ASHBURN, Va. — When the Washington Commanders needed a spark in the first quarter Sunday, they turned to receiver Curtis Samuel. He showed why Washington signed him two years ago, making defenders miss in key spots with a zig here and a zag there, capping the first drive with a touchdown.
Later, it was receiver Terry McLaurin. The Commanders had blown a lead to the Jacksonville Jaguars and needed a big play. McLaurin delivered with a 49-yard touchdown catch, only his second grab of the day.
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And then it was rookie receiver Jahan Dotson‘s turn. Washington needed one more big play, trailing the Jaguars by two with less than two minutes remaining. Dotson ran an out-and-up, got the corner to bite and then adjusted to the pass in the end zone, making a lunging grab while being obstructed.
After only one game, Washington’s offense showed what it could do and is why the Commanders are excited to see what it will produce for an encore at the Detroit Lions on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, Fox).
In the Commanders’ 28-22 victory over Jacksonville, they revealed why they could have a dangerous offense this season: Depth of playmakers.
“We can be a very dynamic group,” McLaurin said.
It wasn’t just the three receivers, either. It was also running back Antonio Gibson being used in a more versatile role than in the past. He ran the ball 14 times for 58 yards but caught seven passes for 72 yards. It’s also tight end Logan Thomas, who caught three passes for 45 yards in his first action since tearing his ACL in December.
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On Sunday, seven Commanders caught passes, three others received at least one target, and five ran the ball, including scrambles by quarterback Carson Wentz, who completed 27 of 41 passes for 313 yards with four touchdown passes and two interceptions.
Last week, offensive coordinator Scott Turner discussed offensive balance, saying it wasn’t just about run-pass ratio but about spreading the ball out and attacking in multiple ways. That’s what Washington did Sunday. The Commanders have a strong-armed quarterback who can hit passes all over the field and have a speedy receiver group that can win vertically and horizontally.
“That’s when you can really be dangerous and effective on offense is when the ball’s going to everybody and they can’t just focus on one guy,” Turner said. “We got some guys that can make some plays.”
It’s what Washington envisioned during training camp. It helps that Samuel, who played just five games last year while dealing with a groin and hamstring injury, is now healthy. He did not look explosive when he did play last year but certainly looked dynamic in camp and on Sunday. Of his 55 yards receiving, 48 came after the catch by juking defenders.
After he caught his touchdown pass on the first drive, Samuel shouted: “I’m back!” He even posted that on his Instagram account.
“It’s been so long since I’ve been able to make dudes drop like that,” Samuel said. “I did what I knew I could do.”
Washington used its personnel in ways that created openings for others. On a third-and-8 pass to Thomas, three Jaguars defenders were worried about other players, which left Thomas wide open en route to a 27-yard gain. The next play, Wentz hit McLaurin for the touchdown. On that play, the safety was paying closer attention to Samuel, who lined up inside to McLaurin’s left, and couldn’t get to the outside in time to help the corner.
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“I’ll get single [covered] more often than them; you have to respect those three with their speed and athleticism,” Thomas said.
The Commanders aligned Samuel in the backfield with J.D. McKissic. Another time, they used power back Jonathan Williams in the backfield with Gibson. Wentz faked a handoff to Williams, allowing Gibson to get downfield without a lot of eyes on him and catch a 26-yard deep corner route.
Another time, they sent Samuel in motion to the right, leaving the defense to wonder if it was a Jet sweep. Wentz faked to him, then faked a handoff to Gibson, also running to the right. Before the snap, there were eight defenders aligned to Washington’s left side. After the fakes, there was one defender to that side of the field — a corner 14 yards downfield. Wentz threw back to undrafted free agent tight end Armani Rogers, who ran for 23 yards.
The offensive creativity jumped out.
“That’s what makes us so versatile,” Wentz said of the diverse skill talent.
It also helped Washington’s defense. The array of weapons on offense enabled the Commanders to hold the ball for 32 minutes, 57 seconds.
“They keep our big guys drinking Gatorade,” Washington safety Bobby McCain said.
In the past, McLaurin often served as the runaway main option, but he was only targeted four times Sunday. In his first three seasons Washington was 1-5 when McLaurin was targeted four times or fewer. Washington coach Ron Rivera said it’s removed the pressure from McLaurin — but added there will be a game where they target him four times in the first quarter.
“Now they have to make an adjustment,” Rivera said of the defense.
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Which is fine by McLaurin.
“We want as many weapons as possible to make this offense as explosive as we can,” McLaurin said. “The onus doesn’t fall on one guy. To see Curtis and Jahan make plays along with the other guys is really good. … We’re unselfish and happy for each other.”
Indeed. At one point during the fourth quarter, McLaurin suggested they run the play on which Dotson scored the game-winning touchdown.
It helps that, as McLaurin said, the three receivers have different strengths. Samuel can hurt teams underneath, whether lined up wide or in the backfield; Dotson can run routes from anywhere and McLaurin is more adept winning downfield.
Rivera’s goal this offseason was to surround Wentz with more talent. They drafted Dotson and running back Brian Robinson, who is currently on the non-football injury list after being shot twice in his right leg during an attempted robbery. Dotson caught two touchdown passes Sunday and when Robinson returns — they hope in October — he’ll become the Commanders’ power back. That will add to the creativity they can employ. The offensive line also gave Wentz time to hurt the Jaguars.
It’s only one game, but Washington’s players say Sunday wasn’t an outlier but, rather, a start.
“We have a lot of talent on the offense and it’s not just the receiving core. It’s the O-line, the quarterback, running backs,” Thomas said. “We are very talented, and we know we’re talented, and let’s just put it on the table every single week and try to find mismatches.”