Protection, Rivera has often said, is paramount. No matter the quarterback, the team has to be able to protect him and have an efficient run game to support him.
Amid injuries, a pandemic and the inevitable uncertainty that comes with a franchise overhaul, Washington’s O-line held up remarkably well in the first couple of seasons under Rivera, instilling confidence it would continue to excel even after losing its starting guards, Brandon Scherff and Ereck Flowers, after the 2021 season.
“We wanted to have 10 guys coming in that have experience,” Rivera said of the offensive line in May. “That’s what we’ve had in the past, and that’s what we’re trying to emulate because … the depth is what was very successful for us last season.”
In the offseason, Washington signed veteran guards Trai Turner and Andrew Norwell to replace Scherff and Flowers. Center Chase Roullier returned from an extensive ankle injury he suffered last season, and the team welcomed back tackles Leno and Sam Cosmi and re-signed swing tackle Cornelius Lucas.
Leno and Norwell have started all 15 games on the left side, but there has been a rotating cast on the right side of the line and at center. Cosmi and Lucas have split time at right tackle, and the former has recently taken snaps at right guard. Roullier was injured again in September and hasn’t played since, and his backup, Tyler Larsen, suffered a season-ending knee injury earlier this month. Wes Schweitzer took over at center last week, when the team started its ninth different line of the season. (Washington had 11 different starting lines last season.)
With so many moving parts, the offensive line has struggled this season with protection and consistency, and with a playoff berth on the line, the front five’s reliability has become a focal point — especially as Carson Wentz takes over again at quarterback.
Brewer: The Commanders need a jolt at quarterback. Will Carson Wentz do?
Rivera said on Tuesday that he’s “not [as] worried about [the offensive line], I think, as people are making it out to be,” considering Washington played the top defense in the league. “Up to a certain point, we were handling it pretty well,” he said of the O-line’s play during Saturday’s game against the San Francisco 49ers. “And then … it became tough on those guys.”
In Washington’s 37-20 loss to the 49ers, the line was flagged for three of the team’s six penalties. A holding penalty on left tackle Charles Leno Jr. denied an 11-yard run by Brian Robinson Jr. in the first quarter. Another holding penalty on Schweitzer in the second quarter erased a 39-yard catch by Jahan Dotson. And later that quarter, a false start penalty on right guard Trai Turner turned a third and one just outside the red zone into a third and five. The Commanders did finish that drive with a touchdown by Dotson.
“We just kept shooting ourselves in the foot,” quarterback Taylor Heinicke said postgame, without explicitly blaming any teammate or position group. “…When we get those holding penalties and go behind the sticks, it’s tough to come back from that, especially against a defense like [the 49ers’].”
Some level of trouble was surely expected Saturday against San Francisco’s top-ranked defense. But, using a mix of Pro Football Focus’s charting and ESPN’s tracking data, Washington was the worst team in the league in both run-blocking and pass-protecting in Week 16.
The Commanders’ performance in the trenches was a far cry from their above-average rating in both run blocking and pro protection in Week 1and it was markedly worse than the team’s standing after Week 5when it was 1-4.
That same blend of PFF and ESPN data ranks Washington as the 28th-best team in pass protection this season. And according to TruMedia, Washington’s offensive line has allowed 171 pressures (third-most of any team this season), including 42 quarterback hits (second-most).
In the first five weeks of the season, the Commanders struggled to protect Wentz and to move the ball consistently. They allowed 20 sacks in that span, the third-most in the league, and produced only 4.95 yards per play, which ranked 25th. Wentz was also pressured 84 times (only one quarterback was pressured more often), which accounted for 34.9 percent of his dropbacks.
Commanders name Carson Wentz starter; Taylor Heinicke returns to backup role
Of course, blame didn’t fall solely on the offensive line then and doesn’t now. Wentz often took too much time to throw, and chip-blocking from skill players was spotty at best. In recent weeks, early deficits have put more of a strain on the line.
The offense early in the season was predicated more on the pass game, partly because of Wentz’s strengths as a deep passer and partly because of the absence of Robinson, who was on injured reserve. When Robinson joined the offense and Heinicke took over at quarterback, the focus turned to the run game, helping the offensive line. But the line play still hasn’t been nearly as good as expected.
How Commanders rookie Jahan Dotson reemerged as a menace to defenses
The spotlight on the line as a whole will be brighter than ever in the coming weeks, when the Commanders, with Wentz under center, take on the Cleveland Browns and Dallas Cowboys and must win out to make the playoffs. As Rivera said in the offseason, paramount to any quarterback change is the play up front. Can the line protect Wentz? And can the run game support him?
“The shift to Carson really is something the guys will have to get used to; just the way the cadence goes is probably the first and foremost thing,” Rivera said Wednesday. “And the second thing is … understanding what he’s going to do and how he’s going to do it with the ball. I’d like to believe that him getting the ball out as quickly as he did [Saturday], going through his progressions like he did in those couple of series that he had gives these guys pause to say, ‘Okay, he’s comfortable, and he gets it, and so we can adjust and adapt.’ And I think they will.”