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Pressure cooker: Chase Young and Montez Sweat find out how hard it is to be elite

Washington defensive ends Chase Young (center) and Montez Sweat (right) sit on the bench during last Sunday's 43-21 loss at Buffalo. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

For much of the past decade, Denver Broncos linebacker Von Miller has been the public enemy of not just quarterbacks but tackles and tight ends and running backs alike. The second overall pick was voted defensive rookie of the year in 2011 and regularly has been chip-blocked and double-teamed, schemed and targeted.

Every game was a battle, one he viewed as a 12-round fight.

“The beginning rounds, I’m just trying to figure the guy out,” Miller said in 2018. “You like to go in there and you’d like to get a knockout the first couple of rounds, but I’m just really trying to figure it out, and when I figure out how I can beat him, there’s always a counter to that.”

Such is the predicament of an elite pass-rusher, whose persistent torment of the opposing offense is met with persistent roadblocks. Every game presents a challenge to adapt. What Miller learned over the past 11 seasons — and what so many before him did, too — are the same lessons Washington Football Team edge rushers Chase Young and Montez Sweat are learning now.

After three games, Washington is 1-2 and coming off a disastrous loss at Buffalo in which its defense all but imploded because of missed assignments, miscommunication and blown coverages.

“We don’t hand out trophies after three weeks,” defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said. “It hasn’t been the start that we all wanted or even expected, but it is what it is and we’ll deal with it. … We all need to be this much better, and then it gets a lot better for all of us.”

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While the line has been the least problematic unit for Washington’s defense, it hasn’t made the impact it did last season and has fallen far short of expectations for a group loaded with first-round picks. Coach Ron Rivera has cited a lack of pressure up front and losses in one-on-one battles with opposing offensive linemen. The pass rush as a whole, Rivera has said, has been uncoordinated, probably the result of players pressing and failing to stick to the game plan.

“We have to play the schemes the way they’re designed,” Rivera said. “They’re set up in a specific way, and there’s an accountability to it. You have to do your job, and you have to be mature enough to handle that situation and circumstances. Sometimes we get to a point where we want to try and do more than we have to.”

Although the issues are shared, the most attention has been on Young and Sweat, who less than two months ago shared hopes of breaking the NFL sack record for a tandem.

In three games, Young has played the most pass-rushing snaps for Washington with 118 — a reflection of the team’s inability to get off the field — but he has just 10 pressures and has won 11.9 percent of his rushes, according to Pro Football Focus. He is one of two edge rushers with at least 100 pass-rushing snaps without a sack. Sweat sits a notch below Young with nine pressures, but he has two sacks and a win rate of 12.4 percent.

The interior of Washington’s line has created the most disruption, with 14 pressures from defensive tackle Daron Payne and three sacks from tackle Jonathan Allen.

The metrics, however, are often arbitrary, and what they don’t show, the tape often did. Young and Sweat are far from their peak, and after a breakout season in 2020, their shortcomings have become magnified — by opponents, by fans and even their coach.

“I think the first big part is his get-off,” Rivera said of Young. “When he’s playing vertical and getting through to his third step before he decides what he wants to do, I think he’s a very disruptive football player. Sometimes I think he has a stutter in one of his moves, and that, to me, is not what he does best because the stutter, he has to start, stop and go again.”

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At 6-foot-5 and 264 pounds, Young is a rarity, with the height, power and athleticism to disrupt the passing game and menace offensive tackles. What he lacks are what many pros are missing early in their careers: refined technique and an understanding of when to use certain moves.

“When I watch him and he does go flying by the quarterback, there are a couple things that go through my mind — where’s our inside push, and, young man, you have to counter,” Rivera added while on 106.7 the Fan last week. “… There are a lot of things he has to develop, but the biggest thing he has to do in evaluating is use that ability that he has, that explosiveness off the ball. Just getting him to understand that is hard because he has so much talent.”

Sweat’s tape revealed much of the same, Rivera said, adding that he does work his inside moves a bit more.

In training camp, Rivera described Young’s next step as “situational awareness” and said repeatedly in camp and the preseason that he had concerns about the team’s “maturity.” Would it rest on the laurels of a playoff appearance last season? Would the defense think its success would carry over despite personnel changes and more film for opponents?

Or would it understand that it has to adapt — and find ways to do so?

“Obviously, a guy like Chase who is so talented — all their guys are really talented. They have to continually find ways to improve, and it’s not just necessarily coming up with a new pass-rush move but understanding how I’m going to attack this guy over four quarters,” said former Washington linebacker Lorenzo Alexander, who attended the team’s loss to Buffalo last weekend. “… That comes with time and effort and really knowing the game. That came obviously later in my career as I got around other really intelligent players that helped me understand that perspective.”

For Alexander, that veteran help came from players such as Brentson Buckner, a former defensive tackle who is now the defensive line coach for the Arizona Cardinals. It came from players such as Julius Peppers, Mike Rucker and Brian Orakpo, who showed Alexander different tools that he could add to his own game. It came from guys such as Kyle Williams, who called the Bills’ rush “games,” or coordinated pass-rushes among multiple linemen, that forced Alexander to adjust on the fly.

And with experience, he gained a better understanding of counters — his favorite was his spin move — and when to use certain techniques.

“I would never want to spin knowing that the center was going to come to me,” he said. “And that takes time to really understand that.”

For Robert Mathis, a five-time Pro Bowl pick and the NFL’s career leader in strip sacks, his film study and work with John Teerlinck, the late Indianapolis Colts defensive line coach, spurred his growth as a pass rusher.

“Most young guys don’t understand the importance of film study,” Mathis said. “It’s easier to beat somebody if you know their tendencies. Things like get-off keys: If it’s an outside knee, which it is a lot of times, or an elbow or any type of subconscious twitch as the ball is about to be snapped so we’re able to get off from the line around the same time as the offensive linemen. Because then it becomes about who’s the better athlete, and more times than not, it is the defensive guys.”

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Through trial and error, Mathis said he developed new moves and learned which ones worked on which tackles. Through experience, he learned how to set up effective pass rushes and ensure his moves remain unpredictable to the linemen who, like him, studied film, too.

DeMarcus Ware, the Dallas Cowboys’ career sack leader, was advised early in his career by former defensive end Greg Ellis to become more than just an athletic pass rusher and to refine his technique.

“Greg, he told me all the time, ‘D-Ware, I’m not fast,’ ” Ware recalled in an interview with the Denver Post. “ ‘The thing is, I’m a technician, and if you learn technique, you can learn to be fast, you can learn to be quick, you can learn to overcome your inefficiencies and become a better player. But if you’re very good and you have the technique, then you’re unstoppable. Because now you’re a thinking machine.’ ”

Miller, who played alongside Elvis Dumervil and later Ware in Denver, took tidbits from both as he refined his technique and expanded his array of moves. His goals became about more than just a sack but a sack-forced fumble and a sound run defense, a strategic attack to capitalize off the interior pressure from the line and an urgency to win every one-on-one.

“You have to know you’re not going to get one-on-ones all game,” Miller said in a recent interview. “So you have to make the most out of the ones that you do. … I always tell the young guys: ‘Everything that you have done up until this point has worked. Double down and continue to do the things that you do best. Never get complacent.’

“It’s just a matter of time before Chase and Montez explode and become the pass-rush duo that everyone expects them to be.”

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