For the second straight season, Washington won its season opener at home despite turning the ball over three times. Before last year’s Week 1 triumph against the Jacksonville Jaguars, the franchise had lost 34 consecutive games when it was so careless with the ball. Sam Howell was responsible for two of the Commanders’ three giveaways, all of which occurred in the second quarter. Howell forced a throw that was tipped at the line of scrimmage and intercepted by linebacker Zaven Collins, and later lost a fumble deep in his own territory on a sack, resulting in a Cardinals touchdown. Sandwiched between the second-year quarterback’s two turnovers, running back Antonio Gibson, who has struggled with ball security throughout his career, lost a fumble in the red zone.
Sweat was a defensive force, registering five tackles, including two for loss, 1.5 sacks and two forced fumbles. The Commanders’ 27-year-old defensive end, who moved past Bruce Smith and into sole possession of 10th place on the franchise’s all-time sack list, turned Washington’s fortunes around late in the third quarter. His sack of Cardinals quarterback Josh Dobbs resulted in a fumble that was recovered by Daron Payne, reigniting the crowd and setting up the go-ahead touchdown run by Howell. Sweat had two of the Commanders’ 11 tackles for loss, which was tied for their third most in a game since 2001.
Howell, who completed 19 of 31 passes, wasn’t especially sharp, but he didn’t get much help from his receivers. Veteran tight end Logan Thomas dropped a couple of passes, including one on Washington’s first drive. Running back Brian Robinson Jr., who caught a touchdown pass to open the scoring, had a screen pass go right through his hands in the third quarter, nearly resulting in a fourth Washington turnover. Defenders from both teams dropped potential interceptions, and the rain, which picked up in the second half, may have been a factor.
The Commanders’ tagline for 2023 was featured on some of the new signage at FedEx Field, which received a $40 million facelift before the opener. “Our entire motivation in becoming owners was to restore this franchise to its place as arguably the most important and most unifying organization in our community and region,” Mark Ein, a limited partner in Harris’s investment group, said recently. “We know how much the team and the franchise has meant to people for generations.” Joe Theismann, Dexter Manley and Charles Mann greeted fans in Legends Plaza before the game, and John Riggins watched the win from Harris’s suite. Champ Bailey and Robert Griffin III were among the other franchise greats who returned to the stadium for the first time in years. “I think there’s a reason that a lot of alumni stayed away, and we don’t have to talk about that anymore,” Griffin told reporters before the game. “But now it’s a fresh start.” Welcome home, indeed.
Fail: Getting conservative
First-year offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy showed great trust in Howell after his strip-sack fumble late in the fist half, and the quarterback responded by leading an impressive one-minute drive that culminated in a field goal. The second half was a different story. After Abdullah Anderson recovered a fumble at the Arizona 37-yard line with Washington leading by one with less than 5 minutes remaining, Bieniemy called three straight run plays, including on third and six. It enabled the Commanders to burn another 2 minutes off the clock, but after Robinson failed to pick up a first down, the Commanders settled for a Joey Slye field goal that extended their lead to 20-16. The decision was defensible given how well Washington’s defense was playing, but a first down or two could’ve iced the game.
Hail: Tress Way and Jeremy Reaves
Washington’s special team aces were in midseason form. Three of Way’s six punts were downed inside the 20-yard line. He also boomed a 59-yard punt and managed to field a one-hopped snap by Camaron Cheeseman on Slye’s field goal before halftime with soft hands that should make his brother-in-law, Brewers infielder Brice Turang, proud. Reaves finished with three tackles and helped Washington’s punt coverage unit limit the Cardinals to 24 yards on four returns.
The Cardinals committed 67 yards worth of penalties on Washington’s first touchdown drive, including two flags for lowering the head to make forcible contact within the span of four snaps. The first such penalty, on a vicious hit along the sideline by Kyzir White, sent Howell to the medical tent and prompted backup quarterback Jacoby Brissett to briefly take the field. Howell didn’t miss a play. Arizona was penalized nine times for 122 yards, which is the most by a Commanders opponent since a 17-14 win at Seattle in 2017.