5 Commanders players to watch in Sunday’s Patriots game

Patriots

The Commanders got rid of two of their best players this week, but they still have some differencemakers on both sides of the ball.

Terry McLaurin and Brian Robinson are two of the Commanders’ top players on offense. John McDonnell/The Washington Post

The Patriots host the Commanders in Week 9, taking on a team that could be as bad as they are though might not be as desperate for a win.

Washington made it clear which direction it’s going in earlier this week when it traded Montez Sweat and Chase Young ahead of the deadline as its new ownership group reportedly pushed for those moves. Those trades hamper a Commanders team that’s struggled as of late, losing five of its last six games to drop to 3-5.

Still, Washington has some notable players on its roster that can make a difference Sunday. Here are five Commanders players to watch when they take on the Patriots.

Sam Howell

Here’s an underrated storyline entering Sunday’s game: The Patriots selected Bailey Zappe over Sam Howell in the 2022 NFL Draft.

So far, the Commanders have gotten more out of Howell than the Patriots have gotten out of Zappe, even if Zappe fever briefly took over New England last fall. Howell has even put up some solid numbers at points through his first full season as a starter, completing 66.9 percent of his passes for 2,146 yards, 13 touchdowns, and eight interceptions with a 90.1 passer rating. Howell actually ranks sixth in passing yards entering Week 8, though he’s among the six-player group that’s tied for the second-most interceptions thrown this season. 

Last week was arguably the highest point of the Howell experience for the Commanders. The fifth-round pick completed 75 percent of his passes for 397 yards, four touchdowns, and an interception with a 114 passer rating in the Commanders’ 38-31 loss to the Eagles. 

While that game is certainly an outlier, Howell’s put up solid numbers more often than not, recording a passer rating of at least 98 in five games. He had some pretty low lows though in two of the games he didn’t reach that threshold, throwing four picks against the Bills in Week 3 and completed just 22 of 42 passes in a 14-7 loss to the Giants in Week 7. 

Howell also has some ability to move the ball with his legs, rushing for 130 yards, nine first downs and a touchdown this season. But his willingness to trust his legs comes with a downside, too. He’s been sacked a league-high 41 times this year, with evaluations placing some of the blame on Howell for that high number as he’s on pace to be the most-sacked quarterback in a single season in NFL history. 

Brian Robinson

The Commanders’ second-year running back has put up some OK numbers so far this season, but he arguably hasn’t been utilized as much as he should be. 

Washington ranks dead last in rushing attempts so far this season, with Robinson recording 95 of its 159 carries. Robinson’s averaged 4 yards per carry, ranking in the middle-of-the-pack among running backs who qualify as he’s put up 384 rushing yards so far this season. 

But one of the things Robinson has consistently done well at this season is finding the end zone. He’s scored six touchdowns this season, putting up a score in five of the Commanders’ first eight games. 

Robinson’s inability to create big plays could hurt him on Sunday. The Patriots are one of the league’s top run defenses, ranking ninth in rushing yards allowed (97.9 per game) and second in yards allowed per carry (3.4).

Terry McLaurin

McLaurin, who has been one of the game’s steadiest and most consistent receivers since he entered the league in 2019, is on pace for his fourth consecutive season with 1,000 receiving yards, recording 42 receptions for 495 yards through the first eight games.

The veteran wideout has yet to really have a dominant performance this season though. His season-high for receiving yards in a game is 90, which came in the 14-7 loss to the Giants. He also has two other games with 80-plus receiving yards this season. He also only has two receiving touchdowns this season, which is a great number for a top receiver.

The Patriots have largely kept the opposing team’s No. 1 wideout in check this season, even after Christian Gonzalez went down with a season-ending injury early in Week 4. Players like Tyreek Hill, A.J. Brown, Garrett Wilson, CeeDee Lamb, Stefon Diggs, and Davante Adams have all failed to reach the 80-yard mark in receiving yards against the Patriots this year. However, Hill got some revenge for his relatively quiet performance earlier in the season when he had eight receptions for 112 receiving yards last week.

So, the big question is if Hill’s performance in Week 8 is a sign of things to come for the Patriots this season as they rely more on J.C. Jackson and Jack Jones on the outside. If it is, maybe McLaurin will have his first major performance of the 2023 season on Sunday.

Jonathan Allen

There aren’t many standouts remaining on Washington’s defense after it traded away Sweat and Young earlier this week. But arguably the Commanders’ best defensive player is still on their defensive line.

The seven-year pro has emerged as one of the league’s best defensive tackles in recent seasons, earning Pro Bowl nods in each of the last two years. He recorded nine sacks in 2021 and 7.5 sacks last year.

Allen is in the midst of another strong year, recording three sacks and 29 combined tackles with 28 pressures and 18 run stops. He’ll have to step up even more with Sweat and Young out of town as those two edge rushers combined for 11.5 of the Commanders’ 25 sacks this season.

Sunday allows Allen the opportunity to possibly do the heavy lifting that might be necessary for the Commanders to generate a solid pass rush. The Patriots’ offensive line has been one of the worst in pass protection so far this year. However, they’ve been better over the last two weeks, when Michael Onwenu moved out to right tackle. They’ve received a mixed bag of production out of their interior offensive, which has allowed a sack and 10 pressures over the last two games, per Pro Football Focus.

Kendall Fuller

The veteran corner might be the only thing standing between Commanders having the worst pass defense in the NFL this season.

Washington enters Sunday’s game with the fourth-most passing yards allowed per game (374.1) and the most passing touchdowns allowed this year (18).

Fuller has largely been exempt for being a reason for that. The eight-year corner has allowed 24 receptions on 36 targets for just 207 yards, allowing three touchdowns as he’s recorded two interceptions this year, per Pro Football Focus.

A good portion of the production against Fuller came in Week 5, when Bears wide receiver DJ Moore had 230 receiving yards and three touchdowns. Fuller was credited for allowing three receptions for 70 yards and two touchdowns against Moore in that game.

Fuller’s performance has certainly been more than welcomed by the Commanders, especially considering the struggles of Emmanuel Forbes this year. The rookie corner, who was selected in the pick prior to the Patriots drafting Gonzalez, has allowed 22 receptions on 30 targets for 446 yards and three touchdowns this year, per PFF. Washington has demoted Forbes, playing him for just five snaps in each of the last two games.


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