The situation is not ideal for managing the nerves of a fan base that has spent more than two decades experiencing all the ways hope can dissipate. But for a developing team coming off a backdoor playoff appearance, it’s a good early test. And for a young defense that entered this season flaunting its statistical brilliance from a year ago, it’s the kind of pressure the players should welcome if they want to graduate from gifted to elite.
After Washington allowed 424 yards to the Los Angeles Chargers in a 20-16 loss Sunday, there are concerns. A hip injury to quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick exacerbates them. Washington didn’t have tremendous offensive upside to begin with, but now the defense may have even less margin for error.
The urgency is clear. Maybe quarterback Taylor Heinicke takes over, flashes more of the potential he showed last postseason and magnifies the talent of young playmakers Terry McLaurin and Antonio Gibson. In reality, however, the Washington defense had better be prepared to hold opponents to 17 points or fewer, harass quarterbacks into mistakes and force multiple turnovers with consistency.
This defense can do that. It’s not a question of ability anymore. And it’s also not a question of confidence, not after watching this unit allow the second-fewest yards and the fourth-fewest points last season. Even by advanced metrics, Washington had a consensus top-five defense in 2020, which justified its decision to draft Chase Young No. 2 overall despite already having a defensive line loaded with first-round picks. In adding Young, the front office opted to pursue dominance over roster balance, and the early returns were impressive.
But it’s a different challenge to excel when the entire league sees you coming and has a season’s worth of film to study. It’s a different challenge to maintain and build upon a standard than it is to rise from low expectations. It’s a different challenge to be called upon to hold a season together.
This week, Coach Ron Rivera didn’t merely call out his defense in articulating his demands for the unit to play better. He also expressed support when he refused to temper expectations. It would have been easy for him to knock the hype now that there’s scrutiny, but in his own way, Rivera invited it. He wants to have a defense that everyone knows is coming. He wants to have a defense that wears greatness on its chest and then lives up to it.
“I expect [the problems] to be fixed now,” Rivera said, referencing the Chargers game. “To me, it’s more of a matter of being disciplined. That’s the thing we talked about. This defense, the way it’s designed, it’s about accountability. You have a gap or assignment. You have a coverage assignment. You have to do it. If not, and they find it, we’ll know.”
As someone who covered most of Washington’s worst defensive performances under coordinators Joe Barry and Greg Manusky, I chuckle at any panic about Sunday’s performance. There were worrisome things to note, but the first month of a season is more about data collection than strong opinions. You need time to see patterns develop.
It’s no great surprise that the Chargers were such a tough matchup. Second-year quarterback Justin Herbert is spectacular, and his play was a preview of all the high-caliber quarterbacks Washington will face this season. In addition, Los Angeles has a new coaching staff, and Washington defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio had to guess about how the Chargers would attack. On the other hand, the Chargers knew quite a bit from last season about what Washington wanted to do.
Obviously, most concerning was Washington’s inability to get off the field. Los Angeles converted 14 of 19 third downs against a defense that allowed just one opponent to convert even 50 percent of its tries in 2020. But there were other things to ponder, too. A year ago, Washington had a 5-0 record when it allowed fewer than 100 rushing yards. Los Angeles ran for only 90 yards on 29 carries, a measly 3.1 yards per attempt. But Washington was unable to handle the Chargers’ barrage of short passes. Their offensive line held up against the powerful Washington pass rush in almost every situation, but it helped that, as a play caller, Chargers offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi emphasized the short passing game.
Those passes functioned like runs, and they exposed some of Washington’s coverage weaknesses. To be an elite defense with longevity, Washington will need to prove it can be rangy and sticky in coverage. For as long as it can afford to keep its talented defensive line together, Washington will be a defense built front to back, but even though there’s an imbalance in talent, the three levels — the line, the linebackers and the defensive backs — can make it work by developing the right chemistry and trust.
That’s what Rivera meant when he talked about accountability and coverage assignments. Del Rio can fiddle with scheme adjustments, but ultimately the defense figures to be most successful when it keeps everything basic, overwhelms the opponent at the line and allows the players to have freedom within a defined structure. In Del Rio’s defense, there’s room to be aggressive and there’s room for individual talents to express themselves. But there is no room for blatant freelancing. In attacking defenses, someone must always account for his teammate’s desire to get up the field. And that’s where discipline, speed and instincts matter. In a sense, the most talented players won’t define whether this defense can be a lasting force. It’s about the role players’ willingness to embrace doing the little things.
There is no gray area about what Washington wants to build. If the franchise finally becomes a durable contender again, it will do so on the strength of an elite defense. Certainly, Rivera hopes to be balanced and explosive in all areas, but for his plan to work, he must have a pulverizing defense capable of long-term supremacy. Little middle ground exists. It’s as close to a pass/fail proposition as any strategic plan can get.
On their own, the slow-building Giants don’t seem like a season-defining challenge. But at 0-1, Washington needs both a victory and a confirmation of its identity. If Washington is ready to be a great defense, it will know what to do.