Following an outstanding 2020 season, the Washington Football Team's defense entered the 2021 season with expectations of being one of the NFL's best defensive units.
Through two weeks, that has not been the case.
In Week 1, Washington tied a franchise record by allowing 14 third-down conversions to Justin Herbert and company in a loss to the Los Angeles Chargers. Then in Week 2, Jack Del Rio's group allowed 29 points to a Daniel Jones-led Giants attack without forcing any turnovers.
Yet, despite the defense's early struggles, both Del Rio and star pass rusher Chase Young are not worried about them moving forward.
"It's just the little things we have to correct. That's what we're working to do," Young said Wednesday.
In both games this season, Washington's defense has put the club in a hole by allowing touchdowns on their opponent's opening drive. Starting faster defensively is something Del Rio hopes Washington can adapt to quickly, beginning this Sunday in Buffalo.
"It's definitely not on my PowerPoint: ‘Don't start fast.’ That's not up there," Del Rio said. "Obviously, we want to start fast as a group. We want to help our football team build early momentum. We haven't got that done the first two weeks, so yeah, that's clearly a point of emphasis."
Fair or not, it's Young who's been criticized the most for Washington's slow defensive start. The 2020 No. 2 overall pick has yet to record a sack this season, but that's something the 22-year-old thinks will take care of itself as the season goes on.
"It's only game two. The numbers are going to come. I'm [not] really trippin' over that," Young said. "Right now, my biggest focus, our biggest focus as a defense is for everybody to do their individual jobs. At the end of the day, it should all come together."
Del Rio isn't worried about the outside commentary of Young, either.
"I think to even refer to the social media experts would be a bad idea," Del Rio said. "I think I liked the way our guys are working at their trade. I think Chase, in particular, is an excellent football player. We’re just going to continue to coach, continue to play, continue to work around being productive for each other."
Although Washington's defense has not been dominant for all four quarters the way some expected them to be, the unit has come up with some big stops in each of the team's first two games.
In Week 1, Washington forced two Herbert turnovers in the red zone, which went a long way in limiting the Chargers' offense to just 20 points. Then in Week 2, Washington's defense came up with a pair of late stops, one that allowed Taylor Heinicke to get the ball back with two minutes left in the fourth quarter and lead the Burgundy and Gold on a game-winning drive.
"We’re constantly striving for more, for better. The effort's been outstanding. The energy that we're playing with has been outstanding," Del Rio said. "I think last week in key moments, we came up big, had to have stops. At the end of the day, it's about winning games, right? And so we need to continue to do all we can to bring that energy, bring that fight and that competitiveness and clean up some of the things that haven't been quite as good as we expect."
Things don't get any easier for Washington in Week 3, as they face quarterback Josh Allen and a Bills team that went 13-3 last season and was just a few plays away from a Super Bowl appearance.
For Washington to slow down Buffalo's offense -- albeit, a unit that has not exactly been clicking on all cylinders through the first two weeks -- the defensive line will need to apply pressure by itself. Del Rio will have to get creative this week, too, as Allen is one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL against the blitz. Young is confident in his group's ability to do that.
"Big quarterback, got to get him down. I'm not really too worried about that," Young said. "I know if [Montez Sweat] gets his hands on him, Payne, Jon [Allen] or Matt [Ioannidis], they're going to get him down. We're not really worried about how big the quarterback is. All we're worried about is doing our jobs."
Things haven't started off the way Washington's defense would have wanted. Del Rio and Young will be the first to admit that. But, moving forward, the group still has those same lofty expectations of itself.
"I love that people hold us to a high standard because we hold ourselves to a high standard," Young said. "But we're not really paying attention to the noise, obviously. We're just going to keep working. When we start playing good defense, they're going to love us again. That's why we're not really worried about the outside noise."