For Commanders to snap losing skid, they must find offensive identity

ASHBURN, Va. -- The Washington Commanders revealed who they wanted to be in the first game of 2022: a team that can spread the ball around, keep defenses guessing and lean on a talented receiving corps.

It worked in the opener. It hasn't worked in the past two games.

That's why they're still searching for their offensive identity. It's no coincidence they’re also seeking to end a two-game losing streak. Their quest needs to end fast after two consecutive losses, especially with a game at the 2-1 Dallas Cowboys on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, Fox).

"We're still working through it," Washington coach Ron Rivera said.

Washington (1-2) has a new quarterback in Carson Wentz, who has a talented arm that can open up the offense. It has a talented receiving corps with Terry McLaurin, a healthy Curtis Samuel and rookie Jahan Dotson, along with tight end Logan Thomas.

That's why the Commanders want to throw the ball. Rivera said they've looked at their mixture of playmakers throughout the offense -- not only the receivers -- and are still figuring out the best way to use them.

"We can't feel that our best three offensive players are our three wide receivers," Rivera said, "because if we go into that with that mindset, the tendency is going to want to throw the ball to get it in their hands. With what we can do with our ability to run the ball, we have to give that a shot as well."

Therein lies the problem. In Washington's first game, a 28-22 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Commanders had success by spreading the ball to seven different receivers. Five different players ran the ball, though starting running back Antonio Gibson rushed 14 times for 58 yards while also catching seven passes for 72. They used their weapons in the pass game.

But in the first half of a 36-27 loss to the Detroit Lions in Week 2, the Commanders attempted 17 passes and ran only six times. Part of that was situational; they gained only 21 yards on 10 first-down plays, constantly leaving the offense in a bad spot. Thirteen plays gained zero yards or less.

When they tried to run the ball, they struggled, averaging just 2.83 yards per carry.

In Sunday's 24-8 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, they came out wanting to throw. After a Samuel jet sweep gained 15 yards on the opening play, Wentz threw on the next five plays covering two series. The next run came on a third-and-26. One more bad statistic: 14 first-half plays gained zero or fewer yards vs. the Eagles.

They want to throw, but the protection hasn't always held up. They need to run, but even when they tried in the first half Sunday, their drives ended poorly -- a third-down sack, a forced fumble and a punt.

Last season, Washington was 2-6 at the bye week. During that time, the coaching staff decided to rededicate itself to the run game. Some of it was situational, as previous deficits forced more passes, but in the first eight games they averaged 25.6 runs and 118.1 rushing yards per game. In the next four, all wins, they averaged 37 and 137, respectively.

The running game could get a boost when rookie Brian Robinson returns, possibly in Week 5. The team's power back, Robinson is currently on the non-football injury list after being shot during an attempted robbery on Aug. 29. He was running pass routes on the field during pre-game warmups Sunday, but Rivera would only say Monday "it's headed in the right direction."

"Not having Brian Robinson out there right now is hampering us a little bit, but we still have some very capable runners, so we've got to look at that as an option as well," Rivera said. "Then the same thing with the tight end position. We can't forget those guys."

The key for Washington remains some level of unpredictability. Their offensive talent should provide big games but the Commanders can't put themselves in too many bad situations.

Washington has faced second-and-10 or longer 29 times -- second most in the NFL. But the Commanders have gained an NFL-worst 64 yards in that situation, according to ESPN Stats & Information. And Wentz has been sacked an NFL-high six times.

"We ran the ball pretty good, we just have to stick with it," Washington tackle Charles Leno Jr. said after the loss to the Eagles. "But it's also not my job; I'm not the one calling plays. We've just got to be more efficient."

Not to mention consistent. That's where finding that identity helps, knowing what can help get them started earlier.

"Trying to be aggressive throwing the ball creates certain opportunities," Rivera said.

Other times, Rivera said, they enter a game wanting to run early to open something else up later. Sometimes, nothing works. That's where they will need their playmakers to get them out of a rut. They remain confident in what they can become offensively. It's a skill group that has only played three games together and is not a finished product. They must produce and they can't panic.

"It's a matter of staying focused through the ups and downs of the game," McLaurin said. "When you're not clicking it can be frustrating. ... Someone has to make that next play to get that ball rolling again."