ASHBURN — Coaches often use PowerPoint presentations to go over points of emphasis for a team, and Washington defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio is no exception. But nowhere in that slide show, he says, is there anything about starting slow.
“We want to start fast,” Del Rio said Wednesday. “We haven’t gotten that done the first two weeks.”
Indeed, Washington’s defense has allowed two opening-drive touchdowns in two games — just one of the many areas that the unit has struggled to begin the season. As Washington prepares for Sunday’s matchup against the Buffalo Bills, the team is statistically worse in practically every category from a year ago. Total yards? The team has gone from second to 25th. Points per game? Fourth to 16th.
While that step back has been a letdown for a defense that carried high expectations to be one of the league’s elite units again, perhaps it should have been expected. Historically, defenses tend to start slower over the first of the month of the season before rounding into form — something Washington experienced in 2020.
Last year, offenses were averaging 25.6 points per game through the first month of the season — a number that fell to 24.8 by the end of the year. That difference was even more extreme for the Burgundy and Gold, going from giving up 28 points per game after four games to 20.6 after 16 games.
Compared directly to the first two games last year, Washington is off to a much slower start — the team has given up 20 and 29 points compared to 17 and 15 the year prior. But last year’s team had problems when facing the Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens.
Coach Ron Rivera said he knows the defense needs to improve, but when he watches the film, he sees mistakes that are correctable. That’s why, he said, that his expectations remain just as high for the group as they were prior to Week 1.
“It’s all fixable,” Rivera said. “It really, truly is. If it wasn’t fixable, if we weren’t good enough, I wouldn’t be as frustrated as I get at times because this is a good football team.”
Some of Washington’s struggles so far through two games can be traced back to the incorporation of new parts. Rookie linebacker Jamin Davis, for instance, has had to learn quickly on the job — and it hasn’t always been easy. Against the Chargers, on Davis’ first play of the game, the linebacker was knocked over and fell straight on his butt by an opposing lineman. The reason that happened, Davis says, was because he didn’t read the play correctly.
“My alignment was completely wrong,” he said.
Benjamin St-Juste, a rookie cornerback on the outside, has also been picked on. Opposing quarterbacks have already targeted St-Juste 14 times, and the third-rounder has allowed 119 yards on nine catches, according to Pro Football Focus.
But what has left Rivera even more frustrated is that there are mistakes from players who, in his opinion, should know better. With 10 of 11 starters returning, this is largely the same group that rated as a top five defense in 2020. “When you bring back as many guys you’ve had — that should know — you should be getting ready to take another step,” Rivera said.
That has yet to happen. Instead, the unit has experienced new problems that have contributed to the uptick in scoring. For example, six of the defense’s eight penalties have resulted in a first down — helping keep drives alive. Further, the unit has been signaled for the sixth-most penalties in 2021 — after ranking in the middle of the pack the year prior.
There, however, has been some progress. In Thursday’s win over the Giants, Washington’s defensive line generated pressure on 47% of New York’s dropbacks, according to Next Gen Stats. So much of Washington’s success in 2020 was because of its ferocious foursome upfront. Defensive tackle Jonathan Allen recorded two of the team’s four sacks, while edge rusher Montez Sweat had a career-high seven pressures.
Washington also barreled down when it needed to make a stop. The team held the Giants to just a field goal late in the fourth quarter, a stoppage that held set up Taylor Heinicke’s game-winning drive.
“The effort has been outstanding,” Del Rio said. “The energy we’ve been playing with has been outstanding. (Against the Giants), we came up in key moments that were big, had to have stops. … We need to continue to do all we can to bring that energy, bring that fight, that competitiveness and clean up some of the things that haven’t been as good as we expect.”
Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said that these days it’s “definitely more difficult” for defenses to get off to strong starts. With the collective bargaining agreement reducing the number of padded practices allowed in training camp, Frazier said there’s less time to “get done some of the things you want done.”
Then, he said, there are other factors —such as the shortening of the preseason and the lack of tackling in camp —that contribute to the challenge.
“Eventually, you catch up,” Frazier said. “But the way things are structured now, definitely makes it more challenging to be up to speed by Week 1 as a defense.”
Then again, Fraizer’s unit is coming off a shutout over the Miami Dolphins.
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