Here's something nobody was saying exactly one year ago: 'The Washington Football Team has one of the best defenses in the NFL.'
In fact, it was far from the case. Though WFT won its first game of the 2020 season (unlike this past Sunday), it soon cratered to a 1-5 start with the defense sharing much of the blame.
The vaunted Washington defense, which carried it to the playoffs last season and made it a popular pick to win the division this year, took time for head coach Ron Rivera and defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio to put together. It was the type of season-long trajectory that should encourage some patience this time around and perhaps some trust that they can coach the team to improve once again.
Some of the numbers may be surprising in hindsight. But look at where the Washington defense ranked last season after five weeks, when it was 1-4 following a loss to the Rams, a fourth straight game allowing 30 points or more:
Points allowed - 23rd
Point differential - 31st (-53)
TDs allowed - 24th
Yards allowed - 17th
Here's how the WFT defense ranked by the end of the season in those same categories:
Points allowed - 4th
Point differential - 14th (+6)
TDs allowed - 3rd
Yards allowed - 2nd
Now, last season had a notable difference in that Rivera and Del Rio were new to the job and had no preseason games to work with their new players. But also worth mentioning is Rivera's track record as a head coach. His teams usually get better as the season goes along.
In Carolina, where he coached from 2011 until he was fired midseason in 2019, Rivera's best win percentage was in December/January (25-15, .625). His second-best was in November (19-15, .558). That played out accordingly last season, as Washington went 1-2 in September and 1-3 in October before going 2-2 in November and then 3-2 in December/January to win the NFC East title.
All of this isn't to discount how bad Washington's defense was on Sunday. There is no doubt they will need to improve. Though they only gave up a modest 20 points to the Chargers at FedEx Field, they allowed a jarring 14 third-down conversions, the most for the franchise since 1994 and the most for any team in a decade.
It was also one short of the NFL record since 1991, as far back as Football Reference's database goes on the stat. The Chargers converted nine consecutive third downs at one point and nearly doubled the third-down conversion rate Washington allowed last season (73.7% compared to 37.8%).
Despite the historic nature of their third-down problems, they were also going up against a quarterback in Justin Herbert who is uniquely good in those situations. Last season, he was seventh in QB rating on third downs among those who attempted at least 50 passes. And he was tied with Tom Brady for the most touchdowns thrown on third down with 14. Herbert was a rookie last year, so it would not be surprising if he was even better this season.
The same goes for Chase Young, who by the way some might forget was at one point last season not the widely acclaimed future superstar many began to see him as by the end of his rookie year. Young was catching some heat after only accruing 3 1/2 sacks by Week 11, including in a searing piece by legendary Washington Post columnist Thomas Boswell.
Young got better and so did the Washington defense. Then this offseason they added more pieces including cornerback William Jackson III in free agency and linebacker Jamin Davis in the first round of the draft. Talented defensive lineman Matt Ioannidis is also now back after missing the final 13 games of last season due to injury. The same goes for former Pro Bowl safety Landon Collins, who missed the last nine games in 2020.
Washington's defense was bad to begin last season, but by the end had established itself as one of the best in the NFL. After adding even more weapons on that side of the field, it remains loaded on paper and led by a coaching staff with a track record of in-season improvement.
Don't sound the alarms just yet.