Author’s note: The lack in activity over the past few weeks is due to the fact that I recently moved back on to campus for school and needed some time to adjust to my new schedule. Now that I’ve settled in, I plan to get back into a regular cycle. I won’t have the time to post every day or two (like I did throughout the summer), but I plan to post about twice a week going forward (every 3-4 days). Thanks to all my readers for supporting.
Six months after the NBA, NHL and practically every other sports league worldwide shut down operations due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the NFL played their Week 1 slate of games. The pandemic persists, but football is still being played.
With stadiums empty or at limited capacity, the vibe was very different across the league on Sunday. For the Washington Football Team, however, the empty stadium was probably the only familiar part of the game.
With a new team name, new uniforms and new personnel up and down the organization, it was a bizarre experience watching this version of the Washington NFL franchise take the field. After watching yesterday’s game, maybe all the change was necessary.
A year ago during Week 1, the Philadelphia Eagles overcame a 17-0 deficit to defeat Washington 32-27. Today, it was Washington who turned a 17-0 deficit into a victory. A depleted Eagles offensive line left the oft-injured Carson Wentz to the wolves (the Red Wolves, that is) as he was sacked eight times by Washington’s imposing defensive line.
We’ll get to all of that and more as I break down the five biggest takeaways from Washington taking first place in the NFC East:
Dwayne Haskins has a ways to go, but still looked comfortable
Without any preseason action, Week 1 served as a first look for most of the players on the team. Quarterback Dwayne Haskins will be the biggest determining factor for how much success the team will experience this year. He had a rough go in his rookie season last year, but managed to improve with every start. After putting in a ton of work and slimming down this offseason, Haskins looked much more comfortable running the offense in this first game.
Granted, the offense never really got going until the second half, and Haskins’ numbers weren’t good (17/31, 178 yards, 1 TD, 45.3 QBR), but he did enough to win the game, which is all you can ask for at this point. Most of the credit has to go to the defense, but Haskins stepped up as a leader both on the field and in the locker room.
While coach Ron Rivera was receiving planned treatment for his cancer at halftime, as the team was down 17-7, it was the second-year quarterback who stepped up and spoke to the team in the locker room. It’s part of the quarterback’s job to be a leader, but with more experienced players on either side of the ball that could have addressed the team instead, it’s nice to see Haskins didn’t hesitate to take charge.
Haskins and the rest of the offense have a long way to go, but with Haskins helping to pull out this win and the locker room seemingly behind him, this outcome had to serve as a huge boost of confidence. If Haskins can keep the leadership mentality and continue to improve, the stats will come, but for now, starting out the season 1-0 over a division rival is good enough for me.
That defensive line though
This unit has been hyped as the best on the team, and boy did it show on Sunday. Against a ravaged Philadelphia offensive line, everybody ate. As mentioned, Wentz was sacked eight times, and a couple of those served as major milestones for two players in particular.
Ryan Kerrigan entered this season with 90 career sacks, putting him just one behind Dexter Manley for the all-time franchise record. With a team-leading two sacks yesterday afternoon, Kerrigan was able to pass Manley for sole possession of the franchise record.
On the other end of the milestone spectrum was rookie Chase Young, who recorded his first career sack 12 minutes into the first quarter. Young finished the day with 1.5 sacks, and both plays resulted in fumbles from Wentz. The first was recovered by Eagles center Jason Kelce, but the second was scooped up by Kerrigan late in the fourth quarter to effectively seal the game.
Young wasted no time making his presence known, and it should be a thrill to watch him terrorize opposing offenses this season. Washington will face much better offensive line units this season, so we can’t expect eight-sack days every week, but I can’t wait to see how this unit progresses throughout the season.
The secondary was surprisingly solid
While the front seven deservingly claimed most of the credit, the secondary put together a strong performance behind them. Even while missing major free agent signing Kendall Fuller, who sat out Week 1 with a knee injury, Fabian Moreau and 2019 seventh-rounder Jimmy Moreland held down the fort as each intercepted Wentz to help shift the momentum.
The safeties — Landon Collins and Troy Apke — were among the top five players in total tackles on defense. Apke’s eight were tied with Jon Bostic for most on the team. Apke is a former fourth-rounder who seemed destined to be a career special teamer before surprisingly earning the starting job opposite Collins during camp. The team even cut free agent signing Sean Davis, who was projected to start instead.
Collins, meanwhile, was signed prior to 2019 to serve as a game-changing safety for this defense, and he was named one of the defensive captains this offseason, so hopefully his play will continue to improve after a relatively underwhelming first season in Washington.
Even looking beyond the stat sheet, the secondary did a great job locking up receivers down the stretch, as Ronald Darby contained Desean Jackson on 3rd & 26 with the game still tied, and Moreland stuck with Jackson on 3rd & 3 the following drive (although the pass by Wentz wasn’t accurate anyway).
Secondary was considered a weak spot entering the season, and it’s just one game, but if the front seven can continue to pressure opposing offenses into making mistakes that the secondary can capitalize on, this should be a strong defensive group. To see them play this well without Fuller can give fans some hope that the Washington defense is on the rise.
Keep an eye on the skills players
Washington entered this season with one of the worst rated offenses in the league. Beyond receiver Terry McLaurin and Pro Bowl guard Brandon Scherff, the group had very little to hang their hat on. Despite the low expectations, there were several players in the offense that flashed strong potential.
Antonio Gibson, the 2020 third-rounder out of Memphis, had just nine carries for a team-high 36 rushing yards. It’s a small sample size, but averaging 4.0 yards per carry as a player with limited experience as a back in college is promising. It was just his first game, so watch for Gibson to earn more carries and receptions as this team’s young Swiss Army Knife begins to carve out a larger stake in the offense.
Rather than Gibson, it was free agent signing Peyton Barber who received the lionshare of the carries on Sunday. The fifth-year back had just 29 yards on 17 carries (1.7 YPC), but managed to punch in two touchdowns, including the game-winner.
J.D. McKissic, who was brought in as a receiving back, had a quiet day, but was targeted five times by Haskins. He only brought in one catch, and had three rushes for -2 yards, but once he gels more with the offense, he could turn into a solid change-of-pace back.
Looking at pass-catchers, it seems pretty clear that tight end Logan Thomas could have a major role through the season. Thomas was on the other end of Haskins’ only passing touchdown of the today, and he caught three more passes to total 37 yards. Not a great statline, but it’s worth noting he was targeted eight times, which was the most of any receiver on the team, including McLaurin, who posted 61 yards on five receptions.
Steven Sims Jr. looks like a solid secondary option, and hopefully Dontrelle Inman will be able to pick up the slack left by Kelvin Harmon’s absence. (Harmon suffered a season-ending ACL injury back in July.) This offense won’t be the Kansas City Chiefs, but they will hopefully be able to mesh into a respectable unit.
The next four weeks will show the team’s true colors
Four weeks make up a quarter of the season, so any four-game stretch is important, but the next four weeks will be tough for Washington. Next week they face dark horse MVP candidate Kyler Murray and the Arizona Cardinals. The Cards are coming off a victory over the reigning NFC Champion San Francisco 49ers, and will be much more difficult to beat than the Eagles.
Following that is a meeting with the Cleveland Browns before facing the stacked Baltimore Ravens and the sneaky Los Angeles Rams in consecutive weeks. There’s a realistic chance the team will go 0-4 in that span, and while the Cleveland game could potentially go either way, an upset over any of the other three would put the team in a good spot for Weeks 6-8, where a matchup with the Dallas Cowboys is sandwiched between two smackdowns with the New York Giants.
It’s always great to start 1-0, but with 15 more games ahead on the schedule and much better opponents on the horizon, now is not the time to overreact to a comeback victory over a division rival (although it was definitely fun to watch). This organization has dealt with a lot this offseason, so hopefully this group will be able to put it in the rearview and focus on winning football games. For the Washington Football Team, the latter will be easier said than done.
Cover Photo Credit: Rob Carr/Getty Images