ASHBURN, Va. -- One year ago, the Washington Commanders' defense had all the confidence in the world. Talk of them being the NFL's best unit was common. Pass rushers Chase Young and Montez Sweat had sights on breaking the NFL's combined sack record, too. After all, the unit was coming off an impressive 2020 campaign, so the extreme confidence was mostly validated.
That confidence didn't lead to results, though. The Commanders defense was well below average in 2021. Yes, the group suffered from injuries -- both Young and Sweat missed considerable time -- and a late-season COVID outbreak, but Jack Del Rio's unit as a whole largely underperformed.
Entering training camp this year, the Commanders' defense isn't shying away from its poor performance in 2021. In fact, Del Rio has preached taking a humble approach to his players. So far, so good. The group is buying in. Through two days of camp, they've been far more impressive than Scott Turner's offense.
"I also wanted to praise the message that Coach Del Rio and the staff are preaching and that's humility," head coach Ron Rivera said following practice Thursday. "Let's come in and let's be humble. Let's earn it. I really love that messaging."
Thursday's practice consisted of three periods of 11-on-11 offense vs. defense. Each time, it was the defense that shined.
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During one of the earlier 11-on-11 periods, Wentz attempted to squeeze in a throw to Dyami Brown but cornerback Kendall Fuller was all over the second-year receiver. Fuller tipped the pass in the air, which fell into the hands of linebacker Cole Holcomb for the first interception of the day. Then on the very next play, linebacker Jamin Davis nearly intercepted a Wentz pass down the right sideline.
"We just came competing," Fuller said after practice. "Offense has their days, defense has their days. The defense, we came out here with some good intensity. I know the offense, they're going to feel that. They're going to come back and match that. We have to be ready for that tomorrow."
Later in practice, Wentz attempted to find Cam Sims on a deep go-route down the right sideline. But matching Sims step-for-step was cornerback William Jackson III, who got his hands on the ball and knocked it to the ground before Sims had any chance to make a play.
Jackson III has turned in back-to-back solid practices for the Commanders, a welcome sign as he hopes to rebound from what he'd consider a disappointing Year 1 in Washington. Now in his second year under Del Rio, the 29-year-old cornerback feels a lot more comfortable in the defensive system.
"100 percent comfortable," Jackson III said. "It's totally different because I was able to actually have OTAs and see things from a different lens. It's definitely paying off."
The Commanders defense brought plenty of energy to Thursday's practice. They let the offense know about it, too. Constant chirping and trash talk took place throughout team drills. Sweat, who was getting past the offensive line with ease, let the chirps fly. Same with several members of the secondary after making a play. Defensive backs coach Chris Harris got in on the fun, yelling "it's that type of day!" after a pass break-up from rookie Christian Holmes.
Both Jackson III and Fuller said the constant chirping was a product of them "just having fun" and the competitive nature of the game.
"You see it on the field, the energy was crazy," Jackson III said. "It's just part of the chemistry coming together."
Rivera liked seeing his players animated but said there's a fine line when it comes to chirping.
"We don't want it to be destructive as much as it is constructive," he said.
Safety Bobby McCain took a similar approach to the chirping as his head coach.
"It's not more or less chirping, it's more or less helping each other," McCain said. "If you make a good play, you don't want to belittle the guy, you want to help him. It's OK to be excited with your teammates and celebrate. But maybe after the play, off to the sideline, tell them 'hey, this is what you did, this is what I did and this is what you can do better.' That's how you have a winning culture."
Now, Tuesday's wasn't all bad for Washington's offense. Wentz did find rookie Jahan Dotson on a pretty deep ball down the left sideline, as the rookie defender hauled in a perfectly-thrown pass right in front of Benjamin St-Juste. Curtis Samuel had a decent session and broke out an impressive juke move on St-Juste during one play as well.
But as a whole, it was the Commanders defense that had the upper hand during Thursday's session. That's typical for the beginning of camp, and Rivera made a point during his press conference that the offense isn't game-planning right now. Still, though, there are plenty of reasons for optimism about Del Rio's unit.
"We just came out with the intent to win," Jackson III said. "We stacked a good day yesterday, we wanted to stack another one. We've got to keep going. We're just having fun, everyone is comfortable with one another. We're just letting it fly."