The Commanders are weakest where the Rams are strongest. Aaron Donald could have a lot of sacks. Stafford could complete a lot of big passes to Kupp and Nacua, and let’s not even think about how many yards the Rams will gain on the ground.
We’ve seen a lot of surprising upsets by bad teams in the NFL in recent weeks. Washington would have to have a nearly perfect game to make that happen on Sunday. Howell would have to play lights out, mistake-free football and the defense would have to remember what it was like only a year ago to be a top-5 defense in the league. I wouldn’t bet on that outcome, but anything is possible on any given Sunday in the NFL.