Expectations were high for the Commanders' stud pass rush duo entering the 2021 season. Led by Chase Young, the 2020 Defensive Rookie of the Year, and Montez Sweat, a budding star in his own right, Washington's defense was expected to build off its top-five performance in 2020 and become one of the NFL's best units in 2021.
That, obviously, didn't happen. Young experienced a sophomore slump and finished with just 1.5 sacks in nine games before an ACL tear ended his season. Sweat, who suffered a broken jaw in Week 9 and missed over a month thereafter, finished his third professional campaign with a career-low five sacks in 10 games.
Sweat and Young said during training camp they hoped to break the combined duo sack record of 39, set by Minnesota's Chris Doleman and Keith Millard in 1989. Washington's duo finished just a measly 32.5 sacks short.
The 2021 season was one of disappointment for both Sweat and Young, but head coach Ron Rivera views last year as a learning opportunity for both players. Both pass rushers have elite skill sets. Now, Washington's head coach feels it's about looking back at what worked, what didn't and how to grow from that.
"I think as far as his skill set goes, it's understanding how to use it," Rivera said. "[Sweat's] got a tremendous skill set. As he continues to grow and learn and understand how to use it, he becomes more and more dynamic as well. I think it's the same thing with Chase. Once we get Chase back on the field it is understanding how to use his skill set, not just the raw power that he has, or the athleticism."
It's not just in between the lines where Rivera is hoping to see growth from Sweat and Young, though. Washington is counting on both players to be core members of its present and future. That role carries responsibility and accountability.
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During Wednesday's practice, Sweat's vocal leadership was on full display. No. 90's voice was impossible to miss. His energy was infectious, as Rivera admitted the intensity grew the more Sweat got into it, maybe a little too much for the coach's liking.
"He brings a little bit of energy," Rivera said. "You hear his voice out there and you hear how it ramps things up, which we've got to keep it down. We're trying to not get anybody hurt right now. We're really just trying to learn and grow and develop.”
Last spring, Young's decision to skip OTAs -- which are voluntary -- to focus on personal brand-building opportunities drew criticism from fans. The coaching staff made it clear they wished Young had attended, too, including Rivera. And, when Young struggled on the field before suffering his injury, many reverted back to the pass rusher's offseason habit as to why, fair or not.
So for Rivera and the rest of his staff, it was a welcome sight to see Young present at OTAs this week, even if the pass rusher remains unable to practice as he continues his rehab.
"I think it’s a good thing," Rivera said. "Again, having one of your veteran players, one of your leaders out and around in spite of the fact that he’s rehabbing, it’s good. It is voluntary obviously, and minicamp is not for a couple more weeks, but for the most part, having guys here is very important."
Young, who spoke with the media contingent present on Wednesday after practice, sees the benefit in him being at OTAs as well. The 23-year-old spent most of Wednesday's session standing next to defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, listening to every play call and observing his teammates that were participating, such as Sweat and defensive tackle Jon Allen.
"Just watching how they move and just being here, man, I feel like being here and just watching and being out on the field is the biggest thing," Young said.
With Young taking in practice from the sidelines, he's gained a new appreciation for improving his craft. During individual drills, Young's had the chance to stand next to his fellow defensive linemen, observe and even offer up some tips.
"A lot of times I'm out there with 'Tez [Sweat], so it would be hard for me to even talk to him or give him tips while I'm on the field with him," Young said. "But now just being off, being able to sit back, if his first step is short, if his pad level's a little high: just any tips I can give him. Just trying to be a good teammate and at the end of the day just cheer on my teammates."
Toward the end of Young's rookie season in 2020, the pass rusher was entrusted by his teammates to be a captain. It's a role rookies rarely obtain, especially non-quarterbacks. Young was named a team captain entering 2021 as well and remained in that role throughout the year.
But with the captain's 'C' comes a lot of responsibility. Teammates look up to their captains and view them as leaders. And, like Sweat, Young is a player whose energy travels.
"He is one of those guys that has an infectious energy level about him, and when you bring energy, players feed off the energy," Rivera said.
Young remains one of the Commanders' leaders, even as he's sidelined. He'll likely be voted a team captain once again. That role comes with a lot of pressure, especially for someone of Young's age, experience and talent.
But entering Year 3, Rivera hopes to see Young's progression as a leader "happen naturally," rather than the pass rusher trying to force it.
"It's about being organic and letting it happen naturally," Rivera said. "And a lot of it, also, is the impact you make on the field. It's a lot easier to lead, obviously, when things are easy. But when things are tough, it's being able to find the right style of leadership, and that I think is also important as well. So, there's a lot of things that he can glean from being out here and watching and seeing how things are happening."