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‘5 questions’ with Hogs Haven: Can Washington really cover a 9-point spread?

What’s going on with Washington right now?

NFL: NOV 20 Commanders at Texans Photo by Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Week 11 of the 2023-24 NFL season features Round 2 of the classic matchup between the New York Giants and Washington Commanders. This time around, our ‘5 questions’ are answered by Hogs Haven’s ‘LASkin’.

Ed: In the six games surrounding Washington’s 14-7 loss to the Giants, the Commanders have averaged 23.6 points per game. What’s been the difference?

LA: The Giants-Commanders game was a wakeup call. Before that game, Sam Howell was on pace to set a new NFL record for quarterback sacks. There was a lot of discussion about how much of the problem was the offensive line versus Howell’s tendency to hold the ball too long versus Eric Bieniemy’s play calling. The game with the Giants showed the shortcomings of all three, but it ended debate about the line’s shortcomings. The poor line calls and inadequate adjustments by the linemen in picking up blitzes where an overwhelming problem in that game.

Howell was sacked an average of 5.0 times per game through the Giants game but has been sacked an average of only 2.3 times since. What’s different mostly is Howell’s development and the play calling. Howell is getting the ball out much faster and is less reluctant to throw it away when nobody is open. His progressions have been crisper and more decisive, and he has learned to use the checkdown very effectively when the other receivers are covered. Also, Bieniemy’s play calling has helped, with many more short, quick pass plays that help cover up the OL’s problems. It’s too late to fix the line this year, and in fact the OL hasn’t played that much better after replacing the C and LG due to injuries.

I’m looking forward to seeing whether they play better this time around against the Giants.

Ed: Where is the Ron Rivera watch at this point? What are the chances he gets to keep his job at season’s end?

LA: Most Washington fans think that Rivera will keep his job through the end of the season and then the new owners will clean house in the front office and coaching staff. I agree. Rivera is a good person, and he deserves credit for being a stabilizing force during the chaos at the end of the Snyder era, but he has been a mediocre coach. Four years into his tenure, the team has not had a winning record, and with a brutal last seven games to come, it’s difficult to see him having a winning record or reaching the playoffs this year.

At this point, there is little to be gained by firing Rivera before the end of the year, and I don’t expect it. Josh Harris has not shown his hand for the postseason, and he has no reason to do so now. However, it is difficult to make a case for keeping Rivera as head coach, much less to retain him as the final decision maker on front office matters. He got one to two years more than most coaches with his record, so it’s hard to say that he has been treated unfairly.

Ed: A few weeks ago, when I asked your colleague Kyle Smith which Giants player he would like to take off the Giants and put into Washington’s lineup he chose left tackle Andrew Thomas. Do you have a different answer to that question?

LA: At this point, I’d probably go with Kayvon Thibodeaux. After trading their starting defensive ends at the trade deadline, they need an edge rusher. I endorsed the trades of Chase Young and Montez Sweat, but the trades left the team needing a pass rusher. I think Thibodeaux shows a lot of promise for further development and he is delivering on the field.

Ed: Biggest surprises for the Commanders this season, both positive and negative?

LA: Before the season, I expected the defense to do at least as well as last year, when they were a top 10 defense on most rankings and were better than that in many categories (fourth in yards given up, seventh in scoring). They kept the roster mostly intact and added first and second round picks to the secondary. Yet the defense has fallen apart this year. It has surrendered 27.4 points per game, a hair behind the worst team in the league (Denver) for scoring defense, and a TD per game worse than last year. That performance ranks as the worst disappointment of the season, and I expect that it will send defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio into retirement.

There is no question that the most positive surprise of the season has been Sam Howell. As of now, he leads the league in passing yards and he has passed for over 300 yards in all three games since the Giants fiasco. Before the season, I would have been happy if he had shown good development during the year and played like average NFL passer who showed enough promise to be much better in the future. He is still a young player – he only has 11 games under his belt – but he has far exceeded my expectations. This may be hard for Giants fans to understand after his performance in the Giants’ game, but he just might be the next franchise QB to come along in the NFL. He has completed 67% of his passes this year, has 17 TDs against 9 interceptions, has a QB Rating of 92, and has gotten much better over the course of the season.

Ed: As I type this question, DraftKings Sportsbook lists the Commanders as 10-point favorites (now 9). I expected Washington to be favored, but I’m stunned by that number. Are you, and at that number would you take Washington to cover?

LA: I’d bet against it, with serious money behind the bet. Washington hasn’t beaten anybody by 10 points this year, and they lost to the Giants a month ago by a touchdown. The spread probably says more about how betters view the Giants right now than how they view the Commanders. Las Vegas seem to forget how much the Giants have owned Washington during the Rivera era, even when they haven’t had a very good team.

I think Washington will win because their offense is performing and the Giants’ defense is in a tailspin. They should be able to score more than Giants in this game, even considering how badly the Commanders have played on defense. Even so, I wouldn’t bet on them to cover any spread bigger than 3 points. If it’s a blowout game, I expect Washington to be on top, but I don’t expect the Commanders to have a blowout win for the first time this year.