One doesn’t have to look hard to find how hyped Washington’s defense — particularly the defensive line — was coming into this past season. After a dominant 2020, the unit was regarded as elite — leading to these types of comments:
“Easily the best defense,” Fox’s Colin Cowherd said.
“Their front four on defense will come and hunt your quarterback down, if they have a lead,” ESPN’s Louis Riddick said.
“Dominant defensive line, a coach who knows how to win,” ESPN’s Mike Greenberg said. “That was San Francisco two seasons ago, and that team wound up in the Super Bowl.”
Washington’s players and coached not only embraced those expectations — they added fuel to the fire. Chase Young, the reigning defensive rookie of the year, said the defense could be the top unit in the league. Edge rusher Montez Sweat said he and Young even wanted to break the all-time tandem sack record — 39, set by Chris Doleman and Keith Millard of the 1989 Minnesota Vikings.
Turns out, Young and Sweat missed the mark by a cool 32½ sacks.
The lack of production from Young and Sweat on the edge was just one of the many ways that the Burgundy and Gold’s vaunted defensive line in 2021. The young stars arguably never fully got on the same page, lacking the discipline and precision that made them a ferocious front in 2020. The group even imploded on national television when defensive tackles Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne got into a sideline fight in a blowout loss to the Dallas Cowboys.
So, did Washington buy too much into its own hype? Coach Ron Rivera appears to think so.
“Everybody’s expectations across the board — players, mine, coaches, fans, everybody — was probably a little bit out of whack,” Rivera said of the defensive line this week. “One of the biggest things that we tried to do was we tried to show what we were capable of and who we are instead of trying to just go out and play football the way we were supposed to.”
Yes, Washington’s defensive line was hit with injuries, but that wasn’t until later in the season. The Burgundy and Gold struggled right out of the gate and the front’s inability to generate consistent pressure was a major reason why. For the first half of the season, Washington’s defense was historically bad on third down — with opponents converting 56.5% of the time, on pace to set a record.
During that stretch, Rivera often talked about how the line failed to stay disciplined. Pass rushers got out of their rush lanes, he said, and the unit failed to coordinate a consistent attack. As part of this, some players’ performance took a notable step back — especially Young, who had only 1½ sacks before tearing his ACL in November. Sweat, who missed seven games, also had a career-low five sacks.
According to Pro Football Reference, Washington finished the year ranked 19th in pressure rate — generating pressure on 24.2% of dropbacks. A year prior, that percentage was 25.9%, tied for the eighth-highest rate in the league. In terms of pure numbers, Washington produced nine fewer sacks in 2021 (47 to 38) — despite having five more quarterback knockdowns (from 50 to 55).
When Washington did play well up front, it did so usually by breaking through the interior. Allen, who signed a four-year, $72 million contract before the season, had the best year of his career — leading the team with a career-high nine sacks and 34 pressures en route to his first Pro Bowl nod.
The line’s best stretch came during the team’s four-game winning streak, when the defense, as a whole, dramatically improved on third down by playing tight and sound coverage. Coincidentally, Washington was without Sweat (jaw) and Young for most of it. (Young got hurt during the first win.)
But they soon took another step back.
“It’s just not consistent enough,” defensive line coach Sam Mills III said. “We’ve hit our highs where we can play a dominant brand of football. … We just have to do it more often.”
Days before Washington’s last game of the season, Mills said he saw progress from Washington’s younger defensive linemen. Even with the line’s established names upfront, other younger players like James Smith-Williams, Casey Toohill, Shaka Toney and Bunmi Rotimi got an opportunity to play in big spots because of injuries and COVID-19.
Still, ESPN’s Greenberg and Riddick weren’t raving about Washington’s defense because of the Toohills and Rotimis of the world. They did so because of the star power that Washington was supposed to have upfront — star power the team now needs another year to see.
“It was a year with ups and downs,” defensive tackle Matt Ioannidis said. “A lot more downs than ups.”
• Matthew Paras can be reached at email@example.com.
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