Jonathan Allen didn’t want to hear about expectations. This was back in training camp, and Washington’s defense was once again being touted as potentially one of the best units in football.
Allen wasn’t interested in predictions. For the defensive lineman, all that mattered was what he and his teammates did on the field.
“Expectations,” the defensive tackle said, “I don’t believe in those.”
That approach — results over hype — worked wonders for Washington in 2020. After years of failing to live up to advance billing, Washington‘s blue-chip-studded defense finally delivered, ending the year ranked in the top five of almost all major NFL categories. The unit finished second in yards allowed (304.5 per game), fourth in points (20.5), second in passing (191.75) and fourth in red zone. According to Football Outsiders, Washington’s defense was third in defensive DVOA, a stat that measures efficiency.
Washington’s rise was spearheaded by rookie Chase Young and a slew of other young players. But for the unit to cement its status as one of the league’s truly elite defenses, Allen and Co. will have to do it again while playing a better crop of offenses.
In a league built for quarterbacks, defensive fortunes can be fleeting.
In 2020, for example, only six of the top 10 teams in defensive DVOA were the same as the year prior. In 2019, only half of the teams in the top 10 were there in 2018. And over the last three years, just three teams — New Orleans, Chicago and Baltimore — have had a top 10 defense in that span.
Washington coach Ron Rivera said for the defense to take the next step, the team must identify which areas to upgrade.
“We found out a little about a lot of our young players,” Rivera said. “We have some ideas as to some positions that we can strengthen and improve on. We can be even better.”
Rivera said Washington needs to add a “few pieces” this offseason. He did not name specifics, but the team’s holes aren’t difficult to see. Linebacker, in particular, is a position that Rivera will likely want to address. Throughout the season, Rivera blamed the group for playing with a lack of urgency and not exploding through gaps. Rivera said he saw progress as the year went on, though there’s no true standout at the position.
Cornerback is another position that Washington could look to upgrade. Veteran Ronald Darby was a pleasant surprise after joining the team last March, but will be a free agent. The team also rotated at nickel cornerback, using a variety of Jimmy Moreland, Fabian Moreau and even Kamren Curl (before the seventh-rounder became the full-time starter at safety).
Still, there’s a reason why players are excited. Washington bullied teams with a stout defensive line, ranking sixth in sacks (48) and eighth in pressure percentage (25.6). Almost all of those pieces that made up Washington’s front will return next season, with the large expectation likely being pass rusher Ryan Kerrigan. Washington will need to add another pass rusher with Kerrigan and Ryan Anderson set to hit free agency.
“We can get crazy better,” Young said. “If this is year one, this is just the beginning with Coach Rivera and Coach Del Rio. I think it’s going to be scary for years to come. We’re not letting our foot off the gas.”
Kerrigan agreed. Even if he doesn’t return, the four-time Pro Bowler said the defensive line is in “good hands” with Young, Sweat, Allen and 2018 first-rounder Daron Payne. Asked what the defense needs to improve on, Kerrigan identified starting faster.
That’s true as Washington ranked as the best second-half defense in the NFL. The team allowed just 117 yards per game in the second half — nearly 20 yards fewer than the next team (the Rams). But Washington gave up the 11th-most yards per game through the first two quarters.
As good as Washington’s defense was in 2020, there were still moments when the unit let the team down. Rivera said he was “surprised” that the unit, for instance, gave up 507 yards to Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in last weekend’s playoff loss. Washington’s execution wasn’t what it needed to be to stop Tampa Bay’s assortment of talent in Chris Godwin, Antonio Brown, Rob Gronkowski, Mike Evans and Leonard Fournette.
But Washington’s defense can now win games, too. Just look at the way the team battered the Pittsburgh Steelers and the San Francisco 49ers. That rarely happened in past years.
“We can’t stay the same and we can’t fall off,” Curl said. “We gotta keep our foot on the pedal when we come back. We got to start the year off on fire.”
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