By late Sunday afternoon in Orchard Park, N.Y., after Josh Allen had stripped it and sold it for parts, Washington’s defense had completed a startling three-game transformation from unquestioned strength of a defending division champion to full-blown concern. The Buffalo Bills gained 481 yards, collected 29 first downs and converted 9 of 15 third downs. Allen tossed four touchdown passes and ran for another score, and Washington sacked him zero times and hit him on just six of his 43 pass attempts.
The Buffalo Bills’ 43-21 thrashing of Washington left its defense confronting a collection of queasy possibilities. Whether Washington’s defense was overrated, falsely billed based on beating up bad quarterbacks in 2020, will be determined over the next 14 games. After three worrying weeks, it is a legitimate question.
Washington is 1-2 not despite the performance of its vaunted defensive line but in many ways because it has been never dominant, occasionally serviceable and mostly invisible.
Right now, the dominance of Washington’s defense is a myth. It has mostly made life harder for its offense. Its opponent has scored a touchdown on its opening drive in all three games. In 32 possessions, Washington’s defense has yielded 11 touchdowns and 10 field goals; forced seven punts, two turnovers and one turnover on downs; and seen the clock run out of the game once. It has allowed points on 65.6 percent of drives, which ranks worst in the NFL. Young has not recorded a sack.
Based on resources devoted to talent acquisition, Washington must revolve around its defensive line. The team used four first-round picks to build its defensive line, including taking Young second overall when quarterbacks Justin Herbert and Tua Tagovailoa were available. Coach Ron Rivera spoke of the need for coverage and pass rush to work in unison and for the entire unit to mature together. But the line needs to carry the team because that’s how the team was built.
“How we go, that’s how the rest of the defense goes,” Young said last week. “That’s just how we take it on. Every game, we’ve got to be at our best.”
It starts with Young, who on Sunday recorded two solo tackles, hit Allen only once and remained in search of his first sack of the season. Buffalo at times relied on quick passes, and Allen’s size and speed make him a challenging quarterback to pressure. He also dropped back nearly 50 times, and on almost none of them did Young make his presence felt.
Rivera pointed out that Washington’s young pass rushers must adapt to offenses that scheme specifically to stop them. “People know who they are now,” Rivera said. On Sunday, though, Buffalo right tackle Daryl Williams handled Young one-on-one for most of the afternoon. Per the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, Young was on average 5.34 yards away from Allen when he released the ball, about a yard more than the league average.
Despite Allen’s skill set, Sunday represented an opportunity for Young to break out. Buffalo’s first two weeks revealed the road map for how to limit Allen. The Pittsburgh Steelers relied on T.J. Watt’s individual dominance, pressured Allen with four pass rushers and toppled Buffalo, while the Miami Dolphins blitzed Allen and watched him carve them apart. Everything in the NFL is more complicated than it seems on the surface, but the mandate was clear: Washington needed to pressure Allen without blitzing. It needed to put the game in the hands of its defensive line.
On Buffalo’s first possession, Washington forced third and 15. The Bills sent tight end Dawson Knox into the pattern and left five linemen to block Washington’s front four. Williams, Buffalo’s right tackle, stoned Young, and Allen bounced in the pocket. He rifled a 23-yard dart to Gabriel Davis for a first down, the key play in another opening touchdown drive.
Allen is a difficult quarterback to pressure, because his athleticism demands discipline. If a rusher gets out of his lane, it can lead to Allen escaping and scrambling. It could be a reasonable excuse for why Young, Montez Sweat, Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne rarely applied pressure. But in some key moments, Young was not disciplined, either.
Early in the second quarter, on third and four from the Washington 7-yard line, Payne collapsed the pocket up the middle, forcing Allen to his right. Young had rushed from that side and, trying to use his speed, he overran the pocket and circled behind Allen. Allen had no problem scooting a few steps into the space Young vacated and flipped a short pass to running back Zack Moss, who darted into the end zone.
“They did a nice job protecting the quarterback,” Rivera said. “We didn’t get enough pressure when we had to. It allowed for their receivers to work a little bit longer downfield.”
Washington’s performance through three weeks has led to a reevaluation of last season, when its defense gained a reputation as one of the league’s best. The list of quarterbacks Washington beat last season in its seven wins has grown well-worn, but it bears repeating now: Carson Wentz, Andy Dalton and Ben DiNucci, Joe Burrow and Ryan Finley, Dalton, Ben Roethlisberger, Nick Mullens, and Jalen Hurts and Nate Sudfeld.
At one point Sunday, Young was animated as he spoke with defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio on the sideline. Frustration built while Washington failed over and over to force punts on third down. Rivera said he felt comfortable with Del Rio’s defensive calls on third down, when coordinators deploy their most exotic schemes. Whatever he called, Buffalo remained one move ahead.
“We have a lot of talent, but we’ve got to get them to play as a unit, and that’s on us as coaches,” Rivera said. “We got to make sure the things we’re doing, the things we’re creating for them, are things they can work and go out and function and be a unit together.”
In the past two years, Young has been the best defensive player in college football and the runaway choice for NFL defensive rookie of the year. He remains a physical outlier even in a league of physical outliers. He did not stop being a great player. He faces the new weight of superstardom and expectations. Opposing offenses have schemed with him in mind, and he must produce anyway. Young accepts the role and has been accountable. But he has failed in playing to his standard.
Young is not alone among teammates in not living up to the hype, nor is he short on time to reverse that trend. Washington next faces the Atlanta Falcons’ shaky offensive line and stationary quarterback Matt Ryan. It should be an opportunity for Young, Sweat, Allen and Payne to reassert themselves.
“The numbers are going to come,” Young said in the middle of last week. “I ain’t even tripping about that.”
For Washington, the rest of the season rests on whether Young is right. It proved last year that it could contend with a dominant defense fueled by a vicious defensive line. That defense must now prove how good it really is.