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Carson Wentz, Commanders are NFL’s worst team in play motion

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Though there are several broad reasons the Washington Commanders offense is struggling — including injuries, penalties, tough matchups, poor individual execution, difficult downs and distances and at times predictable play-calling — one specific and surprising a part of the underperformance has been play motion.

In 37 games as offensive coordinator, Scott Turner has used play motion at considered one of the league’s highest rates. It’s a staple of his scheme, together with shotgun, motion and certain personnel groupings, and it has been effective up to now. Last season, with quarterback Taylor Heinicke, no team within the NFL got more out of play motion than Washington, based on the advanced metric Expected Points Added (EPA).

This yr, with quarterback Carson Wentz, Washington has been abysmal. On 57 play actions, Wentz has accomplished 28 of 53 passes (52.8 percent) for 232 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions. By EPA, Washington not only ranks last within the NFL in play motion but is 11 times worse than the second-worst team (Carolina).

Turner suggested the numbers are skewed because, in a small sample size, the Commanders have had five big negative plays: two sacks, two interceptions and a fumble. But even without those five plays, Washington still ranks as considered one of the league’s worst at play motion.

So what’s unsuitable? Does the blame fall on Wentz (or others) for not executing? Is Turner not adapting to his personnel or opponents? Are these just natural growing pains for a veteran quarterback adapting to a recent scheme? Could it’s circumstantial? (Washington has often trailed big this season, which allows defenses to not fear the run.)

“The largest thing we’d like to do is eliminate the mistakes, after which, if we stay out of second and 15, we’ll be higher in play motion,” Turner said. “If we take a sack on first down, our play-action pass isn’t going to be good on second and 20.”

This weekend, play motion may very well be pivotal against the Tennessee Titans. Previously two years, the Titans have been among the many league’s best at it, partly because defenses respect elite running back Derrick Henry and partly because quarterback Ryan Tannehill excels at passing out of it. But additionally: Tennessee’s defense seems particularly prone to play motion.

Since 2021, the Titans defense has been largely the identical with coordinator Shane Bowen, safety Kevin Byard and star linemen Jeffrey Simmons and Denico Autry. It has consistently played poorly against play motion. This yr, the Titans’ success rate — the share of plays on which they’ve prevented positive EPA — against non-play-action plays is second best within the NFL, at 65 percent. Against play motion, the Titans’ success rate is 42.1 percent, fourth worst leaguewide.

If Tennessee’s offense stays run-first and comparatively inexplosive, the percentages it could actually construct an enormous lead are lower. If the sport stays close and Washington isn’t forced into obvious passing situations, its play motion has a greater likelihood to be effective — especially against a defense as vulnerable because the Titans’.

Scott Turner’s latest play call: Moving from the booth to the sideline

Coach Ron Rivera and Wentz said one key to improving play motion is by committing more to the run. Through the season’s first three weeks, Washington was considered one of the league’s pass-happiest teams. Rivera said running more would make the fake more “sellable” and added the potential return of running back Brian Robinson Jr., a physical presence between the tackles, “may need an impact.”

Though the suggestion of running to establish play motion is intuitive, data contradicts it, because it does plenty of conventional wisdom concerning the function of the running game. In 2018, after studying whether effective rushing helps improve play motion, data scientist Ben Baldwin concluded for Football Outsiders there is no such thing as a evidence that’s true.

But early this season, as defenses across the league have played pass-first greater than ever and rushing has grow to be simpler, the concept that running might successfully arrange play motion could grow to be true. If offenses force defenses to respect their ability to run, defenses could have to devote more defenders to it and fewer to coverage.

Last week in Dallas, Washington appeared to be following that blueprint. The Cowboys opened the sport scheming to stop the pass, and the Commanders ran the ball well, rushing 14 times for 101 yards. The typical of seven.21 yards per carry was the franchise’s best mark in a primary half since 2019. But penalties and mistakes consistently put the offense in second and third and long, obvious passing situations that forfeited some great benefits of the effective running.

Looking back, good blitz call by Dallas DC Dan Quinn on 1-10.

Washington ran on 18/20 snaps under center Sunday. But this time, a fake. DE didn’t bite. Pressure immediately.

Certainly one of the little reasons Washington’s rushing success didn’t translate to play-action success. pic.twitter.com/3bolSdHiNy

— Sam Fortier (@Sam4TR) October 6, 2022

Early within the third quarter, on first and 10, Washington lined up under center. Dallas’s defense must have expected a run, because 18 of the 20 times Washington went under center Sunday, that’s what happened. But as Wentz pulled the ball back and turned to bootleg right, he saw Cowboys defensive end Sam Williams bearing down on him.

Dan Quinn, the Cowboys defensive coordinator, plays with an aggressive front that stops the run on the strategy to the quarterback. He likes to call gap-control pressures, which replenish all of the gaps within the offensive line and lessen the effect of play motion. He had called a pressure on this play, and Williams, the backside defensive end, happened to be in perfect position to defend the bootleg. He didn’t bite on the run fake and was about to hit Wentz.

If Wentz had time, he may need hit a receiver on a deep crossing route for at the very least 15 yards. But as a substitute he threw short to tight end Logan Thomas, who lost one yard. Along with the penalties, those sorts of subtle details were what prevented Washington from translating run effectiveness into play-action success.

In his news conference Thursday, Turner took some blame.

“The 2 passes that we ran [from under center], those weren’t good,” he said. “We got to ensure we’re doing a greater job in those instances.”

The curious case of Terry McLaurin and his lack of first-half targets

In the large picture, Turner and Wentz said, one other strategy to increase play-action effectiveness could be to sync the running and passing concepts so all the things looks the identical. And though running the ball doesn’t necessarily mean higher play motion, an uptick in rushing attempts might help Wentz anyway. In 4 games, Turner has asked plenty of Wentz mentally as he has dropped back 198 times, most within the NFL.

“The run game being efficient, being solid and being explosive, I believe can form of open up [play action],” Wentz said. “Being committed to the run — which, I believe we did a very good job last week — [and] just sustaining it, I believe can form of make everyone’s life easier.”

If Washington desires to reestablish its identity as a play-action team, there could be no higher matchup than this one.

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