The Washington Football Team's defense ended the 2021 season with expectations of being the NFL's best unit. But through the first eight games of the season, Jack Del Rio's group largely underperformed and was a major reason the team entered its Week 9 bye with a 2-6 record.
Yet, since the bye, Washington has won four straight games. And during that span, Washington's defense has played like the unit many expected it to be preseason.
After allowing over 28 points per game through the first eight weeks, Washington has given up just 17.5 points on average over the past four games and has not allowed more than 21 points in any contest. That's quite the sudden turnaround.
Washington head coach Ron Rivera joined the Sports Junkies on Tuesday and attributed three factors to the defense's recent positive turnaround. The first one, in fact, had nothing to do with the defense itself.
"First of all, we're running the ball successfully on the offensive side," Rivera said. "That keeps the defense off the field and fresh."
During Washington's four-game winning streak, its offense has dominated the time of possession. Against the Buccaneers on Nov. 14, Washington's offense was on the field for over 39 minutes. The following week against the Panthers, Washington controlled the ball for nearly 36 minutes. Against the Seahawks Nov. 29 on Monday Night Football, that number climbed to over 41 minutes.
This past Sunday against the Las Vegas Raiders, Washington had its lowest time of possession over the past four weeks. Still, Scott Turner's offense was on the field for nearly 34 minutes of action. As a result, Washington's defense stayed fresh and played one of its best games of the season, holding Las Vegas quarterback Derek Carr -- who entered Week 13 as the NFL's passing leader -- to just 24 passing yards and no touchdowns.
By limiting the opponent's time of possession, opposing offenses have struggled to find their rhythm. Carr, Tom Brady and Russell Wilson all were unable to get comfortable throughout their matchups against Washington.
The defense isn't only playing better lately because it's been fresher, though. Rivera and Del Rio altered their defensive philosophy to a more aggressive approach, especially attacking the line of scrimmage, following the bye. So far, it's worked out well for the club.
"Early on, some of the philosophies thinking coming into this was with our rush, we could rush four and be successful," Rivera said. "But what we saw was people countered that by chipping their way out, putting an extra blocker in the protections, making sure they're throwing our pass rush rhythm off. Now, we're not seeing as much of that, obviously. So, you're seeing that middle push having success. You're seeing those guys on the edge getting a little more pressure. Why? Because they're being singled now. That's been to our benefit."
Ironically, Washington's defense started to immediately play better following injuries to its two best edge rushers, Montez Sweat and Chase Young. Sweat has been sidelined for the entire winning streak with a jaw fracture but is expected to return to practice this week. Young has been out for the last three games and will miss the remainder of the season with a torn ACL.
With Washington on a four-game win streak, the Junkies noted some fans might suggest a "Ewing Theory" scenario made famous by writer Bill Simmons -- that Washington's defense has become better without its two standout pass rushers. Rivera downplayed that notion significantly saying the unit is definitely better when both Sweat and Young are on the field.
"You get a guy like Montez, you get a guy like Chase, with their ability to put pressure," Rivera said. "Now it's a matter of understanding, 'hey, these are things we got to stop expecting them to be more than what they are.' They are very good outside edge players."
As Rivera alluded to earlier, Washington thought earlier in the season that the pass rush would be able to get home by just sending four guys. That led to Young and Sweat constantly facing chips and double teams, limiting their production and ability to get to the quarterback.
Washington's new defensive approach, with the team blitzing and attacking the line more often, should free up more 1-on-1 opportunities for Sweat once he returns (and Young next season).
Additionally, a product of this more aggressive approach has been a position change for Landon Collins, who's moved from his traditional safety spot to what Rivera calls the Buffalo nickel position. In layman's terms, Collins is playing a hybrid linebacker-safety role, one that allows him to line up closer to the line of scrimmage and cater more to his strengths.
Over the past month, Collins has been playing the best football of his Washington tenure. He's no longer a liability for Washington's defense, rather, he's emerged as one of the unit's most important players.
"Moving Landon and getting him to play the Buffalo position, the big nickel, has really benefited us," Rivera said. "And, it's benefitting him. You really see his talents and abilities come to the forefront. The dude is a physical player at the point of attack. The dude is a very quick underneath cover guy and he's a good blitzer."
During Washington's early-season struggles, the defense was constantly subject to allowing big plays. Defensive miscommunications were a frequent talking point, as at least a handful would occur on a weekly basis.
But over the past few weeks, Washington's defense has significantly limited the number of big plays against them. Rivera believes that's due to the unit communicating with one another as well as it has all season.
"You see the communication going on in the secondary. It's all right there and we can see it," Rivera said. "The thing that's been really good, too, is our run defense has stepped up. We've been much more gap sound, much more disciplined. Our young linebackers, you see Cole [Holcomb], you see Jamin [Davis] getting that feel for much more attacking the line and getting downhill to their creases. It's really like the group has matured and understands exactly what has to be done to be successful."
Things won't get any easier for Washington's defense moving forward, though. The NFC East-leading Cowboys come to town on Sunday, a team that features an offense with a star quarterback, two excellent running backs and a trio of standout receivers, all of whom are healthy.
Rivera is hoping that the success Washington's defense has had over the past month will carry over this Sunday in order to slow Dallas' high-octane offensive attack.
"You can't allow explosive plays to become touchdowns. You've got to keep them in front of you and you've got to get them down quickly," Rivera said. "You've got to be physical with their playmakers. There can't be a lot of run after catch. There has to be instant contact and getting them down to the ground."
Washington's top focus on Sunday will be slowing the Cowboys' running game. Ezekiel Elliott has historically played well against Washington. Dallas' other back, Tony Pollard, is enjoying the best season of his career -- with some believing he should be the starter. Washington will have its hands full hoping to slow Dallas' ground game down.
"The running game, we cannot allow it to get started," Rivera said. "When they have that 50-50 option of what they're going to do, now you play a little hesitant. Shut the run game down early and make them one dimensional, it allows us to get after the passer."