Commanders WRs room presents tough 1st test for Cardinals’ secondary

Sep 7, 2023, 2:31 PM

TEMPE — A handful of Arizona Cardinals coaches know a thing or two when it comes to the Washington Commanders, having either coached for or against the NFC East team in recent seasons.

And while every NFL team is bound to look different in some way, shape or form when the 2023 regular-season lights come on, there’s at least one known constant that remains in No. 1 wide receiver Terry McLaurin.

Even if he’s not quite 100% come Sunday as he continues to work his way back from a turf toe injury — though he did practice fully Thursday — the wideout is an absolute problem for opposing secondaries.

“Terry’s always played extremely well and (passing game coordinator/wide receivers coach Drew Terrell) coached him for a couple of years over there,” head coach Jonathan Gannon said Wednesday.

“Just listening to how he goes about his day, what he tries to do better and improve his game you see it show up on tape. That’s why he is one of the premiere guys in the world, so we’ve got to be on it.”

McLaurin is coming off not one, not two but three straight seasons of at least 1,053 receiving yards. Even in his rookie season of sub-1,000-yard ball in 2019, he found the end zone seven times and was only 87 yards away from quadruple digits receiving.

He sees most of his action on the outside — totaling 766 snaps out wide in 2022, per Pro Football Focus — but can also operate out of the slot (234 snaps) if need be.

The Commanders aren’t shy getting him involved on early downs, either, with McLaurin seeing the bulk of his work last season — 684 yards and two scores on 32 catches (43 targets) — coming on 1st and 10.

For young cornerbacks like rookie Kei’Trel Clark, the feeling out process could come in a hurry with Washington’s desire to put the ball in McLaurin’s hands early. It’ll be on the corner to use what he’s been taught through training camp and preseason while focusing on the little details.

“Terry McLaurin can run, he’s strong, he’s a physical player, he’s an explosive play waiting to happen,” Cardinals defensive coordinator Nick Rallis said.

McLaurin is far and away the biggest worry for the Cardinals secondary, but he’s not the only Commanders wideout to prepare for, with Jahan Dotson and Curtis Samuel bringing different skillsets to the table.

Dotson is still in the midst of his NFL progression but is coming off seven scores as a rookie across 12 games played. What stands out on the tape to Rallis is his “crisp route-running.” He primarily lined up out wide opposite McLaurin in Year 1.

Samuel meanwhile serves as Washington’s inside man and is a problem with the ball in his hands, the DC added.

But while the trio of Commanders wideouts are nothing to scoff at, as their projected production takes a bit of a hit given quarterback Sam Howell’s relative inexperience at the position.

Howell, not veteran option Jacoby Brissett with 48 starts under his belt, will get the starting nod in the season opener with just one prior start under his belt.

In what was a 26-6 win over the Dallas Cowboys in the Commanders’ season finale last season, the signal caller completed 57.9% of his passes for 169 yards and one touchdown to one interception.

He also rushed for 35 yards and a score on five carries and was sacked three times.

A guy like McLaurin is among the top tiers of NFL pass catchers — that is if Howell can get him the ball.

Equalizing Washington’s receiving options long enough for the Cardinals’ pass rush to get home is going to be paramount in limiting explosive plays and forcing Howell’s hand to create in other ways.

Just because he beat out Brissett for the starting job, doesn’t mean there won’t be mistakes made. It’s on the Cardinals to pounce on those opportunities as they could very well determine how things shake out in D.C.

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