Commanders' passing game shows signs of growth

Terry McLaurin had a season-high 11 targets on Sunday against the Falcons. Brett Davis/USA TODAY Sports

ASHBURN, Va. -- The nuance of the play perhaps mattered more than the yards it gained. It highlighted growth between Washington Commanders receiver Terry McLaurin and quarterback Sam Howell. A play designed for Howell to throw it one way ended up needing to be thrown another. Howell adjusted; McLaurin adjusted. And an 18-yard completion followed.

This play in Sunday's win over the Atlanta Falcons represents the sort of subtle growth Washington needs to continue having if it wants the passing game to develop.

The ability to adjust will be critical when the Commanders (3-3) play at the New York Giants (1-5) on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, CBS), with defensive coordinator Wink Martindale known for his pressure packages -- especially against young quarterbacks such as Howell.

"It's a work in progress," Washington receivers coach Bobby Engram said, "but it's a good one."

They're not getting as many yards after the catch though their receiving yards are comparable to last season after six games. As a group, the Commanders receivers rank 28th in that area. McLaurin had 367 yards at this point in 2022; he has 342 now but on nine more catches. Curtis Samuel has two fewer yards on seven less catches. Jahan Dotson has 12 fewer yards on five more catches.

Finding more production from the receivers was a topic among the coaches before Atlanta.

"You're talking about the impact that each guy has and their ability to have a big impact that, 'Hey, what can we do? How can we do it? What can we do better?' Those are conversations that were had," coach Ron Rivera said. "Getting the ball to them in space is very important because of their ability for yards after catch. I think part of it too is, again, getting the ball out of Sam's hands quickly."

No Commanders receiver has surpassed 100 yards in a game this season.

McLaurin has gone 10 consecutive games without topping 100 yards. The last time occurred in a 20-20 tie at the Giants in Week 13 last season. It's the longest such streak of his career.

However, McLaurin also has finished with at least 100 yards three times in seven games against the Giants. And Dotson's lone 100-yard game came in a Week 15 loss to the Giants.

New York likes to pressure quarterbacks and play man coverage. Washington hopes that results in more big plays. The Commanders wideouts have combined for six plays of at least 25 yards, tied for 21st in the NFL. Last season they ranked sixth on such plays.

But keep this in mind against a team that likes to play man: Washington averages 4.65 yards after the catch against man and 2.27 versus zone. The Commanders receivers must get off the line quicker than they have at times this season.

"We know how much [the Giants] like to bring pressure and how much they like to play man to man with their back half," Dotson said. "It's a challenge to us to make sure we get open, get open with some urgency. When you play teams like this and they're bringing a lot of guys, one missed tackle can lead to a big play."

Sometimes it's about the subtleties: On a 10-yard catch against the Falcons' zone coverage, Howell's pass not only arrived just after McLaurin turned, but it also was delivered to his inside shoulder -- and prompted McLaurin to turn inside where a bigger gap allowed for five more yards. Another time McLaurin broke a tackle and gained 15 yards after the catch.

"It's only a matter of time and those guys are all really good after the catch," Howell said. "It's just a matter of getting in them situations and me giving them good throws where they continue to run."

But hiccups will continue as the receivers adapt to coordinator Eric Bieniemy's system. It requires them to run routes from different spots; Dotson, for example, has been targeted as many times from the slot (12) as he was all of last season.

Last week, he dropped the one pass that came his way.

"It's kind of just one of those unlucky things for Jahan," Howell said. "But we trust Jahan. He's a hell of a player. I'm going to continue to try to do everything I can to get him the ball just like all our guys."

But McLaurin goes back to those plays against Atlanta. On Washington's first drive, Howell connected with Samuel on a third-and-9 for 16 yards. On the play, Samuel started toward the middle and then was supposed to run a deep corner route.

However, the Falcons' two-deep zone coverage started to drift that way. So Samuel slowed his route and Howell threw the ball to the inside, away from the defenders.

"Sam stopped him with the throw," McLaurin said. "Those are the little details you see."

Then, in the second quarter, McLaurin caught his 18-yard pass. He has talked in the past about wanting to develop a bond with a quarterback -- Howell is the 10th starting quarterback he has played with since joining Washington in 2019 -- to where they adjust on the fly.

On the 18-yard play, McLaurin ran a shallow crosser to the left at less than full speed, hoping to attract less attention while Samuel cleared out the secondary to that side. Howell would then hit him over the top and lead him into the end zone.

However, corner A.J. Terrell passed off Samuel and was in position to defend a throw over the top. So McLaurin looked back early, to show Howell he was ready for the pass, and Howell unloaded a back-shoulder throw as he was hit.

McLaurin said he made sure to look back earlier than anticipated so Howell knew he read it the same way.

"It was like we saw the same thing at the same time," McLaurin said. "That is a sign of growth. We didn't anticipate or talk about it, but it was something where the receiver and the quarterback were on the same page so it came out to be a really good play."

It's part of how they want to evolve. Howell needs to learn how his receivers will handle various coverages; the receivers need to know that Howell reads it the same as they do -- and where he'll throw the ball against that look.

"We didn't necessarily anticipate or talk about that look," McLaurin said, "but it was something where the receiver and the quarterback were on the same page, so it came out to be a really good play. That was a really cool example of us executing."