Commanders QB Sam Howell impresses after sack in preseason opener


Sam Howell’s “aha” moment, as Coach Ron Rivera describes it, was one of his few mistakes.

On first and 20 during the Washington Commanders’ opening drive Friday night at Cleveland, Howell was sacked on a blitz. Washington set up with three receivers on the left side of the line and tight end Cole Turner on the right. Running back Brian Robinson Jr. motioned from out wide to line up on Howell’s right before the snap, then ran a “hot” route to the flat.

Howell began his progression by looking left, where Dyami Brown and Jahan Dotson ran mirroring hitch routes and Curtis Samuel took a deep crosser up the seam. Dotson was eliminated as an option when the Browns safety dropped low instead of following Samuel up the field, so Howell had to pivot quickly — or get run over by a blitzing cornerback and linebacker. Instead of going to Robinson for the check-down, Howell decided too late to scramble and was sacked.

“He was late off the progression, but he knew it,” Rivera said. “It was a great opportunity for him to learn. Listening to him talk about it, it was like: ‘Ah, I knew it. I knew he was coming. But for whatever reason, I just continued through my progression.’ ”

New offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy’s system is designed to have an answer for everything, but it’s up to the quarterback to know how to find it. Despite his limited experience, Howell has shown confidence with his calls and the playbook, which can be complex for quarterbacks in the early going.

“You don’t see him thinking as much,” Rivera said. “Watch how he gets into the huddle. When he spits it out, gets it going, you can tell he’s getting into a good rhythm. If there’s hesitation or something … he might be thinking. In the game, he handled it very well.”

With the exception of that sack — the only one he took Friday — Howell has shown a solid grasp of the system.

“You can tell he was going through his reads and his progressions properly,” Rivera said. “He [identified] the protections the way he needed to, self-corrected on the field a couple of times with the formation. Those are all things that you learn, and he’s already handling them well.”

Under pressure, Sam Howell’s mobility and quick release showed

Undrafted wide receiver Mitchell Tinsley is part of a deep pool of candidates vying for one or two spots on Washington’s 53-man roster, and so far he has given Rivera and the coaching staff plenty to ponder.

In the win over the Browns, Tinsley was involved in nine passing plays; he lined up wide for four of them and in the slot for the others. The 23-year-old’s lone target resulted in a leaping, 26-yard catch on second and 24.

“I was in the slot on the right side of the field, and we were getting man [coverage], and he was sort of outside leverage,” he recalled. “I just got up to [the defender], worked him a little bit, stuck inside and just tried to make a play on the ball.”

The play was a showcase of Tinsley’s route-running and catch skills, but he took a circuitous journey to this point. He focused on basketball at Lee’s Summit High in Missouri and didn’t return to football until his senior season. He graduated with 19 catches and zero scholarship offers.

He went to Hutchinson Community College in Kansas for two years, then headed to Western Kentucky, where in 2021 he racked up 1,402 receiving yards, the eighth most in the Football Bowl Subdivision. Tinsley transferred to Penn State in 2022 to help fill the void left by Dotson; he led the Nittany Lions with 51 catches and tied for the team lead with five receiving touchdowns. Believing he could make his way again, he signed with Washington after the draft.

“I was just looking for a spot where I could find an opportunity,” he said.

The arrival of Bieniemy added to the intrigue.

“They’re trying to build something here, and that’s something I want to be a part of,” Tinsley said.

Tinsley’s ability to play inside and outside bodes well for him in Washington, as does his history of adapting to new systems and coaches. But to win a spot on the 53-man roster, he has to beat out as many as eight other wideouts.

It’s plausible the Commanders will keep six, maybe seven wide receivers, depending on health and needs at other positions. The top four slots are pretty much set with Terry McLaurin, Samuel, Dotson and Brown. That leaves 6-foot-4 rookies Brycen Tremayne and Jalen Sample, 2021 seventh-round pick Dax Milne, former practice squad player Kyric McGowan, fellow undrafted rookies Zion Bowens and Kazmeir Allen, and veterans Byron Pringle and Marcus Kemp, both of whom played for Bieniemy in Kansas City, to vie for the final few spots.

“Special teams is one of the first things that will play into it,” Rivera said before running down the list of wideouts on the bubble and what each has to offer.

Allen’s return skills carry weight. The size and length of Sample and Tremayne do, too. McGowan’s do-it-all skill set and knowledge of the team and staff will be considered. Bowens’s vertical speed is intriguing, and Tinsley has size, speed and range with some punt return experience.

The competition is steep, but Tinsley said he’s confident.

“I’m just going to continue to keep making plays,” he said. “But I feel like I’ve done everything I can to put myself in the best spot possible.”

The Commanders are adjusting to Eric Bieniemy’s ‘hard-nosed’ intensity

Gibson is ‘on the cusp’

Antonio Gibson could provide Washington with an alternative roster scenario. The wide receiver turned running back said last week he’s in the best shape of any training camp, and in Bieniemy’s offense he has been used more as a pass catcher — a role he has long hoped for.

Gibson has been used in the backfield and out wide. With his size (6-2, 220 pounds) and experience at the position, perhaps the Commanders will keep fewer wide receivers so they can bolster the roster at other positions.

“I think he’s on the cusp to really ascend,” Rivera said. “I think what we’ve done and what we’re doing on the offensive side is going to help him be featured a little more, especially in space.”

Defensive end Chase Young (stinger) and defensive tackle Phidarian Mathis (calf) were limited in practice Sunday “out of an abundance of caution,” Rivera said. They appeared to be injured on the same play against the Browns. Young remained on the sideline, but Mathis returned to the game.

Neither participated in team drills Sunday.

“We have slowed [Young] down just to be smart more so than anything else,” Rivera said. “He’s got to get one more final exam so we can get him back out there. Everything has been fine.”

Rivera said Mathis was sore Saturday and Sunday, “so the training staff wanted to slow him down a little bit.”

Tight end Logan Thomas did not attend practice. He has missed six sessions with a calf strain. To help fill the void in practice, the Commanders signed former New York Giants tight end Kaden Smith.

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