5 reality checks for Commanders’ must-win Week 4 matchup vs Cowboys

LANDOVER, MARYLAND - SEPTEMBER 25: Cornerback Benjamin St-Juste #25 of the Washington Commanders defends a pass intended for wide receiver DeVonta Smith #6 of the Philadelphia Eagles during the first half at FedExField on September 25, 2022 in Landover, Maryland. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)
LANDOVER, MARYLAND - SEPTEMBER 25: Cornerback Benjamin St-Juste #25 of the Washington Commanders defends a pass intended for wide receiver DeVonta Smith #6 of the Philadelphia Eagles during the first half at FedExField on September 25, 2022 in Landover, Maryland. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images) /

The Washington Commanders find themselves in an early season hole after back-to-back embarrassing losses to NFC foes. With a trip to Dallas looming, it can feel a bit like the season is already on the brink.

Given the nature and breadth of the issues on display each of the last two weeks, it’s fair to assume the Commanders are dramatically worse than even the most honest internal observers thought as of the beginning of the season. They are clearly thinner in key areas and less in-sync in others than they expected to be coming out of the preseason, and having looked utterly inept for large chunks of all three games in all three phases, they currently rank near the bottom of most power rankings, DVOA and other metrics.

And while I seek to bring calm and rationality to the Commanders analysis ecosystem, I am not far from declaring this game against Dallas as a must-win even this early in the season. And given how good the Dallas pass rush looked against New York, and how bad Washington looked against Philly’s pass rush, that’s a scary proposition. But before I make any rash declarations, let’s jump into this week’s Commanders Reality Checks.

5 reality checks for Commanders vs Cowboys in Week 4

5. The Reality Is, this defense has to generate turnovers.

Bobby McCain failed to take the opportunity for a huge hit on Devonta Smith’s massive catch on Sunday. He was in position and failed to break up the pass which very easily could have popped the ball up in the air for an interception.

St-Juste couldn’t corral the INT against Detroit the previous week after reading Goff perfectly and having the ball in his hands . This defense is not talented enough to miss opportunities like that. If the Commanders are going to rebound from their two-week losing streak and get themselves back on track this season, they are going to have to begin making the plays that they get themselves in position for. Look for Washington to get more creative and aggressive defensively as they seek to work themselves out of their two-week funk.

4. The Reality Is, Benjamin St. Juste is the team’s best ( and most confident) corner.

Confidence trumps almost everything in the NFL, and St-Juste is playing with a ton of confidence so far this season. Moving back to the outside last week as the team adjusted to the absence of William Jackson III, St. Juste was the highest-rated player for Washington, making multiple pass breakups and generally locking down Devonta Smith and AJ Brown when he had them in coverage.

Yes, he gave up a tough TD to Brown, but really couldn’t have covered that much better. He also was unlucky that Ron Rivera was so slow on the draw with the challenge flag after he beautifully defended a long pass to Devonta Smith on the sideline that was incorrectly ruled a catch. I’d like to see Jack Del Rio move St. Juste outside permanently and let Kendall Fuller move to the slot or to free safety, both positions he’s much more natural at. It’s precisely these kinds of changes that need to be made to improve this defense.

3. The Reality Is, Washington can’t wait for Brian Robinson Jr. to emphasize the run.

Washington has run the ball relatively effectively so far this season in extremely limited attempts. It’s been odd the extent to which they have avoided the run even while watching Carson Wentz get beat up by opposing defensive lines. It’s almost as if they have been waiting to commit to running the ball until Brian Robinson Jr. returns from the NFI list.  This in spite of the fact that, generally, their entire offensive line is better at run blocking than pass blocking.

If the Commanders don’t commit to (and succeed at) running the ball on Sunday in Dallas, Carson Wentz is in for another painful day against that pass rush. Given Antonio Gibson’s success against Dallas when he was healthy in 2020, I’d anticipate Washington attempting to pound the ball on the ground a bit this Sunday as part of the effort to slow down Dallas’ pass rushers.

2. The Reality Is, the O-Line, Carson Wentz and Scott Turner must be in sync.

Sunday’s debacle at FedEx Field against the visiting Eagles provided plenty of fodder for dismay among Washington fans. But in giving up 9 sacks, the trifecta of Scott Turner, Carson Wentz and the offensive line unit combined for a comedy of errors. There were missed protections, predictable play calls, and hesitant execution. If Washington hopes to rebound this week, they will need quarterback, play-caller and O-Line to sync up much more. Wentz will need to emphasize varying the snap count, trusting his eyes and getting the ball out of his hands much more quickly. He’s also going to have to find a way to avoid turning the ball over for the first time this season.

The O-Line will need to be less predictable with their pass sets and much more stout against bull rushes. I’d also like to see the team experiment with Nick Martin at center in the hopes of getting more consistent snaps, Cosmi at right guard to add some size at that position, and Cornelius Lucas at right tackle because he’s one of their best five linemen. I wouldn’t move Cosmi inside permanently, but as a temporary solution since the rest of the guards have struggled so mightily. Status quo and hoping things get better is not a plan.

Scott Turner will need to mix in much more mis-direction, creative screens, more variety and consistency in the running game, and more emphasis on getting Terry McLaurin and Jahan Dotson the ball on short and quick concepts so as to limit the number of 5 and 7-step drops Wentz is taking. A successful offensive outing on Sunday depends on all three of these factors making a massive improvement from Week 3.

1. The Reality Is, Ron Rivera’s coach-speak is cheap…time to back it up with results.

Ron Rivera has spent two and  a half years building back up the reputation of the football operations in Washington. He’s brought respectability, social responsibility, equity and straightforward and honest approach to a football operation all too often marred by doublespeak and narcissism for the last two-plus decades. He also presided over an unexpected division win in 2020. Outside of that unexpected early success, the results on the field or Rivera’s teams here in Washington have been underwhelming: A 15-21 record including their playoff loss, plus the mind-boggling 7 times in those 36 games that they have trailed by at least 20 points at halftime.

Rivera usually says a lot of the right things, but even his language has turned a little disappointing recently. If the Commanders are to get where he and Washington fans want them to be – consistent and sustained winning with a respectable culture – Rivera is going to have to start notching some significant and consistent wins.

The NFL is a results-oriented business, and a continued ceiling of mediocrity mixed with consistent laughingstock-level embarrassments isn’t going to cut it, even with an owner preoccupied avoiding Congressional subpoenas. If Rivera can’t manage to pull the right strings to starting stinging together some wins, he’s in for increasingly hostile home crowds and levels of widespread apathy toward the organization that he likely doesn’t realize are even possible.

If the Commanders lose respectably this week in Dallas and show some significant improvement in key areas along the way, there’s a pathway to a loss that doesn’t dramatically damage whatever hope and goodwill the fanbase has left for this regime. But another uncompetitive embarrassment on national TV to a hated division rival might spell the beginning of the end of Rivera’s leash.

I don’t expect embarrassment on Sunday, in spite of the staggering level of damage the offensive and defensive Lines have sustained to injury so far this season and the incredibly bad matchup Dallas seems to be for the unit who couldn’t hold up against Philly at home on Sunday.

I do think the locker room still likes and respects Rivera, and those men have too much pride to get embarrassed three weeks in a row. But we shall see…For more specific keys and predictions on Sunday’s game, follow me on Twitter @TheRealityIs__ And in the meantime, say it with me, “We Want Dallas!”