OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Marlon Humphrey’s response about Sam Howell spoke volumes about the national perception of the Washington Commanders’ quarterback situation and why that’s poised to change.
The Baltimore Ravens hosted the Commanders on Tuesday to begin two days of joint practices at the AFC North squad’s exquisite practice facility. For the three-time Pro Bowl cornerback, that meant facing Washington’s offense. It turns out the QB under center — or in shotgun — was a surprise. Humphrey knew that the Commanders’ receiving corps has talent and speed, but he said he “didn’t know if it was going to be (Howell) or (Jacoby) Brissett throwing with the ones.”
This blind spot must seem preposterous for those living and dying and hoping with every Howell update this preseason. Sure, he isn’t some known commodity like Baltimore’s starter, Lamar Jackson, but Washington began propping up the second-year player as QB1 back in January.
This is why oddsmakers have Washington’s win total — despite a top-10 defense and a bevy of offensive playmakers — at 6.5. Quarterbacks rule the NFL world, and Howell remains a mystery even for a seasoned defender prepped to face the Commanders. But with each appearance, including during Tuesday’s chippy practice, Howell is making it clear there is no quarterback debate.
“He looked really comfortable,” Humphrey said. “He’s a second-year guy, but he looked comfortable back at quarterback.”
Sam Howell passes the test in Commanders’ opener despite offense’s rocky start
Humphrey had quite the perch for observing, considering he typically matched up with Commanders wide receiver Terry McLaurin. With a focus on underneath passes, Howell targeted McLaurin and Jahan Dotson against an unfamiliar secondary.
“I love competing, man,” a smiling McLaurin said. “It’s fun going against a different team too. You go against each other for so long that you get familiar with your teammates. … When you come out against another team, It’s good to have a measuring stick of how you’ve made it up until this point in camp.”
Nobody had a better view of Howell’s showing than his head coach, Ron Rivera, though new owner Josh Harris and former Washington head coach Joe Gibbs could see plenty from their outside seats at the Ravens facility,
Joe Gibbs and Brian Mitchell chopping it pre-practice. pic.twitter.com/Kwxhzl7aLH
— Ben Standig (@BenStandig) August 15, 2023
One might think Rivera, a former linebacker and defensive-minded coach, would keep tabs on the adjacent field where Washington’s defense faced the electric Jackson, the 2019 league MVP, and bouts of chippiness and tussles grabbed attention. But four times he’s been part of joint practices as a head coach, “and all four I spend with the offensive side,” Rivera said.
The exponential chances for growth and struggles for a QB with one regular-season start make Howell a must-watch, regardless. With offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy calling plays into each of the three quarterbacks headsets, Rivera typically stood steps behind and to the side of the offense for various 11-on-11, seven-on-seven, and one-on-one work.
“For the most part, (Howell) made some really good decisions, good throws,” Rivera said. “I liked the way that the offensive tempo was. I thought it was an upbeat practice, which is what we need to do, especially against a good team like Baltimore.”
Structuring practice began in the spring with Rivera and Baltimore’s head coach, John Harbaugh. The coordinators and their counterparts discussed specific ideas and plans. While they allowed time for a two-and-a-half hour practice, the needed reps were completed in a tick under 120 minutes. Guess you could say Bieniemy even had the Ravens working fast.
“It feels like extra preseason work,” defensive tackle Daron Payne said after practice.
Howell took advantage of Dotson’s crisp route running in the one-on-one session for multiple completions. He threw a dart to Curtis Samuel between two defenders and continued his growing connection with McLaurin.
“We’re still in the middle of camp, and we still got some preseason to go,” McLaurin said, “but I feel like we’re building a little bit of that trust where you get some one-on-one opportunity. He’s going to trust me to come down and make that play. … I just wanna continue to give him that trust.”
One way to help a young quarterback and a leaky offensive line is by dialing up quick passes. Recent practices have shown that emphasis for the offense, McLaurin said, which is “predicated on a lot of the spacing and the timing.”
“I feel like our quick game has been great,” McLaurin said. “We’re just trying to be on time with the quarterback, you know what I mean? When we’re getting certain looks, whether it’s press man or a little off technique, we still wanna be in the spot that Sam’s going to expect us to be in.”
Terry McLaurin on Sam Howell. pic.twitter.com/x7A8zrK5ee
— Ben Standig (@BenStandig) August 15, 2023
One key for a fast-paced offense is all players being in sync. Washington’s offense labored in this regard with multiple false starts and other penalties. There were times when Rivera felt Howell’s “internal clock” needed to rev up. The sack Howell took in the preseason opener at Cleveland is a prime example.
“I thought he could have gotten rid of the ball a couple of times when he didn’t,” Rivera said.
That’s one of many aspects the team is working toward ahead of Monday’s night game at FedExField against the Ravens. When plays break down, or choices take longer than desired, Howell doesn’t panic, even during a road practice.
“I think he did a great job even when he had to improvise and roll out a little bit,” McLaurin said, “to still keep his eyes downfield and continue to give us the chance to make plays. He’s been the same guy since we started camp and since he stepped in at the last game last year. He’s just really, really poised.”
On that final point, the Ravens’ top cornerback would agree.
• Rivera emphasized avoiding skirmishes in practice multiple times. Alas, cooler heads did not always prevail as temperatures and aggression soared.
Rookie cornerback Emmanuel Forbes, an aggressive presence throughout practice, and Baltimore wide receiver Tylan Wallace swung at each other after a Ravens’ completion along the home team’s sideline. Players from both teams rushed over before calm was restored — for about 20 seconds.
Ravens tight end Mark Andrews body-slammed cornerback Danny Johnson following the next play. Dozens of players engaged again, with former Washington offensive tackle Morgan Moses among the more prominent aggressors. Daron Payne and Andrews barked at one another as players walked back for the next snap.
— NBC4 Sports (@NBC4Sports) August 15, 2023
The field with Washington’s offense had a moment or two as well. “Sometimes things get a little physical, but it didn’t get too bad,” McLaurin said.
Both coaches addressed the teams after practice.
“It can’t be chippy,” Rivera said. “It can’t be about yourself. It’s not personal. You get beat, you get beat. Let’s just move on to the next thing and let’s focus in on what’s happening, what’s important.”
• Defensive end Chase Young dressed but did not participate in team drills after suffering a stinger in the first quarter against Cleveland. Rivera was noncommittal about his status for Wednesday. “We’ll see,” the coach said. “He will come out, and he will do all of the individual (work), and then we’ll see what the doctors say or how they’re feeling about it.”
• Cornerbacks Benjamin St-Juste (ankle) and Nick Whiteside (undisclosed) were also non-participants. Defensive tackle Phidarian Mathis (calf) watched practice with a boot on his left foot.
• Tight end Logan Thomas (calf) made the trip to Baltimore and made an appearance on a side field working with the training staff. The high knee lifts weren’t the only signs of progress. Thomas has been running in Ashburn and using anti-gravity and underwater treadmills.
“This is a real good step for him,” Rivera said.
• The offensive line had a largely positive day. Left guard Saahdiq Charles stood out in one-on-one drills while splitting first-team reps with Chris Paul. Third-round rookie center Ricky Stromberg shined in multiple one-on-one reps and continued working at guard to maximize his position flexibility.
Defensive end Efe Obada replaced Young with the first team, while Casey Toohill made himself a steady presence in Baltimore’s backfield against the Ravens’ second unit.
(Photo: Scott Taetsch / Getty Images)
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