Washington Football Team: Could this mistake explain WFT’s defensive woes?

GLENDALE, ARIZONA - DECEMBER 13: Kevin Pierre-Louis #54 of the Washington Football Team sacks Nick Mullens #4 of the San Francisco 49ers at State Farm Stadium on December 13, 2020 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)
GLENDALE, ARIZONA - DECEMBER 13: Kevin Pierre-Louis #54 of the Washington Football Team sacks Nick Mullens #4 of the San Francisco 49ers at State Farm Stadium on December 13, 2020 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images) /

Perhaps it was poetic that Fabien Moreau was able to make the play that Washington Football Team linebacker Jon Bostic failed to make in the 4th quarter of Sunday’s nail-biting victory over the Atlanta Falcons. Moreau stopped running back JD McKissic in the flat for a 2-yard loss on the 3rd and three, forcing a punt. Moments earlier, Bostic whiffed on a clean shot on Falcons running back Mike Davis in the flat, and coupled with multiple other missed tackles, resulted in crucial touchdown.

Moreau was on the Washington Football Team last year, one of nine defenders who played at least 100 snaps in 2020 and are not on the 53-man roster in 2021. Arguably, Moreau was among the least important of those nine. After his key interception in the opening day win against Philadelphia, Moreau only played in dime packages or as an injury fill-in, and he was never a priority for the team as they looked ahead to 2021.

Bostic, on the other hand, held onto to a starting job this season despite being a popular target of fans. I have thought for years now that Jon Bostic does not have a position in a 4-3 defense. He is ideally suited to play inside in a 3-4 front. In a 4-3, there is no way to hide his athletic limitations. He is not quite big enough or fast enough to be a consistent playmaker. He is however, a very tough, very smart player. He was the best blitzer on the Washington Football Team in 2020 and he uses his skills very effectively in tight spaces.

He should be playing on a 3-4 team. But he is not.

Washington chose to play prized rookie Jamin Davis in the middle from day one, and perhaps that decision will pay dividends down the road. But the growing pains have been … well, painful. Davis has all the size and speed you want in a dominant Mike, but he is at sea right now. He has sprinkled a few good plays in, but too often he seems to flip between being tentative or else running himself right out of position.

The Washington Football Team could have signed a modestly priced classic Mike this off-season and allowed Davis to play weak side, where he almost certainly would have been more comfortable at the start. My suggestion was Denzell Perryman, a classic downhill hitter who is performing well in Las Vegas this year. Perryman is a limited player. He is not a modern linebacker, who ranges from sideline to sideline. Perhaps there is a short shelf-life for such a player moving forward. But I know that if Perrryman were playing behind Jon Allen and Daron Payne this season, opponents would not be running straight ahead against the Washington Football Team.

Jack Del Rio has resorted to using a five-man front thus far – with either Matt Ioannidis or Tim Settle joining the front four – on running downs.

We can point to a number of factors, and a number of players, in diagnosing Washington’s early-season defensive problems. Most were obvious in the Atlanta game. Going against a below-average offense, Washington’s defense allowed Matt Ryan and company to surpass their per-game yardage average by the end of the third quarter. They gave up 30, which is exactly what they are averaging through the first four weeks. (30.75, actually – as a point of comparison, the worst team in the entire NFL in 2020 – Detroit – gave up 30.68.)

The team has been dreadful on opening drives and on third downs. Opposing offenses are throwing quick-timing passes and Washington’s soft zone coverages have been largely helpless. Poor tackling (Landon Collins joined Bostic in giving up a touchdown by missing a clean shot on Cordarrelle Patterson) – poor decision-making (Bobby McCain’s decision to intercept Ryan’s 4th down pass instead of simply knocking it down would have resulted in about a 30-yard loss for the Washington Football Team) – and poor penalties (Chase Young’s roughing call may have been iffy, but they called it nonetheless and it could have cost the team the game) – all have been factors.

To me, one particular personnel decision has been the biggest factor in turning a top-tier defense into one of the worst in the league, seemingly overnight. It is not the Jimmy Moreland release, though I surely wish Moreland was still on the team. The decision to keep Troy Apke over both Moreland and Jeremy Reaves continues to baffle me.

And it is not the William Jackson III signing. Jackson has not played as well as Ronald Darby did last season, but Jackson is still a quality player, and I have faith he will perform better as the season goes on.

Most of the others who played more than 100 snaps in 2020 – from Ryan Kerrigan to Ryan Anderson – are negligible losses.

Then there is Kevin Pierre-Louis. I admit KPL was one of my favorite players in 2020. He showed his prowess in the Week 2 loss against Arizona, and then missed some important games down the stretch. He was not a consistent show-stopper by any means. But here’s what he was – an above-average off-ball linebacker whose coverage skills were among the best in the league.

In other words, he was the one player they simply did not have a replacement for.

Instead of having two linebackers playing out of position this season, had the Washington Football Team kept KPL, they would have just one. Davis would have a solid Sam in Cole Holcomb to one side and a solid Will in KPL to the other. It would have eased his transition.

Or, the Washington Football Team might have chosen to go in a different direction on draft day, perhaps trading up for a quarterback, or trading back for one of the top safeties.

I have no problem with the Davis pick. At least not yet. The fact that he has not stepped seamlessly into the Mike position is no surprise. For this season, we should just be looking for improvement. But I cannot understand why the team felt more comfortable with Bostic playing out of position at the Will instead of holding onto KPL.

I don’t think it was his price-tag. Though he received a nice bump in salary from the Houston Texans, he is still a modestly-priced starter. Washington could have afforded him.

It could be that they were concerned about injury. In addition to missing games last season, KPL has yet to play for Houston in 2021 due to a hamstring issue. Throughout most of his career, KPL had been a special teams ace, and last year was the first time he was asked to shoulder a full defensive load. If the decision was made that his body simply would not hold up, so be it.

But I can’t help but think that this defense would be significantly better with a legitimate cover linebacker on the field, filling those soft zones far more effectively than either Bostic or Davis. And I can’t help but wonder, if they agreed KPL was too much of a health risk, why they thought Jon Bostic could simply slide over and play that role.