There are plenty of metrics by which to measure defensive performance in the NFL. Total yards allowed has always been the primary number. But points allowed, first down conversions, take-aways, yards-per-play – they all have their value. By almost every worthwhile statistic, the Washington Football Team had an outstanding defense in 2020, often finishing in the top 15% in key categories.
By those same stats, the Washington Football Team defense is dreadful in the early part of 2021.
What has changed, and more importantly, how can it be fixed?
You certainly can’t blame this on injuries. Through six games, Washington has lost one starter – Jon Bostic – and he was likely to have his snaps limited as the year went on anyway. The only other players they have seen go down with anything serious have been backups. Corn Elder and Danny Johnson are serviceable depth replacements for Torry McTyer and Darryl Roberts, and there isn’t much to choose between the injured Jared Norris and his replacement Jordan Kunaszyk. Beyond those IR moves, there have been very few man games lost to injury thus far.
The Washington Football Team has been very fortunate when it comes to injuries on the defense in 2021.
We have already gone over some of the changes – like how the loss of weakside linebacker Kevin Pierre-Louis, or the decision to release cornerback Jimmy Moreland – have hurt. So let’s focus on the second part of the question. How can it be fixed?
This far into a season, the available moves are limited. They essentially fall into two categories: personnel and scheme. Here are a few suggestions.
Bench Landon Collins. No surprise here. Others were calling for this long before I got there. I thought Collins had a role in this defense. And he still might. Just not as a starter. Collins has never been a great cover safety. He needs to play in the box. But, in addition to looking lost in deep coverage, Collins’ tackling has been very poor. He was running himself out of plays before his injury last season. This year, he is not only running himself out of plays, he is also whiffing when he does get to the runner.
The base defense of Washington’s has been a 4-2-5 for a while. It was that way even before the Jon Bostic injury and it is even more-so now. Washington employs a straight dime (with six defensive backs) or a five-man defensive line (a 5-2-4) just as often as it uses the traditional 4-3-4. In the defensive backfield, these five players should be on the field the majority of the time: Benjamin St-Juste and William Jackson III as boundary corners, Kendall Fuller as the slot corner, Kamren Curl as the in-the-box safety, and Bobby McCain as the deep safety. The only minor tinkering may be switching up McCain and Fuller.
And, finishing up on the secondary, promote Jeremy Reaves from the practice squad. I don’t know what he did to land in the Jack Del Rio/Chris Harris doghouse, but he played well at the end of last year. Better than any safety currently playing not named Curl.
Personnel-wise, there’s not much to do with the front seven (or, as mentioned above, front six.) The team has good depth on the line, and zero depth at linebacker. Linebackers Zack Baun (New Orleans) and Devon Kennard (Arizona) have been mentioned in trade rumors of late. Neither would be a quality off-the-ball addition, which is what the Football Team really needs. But either would bring more talent to the position than they currently have. I don’t think either is likely to come walking through the door.
Actually, In terms of personnel moves, I might consider bringing in a Shaman to pray for the continued health of Cole Holcomb and Jamin Davis because if either goes down, we’re looking at DEFCON 2.
This is where it gets kind of fun. I want to begin with a philosophical principle. And for this, let’s do some history.
It was 2009. Storied coaches Jim Zorn and Greg Blache were looking to improve a weak defense so they brought in 2-Time All Pro defensive tackle Albert Haynseworth from Tennessee. It was a disaster. The team tanked. But for all the bitching and moaning and injuries, Haynesworth was actually more productive than any Washington interior lineman had been for a while.
Then Mike Shanahan and Jim Haslett arrived to right the ship. The first thing Haslett did was install a 3-4 defensive front and ask Haynesworth to shift to nose tackle.
This did not go over very well. We’re talking Hindenburg-esque.
Haynesworth was a petulant bully and I do not mean to suggest he was blameless. He was not. But look past the personality and take the lesson. Don’t bring players in who can do something at a very high level and then assume they can other things at that same level.
That concludes the brief historical detour.
William Jackson III can’t play zone. Why did the Washington Football Team assume he could? Washington played a lot of zone last year, and Ronald Darby thrived in it. Good tacklers like Reaves and Deshazor Everett played well in it. But Jackson has withered. He has been an above-average press corner over multiple seasons and he should be in his physical prime. His confidence looks so eroded that he now seems lost even when asked to man up against a receiver.
So the first, second and third scheme solution is to play a lot more man coverage. This isn’t just for Jackson’s sake. Zone coverage is predicated on keeping receivers in front of you and tackling them when they catch the ball. You force the offense to dink and dunk its way down the field. They may complete some balls, but the odds are something will happen – a penalty, a sack, a bad read by the QB – which will derail the drive.
But none of it works if your secondary cannot tackle, and right now, Washington’s secondary has been atrocious when it comes to tackling. Kamren Curl appears to be the only consistent tackler on the field. When teams like New England or Pittsburgh play zones, they all tackle. And it works. If you don’t tackle, it doesn’t work.
The secondary lineup suggested above is ideally suited to play press man coverage. It plays to each man’s strength. Jackson or St-Juste will still get beat occasionally, but McCain will be patrolling deep.
Holcomb rarely leaves the field. The same should apply to Davis. His coverage skills are improving. He still gets lost against the run but you have to hope that will get better as well. And he should begin blitzing occasionally, running games with either Chase Young or Montez Sweat.
There are no other linebackers on the roster who can provide more than spot duty to give Holcomb and Davis occasional rest. But Landon Collins does have a role as a nickel backer, playing close to the line. He can support the run, and keep an eye on the second tight end in two tight end sets. This is a role that Khaleke Hudson should probably be playing, but I think Collins would be more productive. Do not ask him to play in space and he should improve.
The line is looking slightly better of late. The rotation seems fine. Tim Settle and Matt Ioannidis are both playmakers in the middle and James Smith-Williams and Casey Toohill are showing brief flashes on the outside, though neither has emerged as the type of backup you can really trust. Still, playing behind the front four, they are fine. I would just like to see more creative pass rush schemes. Jonathan Allen can line up outside. Sweat and Young can play the same side. Collins can blitz. You don’t make a habit out of doing these things, but a few creative wrinkles each game should make it harder for opposing offenses to prepare.
The Washington Football Team cannot simply throw a switch and revert to 2020. This is a different team. But they can improve. They should improve. But they cannot just wait for that improvement to magically arrive. They have to make a few changes.