LANDOVER — Montez Sweat has been in the NFL for only two years, but on Sunday, the defensive lineman was asked a question that has been asked repeatedly during his short time with Washington. The question, in fact, has been poised to a lot of Washington defenders for the past few years.
Sweat was asked about the defense’s high expectations in training camp — only to fall short once the season actually begins.
For the fourth straight week, Washington surrendered at least 30 points as the team fell to 1-4 on the season. Sunday’s shellacking was the unit’s worst performance yet. Rams quarterback Jared Goff threw for 304 yards. Los Angeles rushed for 129 yards. Rams coach Sean McVay — a former Washington offensive coordinator — crafted a game plan that exploited the defense, particularly the secondary.
Here’s the thing that’s confounding about Sunday’s loss for Washington: Up until the Rams, the defense had actually been playing pretty well. Despite the points allowed, Washington made dramatic improvements in a myriad of statistical categories. They were better in yards allowed (from 27th to seventh), passing defense (18th to fourth), third-down percentage (32nd to ninth). Football Outsiders ranked Washington as the fourth-most efficient defense through four weeks.
But there were problems exposed Sunday. Too many receivers broke free and caught the ball with no one around them. Goff identified Washington’s coverage breakdowns and easily took advantage of it.
There was arguably no bigger mishap than Goff’s 56-yard touchdown to receiver Robert Woods. In what looked to be Cover 2, Woods blew right past cornerback Kendall Fuller and cruised to the end zone with safety Landon Collins chasing the play.
As he explained the play, Fuller did not identify who was responsible for the breakdown — but he said him and Collins weren’t on the same page.
“Every time a corner and a safety see it a different way, you’re going to give up explosive plays,” said Fuller, who had an interception before the end of the first half. “We’ve got to go into the film room, learn from it and make sure throughout the course of the game we see everything the same way to limit explosive plays.
Before Woods torched Washington for 56 yards, Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson escaped the pass rush and scrambled for a 50-yard touchdown, Arizona’s Andy Isabella raced down the field for 54 and Philadelphia’s Jalen Reagor racked up 55 yards.
Prior to Sunday’s game, no defense in the NFL besides Washington had surrendered three plays of at least 50 yards, according to Pro Football Reference.
Washington’s breakdowns in the back end had the team experimenting for a portion of Sunday’s loss. For a series, coach Ron Rivera benched starting safety Troy Apke for veteran Deshazor Everett. The swap didn’t stick as Everett was benched the following drive after giving up a pass interference penalty on third down, but it shows Rivera is still trying to find a solution at free safety.
“We’ve got some young guys who are trying to grow and figure out and grow at the position,” Rivera said, “guys that haven’t played a lot of football for us. We’re trying to see if they can do it.”
Rivera said the defense had to improve on third down. The Rams converted 6-of-15 opportunities on the down, but started the game 4-of-4. That stretch included Los Angeles scoring a touchdown on its first three drives.
Asked abut the secondary, Rivera said he thought some of the problems had to do with Washington’s inability to generate a pass rush up front. Rookie defensive end Chase Young returned Sunday, but Goff was sacked only once. Washington also failed to recover a Goff fumble in the second half.
“We didn’t play as well as I would’ve liked us to play on defense,” Rivera said.
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