ASHBURN, Va., -- Washington Commanders quarterback Sam Howell was under pressure long before the season started: A second-year quarterback drafted in the fifth round with only 19 NFL passes to his resume was charged to lead an almost definite must-win season.
Once the season began, the pressure he faced has been different -- and more painful. Through three games, Howell has been sacked 19 times -- six more than any other quarterback. The Buffalo Bills recorded nine in Sunday's 37-3 win alone.
Howell and the Commanders are on a record-setting pace: The most sacks any team has surrendered in a season is the Philadelphia Eagles in 1986 with 104. Washington is on pace to allow 107.7, albeit with one more game than Philly. Meanwhile, David Carr holds the NFL record when he was sacked 76 times when he was with the Houston Texans.
“You’ve got to learn from it,” Washington coach Ron Rivera said of Howell. “If you don’t learn from it, it’s going to happen again.
"He's trying to make plays and sometimes it's just dumping the ball and getting rid of it or throwing it away. I think that's part of his growth period.”
They can’t afford for it to happen at Philadelphia on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, Fox). In 2022, the Eagles sacked then-starter Carson Wentz nine times in a 24-8 win. But the Eagles have only six sacks thus far. They also rank 25th in number of quarterback hits as well as pressure percentage. However, the Eagles have a collection of good defensive linemen capable of pressuring Howell. Rookie Jalen Carter is second among defensive tackles with 15 pressures.
“They're just so talented and they have so much depth as well,” Howell said.
He said a lot of what must be learned lies with him. Howell has started only four games in the NFL and, offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy has said, he’s seeing new looks each game. Sometimes it causes indecision; other times it takes time to process what he sees before moving to his next read. That could be the difference between a completion and a sack.
“You have to understand he’s going through that experience,” Bieniemy said. “The best thing Sam did [Sunday] is he played his way through it. Now he can find out the good he did, the bad he did and the indecisiveness he did.”
Howell doesn't want to use youth as an excuse.
“Honestly no,” he said. “I expect to play much better than I played on Sunday, and my teammates and this organization deserves for me to play better than I played on Sunday. I can't go out there and make the excuse that I'm young because the teams we're playing, they don't care. The scoreboard doesn't care. So, I got to do my job at a higher level in order for this team to go where we want to go.”
On one sack against Buffalo Howell held the ball for 3.06 seconds before trying to run and being tackled. Another time, down 37-0 and trying to make a play down the field, it was 3.21 seconds. It’s considered a win for the line if the rush takes at least 2.5 seconds.
“I just got to do a better job overall just getting the ball out,” Howell said.
Washington’s line has the league’s 10th-most pass-rush losses, according to ESPN Stats & Information. But sometimes when Howell isn’t sacked, the pocket is more condensed than the Commanders would like.
Howell, at 6-foot-1, is short for a starting quarterback. That means Washington’s interior needs to be more stout to provide an effective pocket.
“He's not the tallest guy, so especially our job is to not let the pocket collapse as much so he can get the ball out and look over us,” Washington guard Sam Cosmi said. “We've got to do a better job of that. But for him, he's working on stuff. We all are.”
At times, teams are pushing the interior and looping their ends around the tackles to pressure, or sack, Howell. He has been sacked twice in such situations.
“It’s working,” Washington center Nick Gates said of that strategy. “We need to firm up in the middle to be honest. We’ve just got to get our hands on guys and be able to anchor a little quicker. Just stand firm."
Gates said teams are pressuring them more because of Howell's inexperience.
“He's trying to make plays back there," Gates said. "It takes some time to get used to, but as a line we’ve got to come together and pick him up. We can't let him get hit like that. It's not all on us, but it's our job to block it for him so we could do a better job than we have.”
But, wide receiver Terry McLaurin said, they have playcalls that can help reduce the time Howell needs to make his reads -- or even to go through his progressions. On a 10-yard catch against Buffalo, McLaurin faced solo coverage from corner Tre'Davious White. It became an automatic conversion to a fade route.
“Those are easy throws that you can get to help your quarterback get in the rhythm,” McLaurin said. “It's like, OK, I got off cover so I'm going to take the short. Or I got a press, I'm going to take this fade. Those are easy throws that I help feel like the quarterback sees the ball thrown, caught, and keeps you in a rhythm in the offense versus I got to drop back, I got to go here, here, here.”
That’s why Bieniemy said it’s not just one issue, even if Howell’s growth and development will receive a lot of the attention.
“It’s a combination of everything,” he said. “It starts with me. We have a young quarterback. Our job is to make sure we’re continuing to grow there. When you go through a season you have highs and lows. This is when you find out who you are.”