ASHBURN — For Montez Sweat, the real film study begins when he gets back home after a long day at the practice facility. That’s when the 23-year-old rookie linebacker begins dialing up video — and not just the footage from Washington Redskins games.
Sweat doesn’t just scout upcoming opponents or evaluate Redskins game film.
He studies players in the NFL he wants to emulate.
In recent weeks, for example, the Redskins first-rounder zeroed in on Arizona’s Chandler Jones and San Francisco’s Arik Armstead — two of the league’s top pass rushers.
Sweat has rare physical gifts — he’s 6-foot-6 with an 83-inch wingspan and has posted a record-setting 4.41 in the 40. But earlier this season, he struggled, despite that size and speed, to have the kind of impact on the field he and the Redskins expected when he was taken in the first round of the 2019 draft.
Watching pass-rushers who are playmakers in the NFL is about seeing if he needed to do something different. It’s about looking for techniques he could borrow.
“It’s our profession,” Sweat said. “Anytime I can find time, I watch it.”
The extra work paid off. After recording 1½ sacks through his first eight games, Sweat has brought down the opposing quarterback at least once in three of Washington’s last four.
He’s now one of just seven rookies to have at least five sacks this season.
This week, the Redskins will go up against the Green Bay Packers, a matchup that will put a brighter spotlight on Sweat for reasons that extend beyond Green Bay’s solid offensive line. The Packers, after all, are enjoying a career year from outside linebacker Preston Smith, who left Washington in free agency to sign a four-year, $52 million deal.
Unwilling to extend that type of offer to Smith, the Redskins instead traded up for Sweat in the draft — sending two second-round picks, including one next year, to the Indianapolis Colts. Given the Redskins’ record, that pick is costly. Washington needs to Sweat to perform.
The Redskins have liked what they’ve seen recently.
“The biggest thing is that he has is he has that length,” defensive coordinator Greg Manusky said. “When he uses it, good things happen.”
Just a few weeks ago, Manusky was stressing patience when discussing Sweat. He noted how elite pass rushers like Khalil Mack had less than five sacks his rookie year (4). It took time to adapt to the NFL, he said. Even then, Manusky said he felt like Sweat had delivered on his draft position.
Manusky’s explanation, too, didn’t appear to be far off base. Since 2000, only 101 defenders have had five sacks or more in their rookie season, according to Pro Football Reference — an average of five players per year. Of those 101, 53 were drafted in the first round like Sweat.
The Redskins’ history of finding pass-rushing help in the draft raised expectations, too.
In 2009, rookie linebacker Brian Orakpo finished with 11 sacks — a career-high, as it turned out, and the ninth-most of any rookie in the last 20 seasons. Smith, a second-round pick in 2015, had a productive year with eight sacks.
Smith’s breaout year in Green Bay has also put more focus on Sweat. With the Packers, the 27-year-old has 10 ½ sacks, fifth-most in the league.
Washington didn’t get that kind of production from the linebacker, and some fans blame the coaches.
“Do I see a different Preston Smith?” Redskins interim coach Bill Callahan said Thursday. “Pretty similar guy. Everybody matures, gets older, stronger, has new experiences, new position coaches, systems. With that, I think players evolve. … You just don’t know what can make a spark in a player’s career, whether it’s a position coach, a coordinator, a system, new plays, whatever it may be.”
But over the season, Sweat has grown into one of the Redskins’ top performers on defense. According to Pro Football Reference, Sweat has 21 quarterback pressures (third-most on the team) and 11 hurries (second-most). His five sacks also only trails defensive end Matt Ioannidis.
Cornerback Quinton Dunbar said the main difference is a matter of experience.
“In this league, speed on the edge, you can really only show you speed off with technique and things like that,” Dunbar said. “Speed alone, great tackles will slow you down or ride you by. You’re not able to show that aspect of that game if you don’t have the other tools to get to the speed, you feel me?
“In college, he was faster than everyone,” he added. “He (ran) 4.41. He could just run around them. But now when you get to the league, you understand that everybody’s fast and the great tackles play with technique. You gotta learn … your way.”
Standing by his locker Thursday, Sweat paused when asked if he was happy with the way his season has gone to this point. He remained silent for several seconds before answering.
“I’m definitely not satisfied at all,” Sweat said.