The Washington Commanders defense entered 2021 with some of the highest expectations the unit had garnered in years. It was not just the fact that they had anchored a squad which won the NFC East in 2020, but the team as a whole improved by four wins from the year prior. That trajectory told a story of a team beginning to hit its stride.
The Commanders were anchored by one of the league’s best young defenses in 2020, and added talent on that side of the ball through both free agency (William Jackson) and the draft (Jamin Davis) heading into 2021.
We all know that this defense did not live up to expectations. A basic stat comparison shows the steep decline the Commanders defense endured in 2021 compared to their success in the year prior.
2020: Points Allowed – 20.6/g (4th), Yards Allowed – 4,873 (2nd), Takeaways – 23 (7th)
2021: Points Allowed – 25.5/g (25th), Yards Allowed – 6,108 (22nd), Takeaways – 19 (21st)
What happened to the Commanders defense in 2021?
The Commanders defense fell off a cliff, which leads to a fairly obvious question: why?
Of course, there are many reasons as to why. One could argue that it was a harder schedule of opposing offenses, which is entirely accurate and a big part of the defense’s inability to live up to their hype defensively. But what exactly caused Washington’s defense to be unsuccessful in 2021? Third down defense.
Unsurprisingly, games are often won or lost on a teams ability to convert on third down offensively, and prevent teams from converting defensively. So, how was the Commanders’ defense on third/fourth down last year defensively? Historically bad. In fact, Washington’s 2021 pass defense on third and fourth down was awful. It was among the worst in the last 10 years, posting a DVOA of 48.2%. This means their pass defense was 48.2% worse than league average on third and fourth down in 2022. With defensive DVOA, the lower the number the better.
The goal of the defense, of course, is to stop the opposing team from advancing down the field, and ultimately prevent the team from scoring. There are two important parts that go into a defense preventing an opponent from moving the chains. The Commanders defense did a fairly adequate job in the initial phase, which is forcing their opponents into third and long situations. According to Warren Sharp’s 2022 football preview, Jack Del Rio’s unit ranked 17th in early down success rate (EDSR). This is an average ranking, but considering Washington faced the hardest schedule of opposing offenses in the NFL, 17th looks a lot better than you would think. Simply put, defensive “EDSR” measures how well a defense forces their opponents into third and long situations, which are obvious passing situations.
The Commanders faced the hardest schedule of opposing passing offenses in 2021, and when they were up against above average third/fourth down offenses they were highly unsuccessful compared to when they matched up against a below average offense in the same metric.
Here is a look, with the exception of the Commanders exceptional performance against the Bucs, at the trend between opposing offenses 3rd/4th down success and whether or not Washington came out on top.