The Washington Post

To Commanders, Week 1 brings a sense of urgency

- BY SAM FORTIER

For the Washington Commanders, it’s difficult to overstate the importance of Sunday’s season opener against the Jacksonvil­le Jaguars. After another tumultuous offseason — and with multiple off-the-field investigat­ions hanging overhead — the team will play its first game as the Commanders led by Coach Ron Rivera, who has acknowledg­ed he must show improvemen­t in his crucial third year, and embattled quarterbac­k Carson Wentz, who is trying to resuscitat­e his career.

If the stakes are weighing on the players, they’ve hidden it well. In the team facility, the drudgery of training camp has given way to the excitement of the regular season. Rivera and his players seem to have a renewed energy for the return of real football — for the chance to finally test the new units, schemes and developmen­ts they’ve been working on for weeks, if not months.

“I'm fired up for who we can be,” Rivera said. “I like what we've seen so far.”

Sunday’s stakes are high. The Jaguars, despite their new coaching staff and promising young core, remain one of the more

welcoming matchups in the NFL. Washington, playing at home, is favored by 21/ points. But histori

2 cally, Rivera’s teams have started slowly. They are 5-6 in Week 1 and just 3-3 as betting favorites, according to Trumedia. They’ve struggled in September (17-19) and October (19-25-1) and excelled in November (24-17) and December (27-18).

Washington will miss a few key players, including defensive end Chase Young (ACL) and perhaps safety Kam Curl (thumb), but Rivera pointed out that the team is getting healthy at the right time with the potential return of tight end Logan Thomas (ACL) and right guard Trai Turner (quad). Rivera blamed past slow starts on “missed opportunit­ies” and said that though he still has questions about this group, he expects it will play well.

“Hopefully, we don’t miss these opportunit­ies,” he said. “But remember, it’s never about how you start. It’s going to be about how you finish, where you end up. And that’s what our goal is — to end up in the right place.”

But if the Commanders win early, it might help spark interest and recapture even a small part of the fan base. Last year, when team president Jason Wright said the franchise began reporting its home attendance accurately, Washington averaged 52,751 spectators — 31st in the NFL and ahead of only Detroit (51,522).

This year, Detroit sold out its opener against Philadelph­ia — its first standing-room-only game since 2019 — while Washington has offered regular discounts on tickets that are usually among the most in demand.

In August, Wright spoke glowingly about the team’s business outlook and projected attendance for the home opener to be about 60,600, a 15 percent increase from last season. But he admitted it has been tougher to sell tickets this year than last, when a marquee slate of quarterbac­ks, including Justin Herbert, Patrick Mahomes and Tom Brady, came to Fedex Field.

“That’s not exactly our schedule this year,” Wright said. “It’s better for the [team on the] field [but] a little more challengin­g to sell in a vacuum from that. So the fact that we’re up in [sales for] that opener with a less-exciting matchup from a fan and commercial standpoint is exciting.”

Week 1 will test the Commanders’ retooled offense and the defense’s belief that it can once again be among the league’s best. There will be extra scrutiny on the linebacker­s, a position that Washington didn’t meaningful­ly address in the offseason, and the tight ends, who were roiled by injuries in the preseason.

For Wentz, the game is a rematch against the team that beat him in Week 18 last season and kept the Indianapol­is Colts out of the playoffs. That loss to Jacksonvil­le is a big reason he is in Washington. At a news conference Wednesday, Wentz downplayed the game’s personal significan­ce by pointing out the team’s many new faces, including Coach Doug Pederson, who led Philadelph­ia during his rise and fall.

“It obviously makes for a fun story and all that, but for me, it’s Week 1,” he said. “It's Week 1. It’s another football game.”

To answer the question, “Is Wentz the guy?” Washington has surrounded the quarterbac­k with a stout offensive line and a full complement of playmakers. Coordinato­r Scott Turner may only have about 60 to 65 touches to distribute to Terry Mclaurin, Curtis Samuel, Jahan Dotson, Antonio Gibson, J.D. Mckissic, Dyami Brown, Thomas and others. Rivera said he wants Turner to start fast and use the first drive to probe the defense and determine the most effective parts of the game plan.

“That first drive is going to be real important for us,” Rivera said. “Hopefully, we go eight, nine, 10 plays . . . so we get a pretty good sense about [the matchups].”

Last year, Washington averaged five plays on its opening drive, third fewest in the NFL, and most were boom-or-bust. It scored on six — three touchdowns, three field goals — and went three-and-out on eight.

Washington also will try to improve a third-down defense that was, against the pass, one of the worst of the previous decade last year. The preseason was not encouragin­g. In the opening half of the first two games, when the Commanders’ starters took most of their reps, Washington allowed opponents to convert 11 of 15 third downs, a league-worst 73.3 percent. Players dismissed those struggles as byproducts of a vanilla scheme or breakdowns that will be fixed.

“If we get off on third down, that’s a good start,” cornerback Kendall Fuller said of Week 1. “[ The key is] just locking in, knowing the situation, knowing what the offenses are trying to do, then being able to anticipate and just going out there playing fast.”

For many players, the opener offers new opportunit­ies. Secondyear safety Darrick Forrest, who is expected to make his first start, will have six friends and family members in the stands. Running back Jonathan Williams, who will fill in for the injured Brian Robinson Jr., will have seven. Up and down the roster, the team will need contributi­ons to turn heightened expectatio­ns into results.

“We’re ready to play football; we’re ready for the season to start,” defensive tackle Jonathan Allen said. “Don’t really know until Week 1 hits. So we’ll see.”

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