The Washington Football Team's defense doesn't have a lot of credibility left after letting Justin Herbert, Daniel Jones and Josh Allen, along with those quarterbacks' respective offenses, have excellent outings against it. A bit remains — the unit was quite effective in 2020 and still has what many regard as talented pieces — but not much.
Now, if the discouraging trend continues this weekend against Matt Ryan and the Falcons, then whatever cachet the unit still owns will disappear entirely.
While Jack Del Rio's group has fallen far short of preseason expectations with its performance in Weeks 1, 2 and 3, at least Herbert and Allen are regarded as two of the sport's most feared and gifted signal callers, whiles Jones possesses mobility that has always given his rival organization trouble.
Ryan, on the other hand, is an undoubtedly accomplished player but also one who's on the backside of the backside of his career and a passer who makes a 12-story apartment building look mobile. The prospect of facing the present edition of the former No. 1 overall pick isn't nearly as frightening as it once was.
So, even though both Ron Rivera and Taylor Heinicke praised Ryan on Wednesday — the coach pointed to Ryan's "wisdom and experience" plus his past MVP award while Ryan's counterpart called him a Hall of Fame candidate — Del Rio's bunch better be ready to take their piling frustrations out on the Falcons' cornerstone in numerous ways.
The first manner that Washington should be able to overwhelm Ryan is in the pocket. Last week in Buffalo, Daron Payne was a constant in the Bills' backfield and Chase Young had a few (though still not enough) chances of his own, but Allen was able to dodge them thanks to his quicks and pick out an open receiver.
In Atlanta, however, if Payne beats his man as repeatedly as he did in Week 3, he'll have more opportunity to complete those sequences with a sack. Same with Young, as well as Jonathan Allen and Montez Sweat. As a defensive line, those four and their backups must continue to get in sync and rush as one, but versus a more statue-like QB such as Ryan, the margin for error ought to be more forgiving.
Ryan's lack of shiftiness isn't the only thing Washington can expose Sunday. The 36-year-old has chucked just three balls more than 20 yards in 2021, and none of them have gone for completions. In fact, in his most recent outing in New York, he didn't even try a pass of that distance.
Overall, Ryan's averaging a small 6 yards-per-attempt, which puts him 28th in the NFL in that stat. Yes, he's got a couple of notable targets in Calvin Ridley and Kyle Pitts, but Atlanta's deep passing attack is basically nonexistent. Therefore, Washington's secondary won't be as threatened over top as it has thus far, meaning it can be more aggressive and sit on the short to intermediate stuff.
It'd be foolish to pretend like Ryan is a hopeless nobody who's about to post a rating of 22.4. There are only 10 men in the history of the sport who've tossed 350 touchdowns, and he's one of them. What he lacks in athleticism and desire to air it out, he makes up for with smarts and recognition.
Also, Washington's defense has been given the benefit of the doubt plenty already in this campaign — "Herbert didn't play at all in the preseason, they'll jump all over him!" ... "Jones is so turnover-prone, they'll force three out of him at minimum." — and it has underwhelmed with a startling consistency. If the unit isn't focused at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Ryan will gladly make it pay.
That said, the D-line, linebackers, corners and safeties should all be very locked in after another round of criticism and questioning from the public and media, and if they are, there's the potential for them to exploit the weaknesses in Ryan's skill set from the first quarter to the fourth.
That's the upside of Sunday for Washington. The downside, meanwhile... well, there'll be loads of time to discuss all that beginning Monday morning if needed.