What lessons can be learned from Howell’s four INTs vs Buffalo?
Breaking down Howell’s four interceptions against the Bills to find out what he can learn from those mistakes.
In what was clearly the worst performance of his young career to date, Commanders quarterback Sam Howell struggled mightily against one of the best defenses in the NFL. The Bills nearly shut out the Commanders in a 37-3 win that pumped the brakes on the good vibes that Washington started the season with and hit the team with a dose of reality.
Howell completed 19/29 passes for 170 yards, no touchdowns and four interceptions. He was also sacked nine times, a number of which were his fault and a handful more he could have prevented. It was an ugly performance for the Commanders offense and one that Howell has a lot to learn from. I’ll say right at the top here that Howell could and should have done a lot better than he did, but one bad game doesn’t mean it’s time to write him off as I’ve seen others suggest. I still think Howell can develop into a good quarterback, but he has plenty of lessons to learn, which goes for every young and inexperienced quarterback.
With that being said, let's get into the four interceptions and break down what lessons are to be learned from those mistakes.
Situation: Third and 19 at Buffalo 34, 4:39 remaining in the first quarter.
After a promising start on the opening drive which saw the Commanders pick up 48 yards on the opening five plays, Howell took back to back sacks that stalled the drive and put them in a third and long situation. At the Bills 34, they are still just about in Joey Skye’s field goal range, but a few yards on the play would help make that kick more comfortable.
Unfortunately, Howell stacks bad plays together. After back to back sacks, Howell turns a bad situation into a terrible one. The Commanders look to run a form of dagger concept with the bunch set to the right. Jahan Dotson runs the vertical clear out while Dyami Brown runs the dig route behind it. Tight end John Bates chips the defensive end before releasing to the flat as the checkdown option.
As Howell drops back, he checks the safety rotation and then appears to lock into Dyami Brown’s route. The route combination can take care of the deep safeties and clear out space for Brown to separate from his trailing defender as he breaks inside. However, there’s still the issue of the linebacker sinking back underneath the route. In an ideal world, the tight end would be able to influence that linebacker with a spot up route underneath that baits the linebacker to drive up to him and vacate the space behind him. On this play though, the Commanders have Bates chip the edge rusher to help protection, so Bates has to release to the flat afterwards.
With Bates in the flat and the Commanders needing 19 yards to pick up a first down, the linebacker has no reason to drive down underneath. Howell could still try to influence his coverage by looking to Bates and even lining up to throw that way to try and get the linebacker to bite, but instead he locks into Brown’s route. That enables the linebacker to just continue sinking back into the throwing lane and intercept the pass easily once Howell makes the decision to throw.
Lessons to learn: Situational context is important. What I mean by that is that if this play occurred on second and five at midfield, that tight end chip probably becomes a hook route and that is probably enough to influence the linebacker’s coverage to open up Brown’s route. But on third and 19, that small change to the route has a big impact. They need to keep Bates in to chip as the defense is in full rush mode knowing the offense has to pass. That means the linebacker isn’t going to be influenced by that route. It also means the linebacker and defense as a whole is more likely to gain depth and protect the first down marker rather than jump on things underneath.
The Commanders drive stalled with the two back to back sacks on the previous plays after what was a very positive start to the drive. Third and 19 is always unlikely to be converted, but the team was still within range of a field goal. Rather than forcing the ball down the field, taking the checkdown to Bates in the flat and making the field goal much easier would have been the right option here and could have resulted in points on the opening drive.
Situation: Third and one at Washington 34, 1:15 remaining in the second quarter.
On this third and one play, the Bills catch the Commanders out with a surprise simulated pressure. Simulated pressures have been a common trend from teams facing Howell this year, starting in preseason and carrying on into the regular season. As a quick refresher, a simulated or sim pressure is designed to look like an overload blitz, but is actually only a four man rush. It typically involves a linebacker or safety joining the rush on one side of the line while the defensive end drops off into coverage on the other side.
The Commanders attempt to line up and snap this ball quickly and catch the Bills sleeping a bit on third down. The downside of that is that Howell doesn’t have much time at the line of scrimmage to diagnose exactly what the Bills are doing. He doesn’t see the sim pressure coming from the left side of the line and so he doesn’t adjust the protection before the snap.
The result of this is that the Commanders offensive line is effectively overloaded despite having the numbers technically available to pick up the rush. The right side of the line fan out anticipating blocking both the defensive tackle and end to that side, but the end drops into coverage leaving two blockers on one defender. Nick Gates at center holds his position and if anything looks to his right at the snap.
This leaves the left side facing a three vs two overload. Left guard Saahdiq Charles picks up the defensive tackle, leaving left tackle Charles Leno in a lose-lose situation. He makes the correct call by squeezing inside and picking up the rushing linebacker with the more direct path to the quarterback. Tackles are always taught in a two-on-one situation, block inside and protect the most immediate path to the quarterback, so Leno makes the right call here. Unfortunately, that leaves the defensive end unblocked.
Howell is surprised by the unblocked defensive end and on paper makes the correct decision to immediately try and throw his checkdown to the running back in the flat. However, the Bills are playing a form of Cover-3 known as Buzz, where the safety starts deep but then buzzes down quickly to the flat at the snap. The safety can see the whole play unfold in front of him as he drives down to the flat. Because Howell is surprised by the unblocked defender, he has to throw unbalanced off the back foot, meaning his throw lacks velocity. That allows that safety an extra beat to make up ground and jump the route to intercept the pass.
Lessons to learn: These simulated pressures are tough to diagnose because the can come from just about anywhere and at any time. But each team that Washington has played this year, both in preseason and in the regular season, has thrown various forms of sim pressures at Howell and had at least some success. Because of that, you can bet that the Eagles this coming week and each team beyond that will be throwing these six pressures at Howell and the Commanders until either he can learn to spot them and adjust the protection accordingly, or until Washington comes up with a better solution to handling them.
Situation: Second and eight at Buffalo 15, 9:11 remaining in the third quarter.
Here, the Commanders look to motion receiver Curtis Samuel across the formation and have him run an out-and-up double move in the red zone. The design of the play is a good one with Samuel widening the outside corner off the snap with the first part of his route. Meanwhile the tight end works up the seam and breaks inside towards the post, forcing the safety and linebacker inside with him. This isolates the outside corner against Samuel. When Samuel comes out of his first break and then breaks up the field, he’s actually in a strong position to win the route. He has inside leverage with lots of space to work with against an isolated corner playing with outside leverage.
Where the play goes wrong for Washington and Howell is up front. Right tackle Andrew Wylie gets fooled by a fake stunt from the defensive end. The defender initially rushes up the field like he’s going to attack the edge, but then he slows down his rush and looks inside like he’s waiting for the defensive tackle to widen so he can then loop around him and rush inside as part of a stunt. Wylie reads the body language of the defender and anticipates the stunt, so he begins to work inside to pick up the defensive tackle.
However, as soon as Wylie steps inside towards the defensive tackle, the defensive end then restarts his rush back outside. Wylie can’t get back outside in time to prevent the defender closing on Howell. The defender hits Howell as he throws, causing the pass to lose velocity, which crucially gives the cornerback that was out-leveraged against Samuel an opportunity to recover the play.
Now this is mostly on Wylie and in reality, it’s really just a clever rush from the defender that would catch out plenty of blockers when mixed in sparingly. However, I do also wonder if Howell was just a touch slow to get rid of this ball and could have been slightly quicker to pull the trigger. Down in the red zone a young quarterback is always likely to be a little more cautious, especially after having thrown two interceptions already, but that free rusher is right in Howell’s eye line. Even though it’s good that Howell wasn’t looking at the rush and focusing down the field, he had to feel that free rusher off the edge. Even with that, he left it just a tad late to deliver the throw, which meant the hit had more of an impact on his velocity. It’s nitpicky, but something he could have perhaps done to save the play.
Lessons to learn: This one is mostly on the protection and really it’s just a good change up rush by the defensive end. As I mentioned, if you want to get nitpicky, then perhaps Howell could have sped up his process and made that throw a little earlier with a little more anticipation given he should have been able to see or at least feel the free rusher on the edge. But it’s hard to be overly critical of him here, I can understand a young quarterback wanting to be sure of his throw down in the red zone, especially in a game where he’s already thrown two interceptions.
Situation: Third and five at Washington 30, 10:01 remaining in the fourth quarter.
This was probably the worst interception of the day because it was the result of a downward spiral of bad decisions. On third and five, the Commanders look to create an opportunity down the field with a post-wheel type of concept to the left and a shallow cross acting as the checkdown underneath. The Bills show a potential heavy blitz with six defenders up on the line of scrimmage and two linebackers aligned in the A gaps. They are only rushing four, however, with a linebacker and edge defender dropping off the left side of the line, They also mix in a twist with the linebacker to the right side of the center pretending to drop into coverage only to then loop around the defensive tackle and rejoin that rush.
That twist with the linebacker dropping and then rejoining the rush generates a small amount of pressure off the right side early on as right guard Sam Cosmi is a little late to pick him up. But Cosmi does get there and ends up cutting him off comfortably short of the quarterback. However, Howell feels that small pressure and instead of just calmly sliding left, as he has done previously this season, he takes his first step left and instantly decides to take off running.
You never want a situation where the quarterback is scrambling from a clean pocket. All Howell needed to do here was take that small slide left and Cosmi then recovered the block. Howell would have then had a clean pocket to operate from. Now that doesn’t guarantee a receiver would then have been available, but it speaks to a poor mental process and perhaps Howell was in a bit of panic mode, scrambling at the first hint of pressure. He had already run into a few sacks by this point.
Having taken off running, Howell only really gives himself one realistic target, the shallow cross. However, the defensive end that dropped back into coverage initially cuts off that shallow cross and then comes up to challenge Howell. Howell can’t make the throw initially and the receiver only becomes available once the defensive end steps up towards Howell. The issue there is that the defensive end is 6’6” with 34.5 inch arms. Howell attempts to float a pass over him, but the defender just sticks out his long arms and intercepts the pass. He then only has to beat Howell in order to run the ball all the way back for a touchdown.
Lessons to learn: Can’t scramble from a clean pocket. Howell has typically been pretty good at staying in the pocket and moving around to avoid pressure while hanging in there to make throws. The McLaurin touchdown pass last week against the Broncos was a perfect example of that. I think at this point in the game, Howell was perhaps a bit rattled and at the first sign of pressure was just resorting to taking off. It seems like he had lost a little trust in the protection, which resulted in him running from what was a relatively clean pocket. Also, in future he should maybe not try a little floaty pass over the top of a giant defender. Can’t compound bad decisions on the same play because that will turn a bad play into a horrific one, as it did here.