The 2022 NFL regular season is just over two weeks away. But one more week of preseason football must begin first before all focus can shift towards games that actually count.
The Washington Commanders travel up Interstate-95 on Saturday for one final tune-up before the regular season against their neighbors in Baltimore. Three days later, final roster cuts are made.
Washington’s starters are expected to play on Saturday, a change from last year’s preseason finale, but in a “very limited” fashion, according to Ron Rivera. The Ravens, on the other hand, have held out most of their starters for the entirety of the preseason.
So, while Saturday’s contest will mainly feature a lot of bottom-of-the-roster guys, there are still plenty of subplots to follow.
Here are three storylines to look for in Commanders-Ravens…
A long(er) look at Sam Howell
Saturday night should be the Sam Howell show.
Head coach Ron Rivera said Wednesday that Washington’s starters will play “very limited” on Saturday. While the head coach left that up for interpretation, it sounds like Carson Wentz and co. will get just one drive — at most.
Behind Wentz is Taylor Heinicke, who is firmly entrenched as the team’s backup. Heinicke started 16 games for the Commanders last season; Washington knows what they have in him. There’s no pressing need for him to play an extended period of time. In fact, Heinicke, along with then-starter Ryan Fitzpatrick, didn’t play a snap in last year’s preseason finale vs. Baltimore.
Rivera did not share how he plans to split time between the quarterbacks on Saturday, but all signs point towards Howell getting a significant amount of playing time. The coaching staff has remained steady that this season is about development for Howell. Getting extended reps in the preseason would be supportive of that.
Plus, it’s worth noting that once the season begins, Howell will receive little to no reps. As the third-string quarterback, Howell will likely be running the scout team for the Commanders to begin the year. That’s won’t help his overall development much.
Howell impressed in his preseason debut against Carolina, throwing for 145 yards and rushing for two touchdowns. The North Carolina product was unable to replicate that success in Kansas City, however, finishing 10-of-18 for 122 yards and an interception.
Playing Howell an extended amount on Saturday makes the most sense. That’s what everyone should expect to see.
Battle for the final receiver spot(s):
Unlike in many years past, the Commanders’ wide receiver room is one of the deeper position groups on the roster. Many of the guys down the depth chart have impressed, too, which could make Rivera’s decisions on roster cutdown day even harder.
Here’s what we know entering the preseason finale: Terry McLaurin, Jahan Dotson and Curtis Samuel are obvious locks. Cam Sims is almost certainly on the team, too. Second-year veteran Dyami Brown feels safe — at least for now.
That leaves five guys — Dax Milne, Alex Erickson, Marken Michel, Matt Cole and Kyric McGowan — in competition for one, maybe two spots.
Milne, a seventh-round pick in 2021, feels like the leader in the clubhouse for the sixth spot. Milne and Erickson have been battling for punt return duties, too, and the former has been more impressive in that aspect than the latter.
But each one of those wideouts named above has shown flashes at times in camp. Erickson led the team in receiving yards in both preseason games. Michel has been a practice standout dating back to OTAs and minicamp. Cole and McGowan have had their moments, too.
So, with a lot of wideouts competing for those final roster spots at receiver, a big game against Baltimore on Saturday could go a long way. Even if it doesn’t result in a spot on the 53-man roster, a couple of them could certainly earn a place on the practice squad, too.
Anyone who follows the NFL on a semi-close level is at least aware of the Ravens’ preseason winning streak. Baltimore has won a league-record 22 consecutive exhibition contests; the Ravens haven’t lost a preseason game since the 2015 finale.
It’s now up to Washington — who’s lost to Baltimore four times during this winning streak, including a 37-3 thumping last August — to prevent the streak from growing even more. Rivera wants his team to be the one that ends it.
“You go into every game expecting to win. Good for them. It’s their thing. It’s what they’re doing,” Rivera said Tuesday. “They come out and they play a specific way. Good for them. Our job is to go out and make sure our guys are playing, growing and getting better as football players. Like I said, you play every game to win.”