Last season, the Washington Football Team followed a longstanding trend in head coach Ron Rivera's career. They played their best football late in the year, particularly on defense, and rode that midseason turnaround all the way to the playoffs.
Though there is a long way to go in the 2021 season, Washington has played well enough defensively over their last four games to wonder if a similar trajectory is beginning to take shape. In their last four games going back five weeks, Washington is fourth in yards allowed, allowing the fewest rushing yards of any team and the 10th-fewest passing yards.
Though points are a better indicator than yards allowed, Washington is also 14th in scoring defense during that stretch.
Washington Football's Defense Since Week 7
*20.3 pts allowed/g (14th-fewest)
*286.8 total yds allowed/g (4th-fewest)
*210.8 passing yds allowed/g (10th-fewest)
*76 rushing yds allowed/g (fewest in NFL)
In fact, in their last three weeks, Washington has held their opponents to fewer than 300 total yards in each game. That's their longest such streak since 2009. The game before, in Week 7, they held the Packers to 304 yards, so it was almost four straight.
In these past three games, Washington has allowed just 19 points per contest. Small sample size, yes, but that would rank fifth in the league if it were held over the full season so far.
This is a marked change from how the season started for Washington. Even with the recent uptick, they rank 27th in scoring defense (26.7 ppg) and 23rd in yards allowed (368.5/g).
Washington's last four games have come against the Buccaneers, Packers, Panthers and Broncos. While the latter three rank 18th, 22nd and 23rd in scoring, respectively, the Bucs lead the NFL at 30.9 points per game. Washington held them to just 19 points, tying a season-low for Tampa Bay with their win over the Patriots, who allow the fewest points on average of any team this year.
On one hand, you could argue the toughest part of Washington's schedule as it pertains to the defense is over. In a four-game stretch, they had to face Patrick Mahomes, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady; three of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. They also may have an opportunity to keep their momentum going with the Seahawks up next, as they rank 24th in scoring and, though they have Russell Wilson, he does not appear to be 100 percent healthy.
After that, they see the Raiders who are 16th in scoring despite Derek Carr leading the league in passing yards. Their biggest tests awaiting may be the Cowboys and Eagles, who rank third and eighth in points per game. Washington will see both teams twice.
But as their defense is showing signs of life, so is Washington's quarterback, Taylor Heinicke. He hasn't thrown an interception in the last two weeks and their defensive stability has helped Washington's offense win the time-of-possession battle in four straight games. They did that only once in their previous six, but Washington now ranks fifth in the NFL in average time per drive (3:00).
Heinicke at this point is probably not going to win many shootouts, but he has proven capable of leading them to victory in a balanced game where he doesn't need to be superhuman. To beat Dallas and Philly, the defense will likely have to keep the score manageable, as only twice in 10 games this season has Washington's offense scored 30-plus points. The Cowboys, for instance, average 29.6 points per game.
The defense will also have to hold up their end of the bargain without pass rusher Chase Young, who was lost for the season due to injury. His quarterback-seeking partner Montez Sweat is also on injured reserve with a broken jaw but should return at some point.
A lot would have to go right for Washington to go on a late-season run like they did last year, but getting the defense on track seems like a logical first step.