Success in the passing game centers on how the Washington Commanders approach New York Jets cornerback Sauce Gardner in Week 16.
The Washington Commanders have a good opportunity to gain only their fifth victory of the season this afternoon. Overcoming an exceptional New York Jets defense is the primary key to any potential success that comes their way in Week 16.
Just how beneficial any more winning would be long term is debatable. Many fans are pleading for a tank to potentially secure a top-three selection in the 2024 NFL Draft. Something that isn't normally associated with NFL players thanks to their pride if nothing else.
Christmas Eve's trip to the Jets doesn't have much excitement attached. Both teams have already been eliminated from playoff contention. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers finally admitted defeat in his quest to make a miraculous return. Ron Rivera is a lame-duck coach on his last legs with the Commanders.
Commanders have Sauce Gardner problem in Week 16
One considerable obstacle the Commanders must overcome is how to approach All-Pro cornerback Sauce Gardner. It's a complex riddle to solve, something Rivera highlighted during his media availability via Sports Illustrated.
"He can run and he is long and when you get a DB that can run and but has that kind of length, he can be really, really special. And he has that knack, he has that ability. He plays certain situations and like when there's a certain time during the route, it almost turns into like he's going up for a rebound. He knows how to body a guy up. He knows how to keep it tight and he knows how to go after the body. He's got great body control when he's in the air too."- Ron Rivera via Sports Illustrated
Gardner might be in only his second season, but he's already the best cover cornerback around. Teams have grown increasingly wary of throwing in his direction - especially of late. Whether the Commanders become the latest to shun his side of the field is something to monitor closely as the contest unfolds.
There is growing pressure on quarterback Sam Howell to bounce back after his benching at the Los Angeles Rams. Testing Gardner doesn't seem like the best way to accomplish that. Much will also depend on how much time the promising signal-caller has in the pocket with Tyler Larsen and Charles Leno Jr. ruled out.
The Jets pass defense is ranked No. 2 league-wide in yards conceded per game. If the Commanders go away from Gardner's side, there is a more than capable cornerback on the opposite end in the form of D.J. Reed. There's also their outstanding defensive front to factor into the equation.
This is a tricky equation for Howell and Eric Bieniemy to solve. Testing Gardner - especially if he shadows veteran wide receiver Terry McLaurin - might be a necessity. It also increases the risk of drives stalling versus a team that isn't renowned for putting many points on the board due to quarterback instability.
Looking the other way entirely is another viable option. Focus on going over the middle. Rely more on Curtis Samuel and Logan Thomas. Firmly establish the run and work more play-action into the scheme in pursuit of creating openings downfield.
That might be the preferred method given the way Gardner's performed of late. We won't have to wait much longer before finding out. But make no mistake, the Commanders must get everything spot on with a heightened sense of urgency surrounding their second-year quarterback.