“When you can get those big chunk plays, it just kind of gives the offense more momentum, more energy,” quarterback Sam Howell said. “You kind of get the defense on their heels. … Every good offense, they always have a lot of explosive plays.”
For years, Washington’s offense has been a dud. From 2017 through 2022, the Commanders had the fewest explosive plays in the NFL. The offense never boomed on more than 10 percent of its plays in a single season. Basically, if the Kansas City Chiefs’ offense was a nuclear bomb, Washington’s was a Fourth of July sparkler.
On Sunday, Washington (2-0) will host the Buffalo Bills (1-1), a team that booms at one of the league’s highest rates behind rocket-armed quarterback Josh Allen. Coach Ron Rivera and his players have called the game a measuring stick, a chance to test themselves against one of the league’s best, and Buffalo’s defense often plays top-down coverage to limit explosive plays. But if Washington wants to keep up with Buffalo, it will need to boom — and luckily for the Commanders, the unit led by offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy has a chance.
The offense ranks in the top third of the league in many metrics, including points scored, expected points added and explosive plays (16). The offense hit 11 explosive plays against Denver, tied for the second most by any team in a game this season, and it got them in myriad ways: Downfield darts from Howell, well-designed screens, a jet sweep and a mid-zone scheme in which running back Brian Robinson Jr. simply ran over defenders for a 27-yard gain.
“There’s a multitude of ways you can create explosive plays,” said wide receiver Terry McLaurin, who caught a 30-yard touchdown against the Broncos. “The way we did it on Sunday was a snapshot of how good we can be.”
In Denver, the Commanders at times yo-yoed the Broncos’ defense. Early on, Howell zipped intermediate throws to soft spots in zone coverage, and Bieniemy threw in a curveball with a well-timed running back screen to Robinson.
Then, on a second and short, the Broncos put seven in the box to stop the run. Instead of rushing vertically, Bieniemy called a horizontal run, a jet sweep for Curtis Samuel, whose burst helped him get the edge and gain 13 yards. And just before halftime, on third and long when the Commanders had to pass, Howell threw a dart to tight end John Bates for 35 yards. The throw set up a critical field goal and illustrated how the quarterback and coordinator could complement one another.
Chunk gains gave players and play-callers mental and emotional boosts because lengthy drives of eight, nine or 10-plus plays can be exacting and draining.
“It’s easy to not score points [on long drives],” Howell said. “You have to be so perfect, and you can’t make any mistakes. Definitely when you have those big explosive plays and chunk plays, it makes it easier.”
In the second half, after Howell stretched the field again on McLaurin’s touchdown, the Broncos backed off and played softer coverage. So Bieniemy went to work calling runs, screens and shorter passing concepts. Robinson ran outside left for 13 yards. Then he got a handoff, showed tremendous patience and bruised ahead for 27, a run that fired up the entire sideline.
“They want to keep us in front of them, [it’s a] great opportunity,” Rivera said. “You run the ball, you run your draws, you run new traps, your gap scheme stuff. I mean, those are things that help you keep the drive going.”
In the fourth quarter, on two straight second and longs from near midfield, Bieniemy dialed up running back screens. Antonio Gibson took the first one 36 yards. Robinson hit the second for 21. The plays both led to points, giving the Commanders the lead and then providing a critical cushion after the Broncos hit a late Hail Mary to nearly tie it.
And on those late-game screens, with offensive linemen sprinting down the field, the benefits of a difficult training camp with Bieniemy showed up in conditioning.
“It’s fun; it’s tiring,” right guard Sam Cosmi said. He laughed because, on the Gibson screen, left guard Saahdiq Charles had accidentally tripped him downfield. But then he grew more serious and pointed out that explosive plays had been a big reason the team dug itself out of a hole against the Broncos.
“[In past years, we] wouldn’t have come back from that,” he said, adding that there’s a growing optimism in the locker room. “We have that type of offense that can put up points.”
And a key part of sustaining that belief will be by continuing to boom.