The NFC East isn’t the most welcoming division for a rookie pass rusher. Just ask Montez Sweat. Last year, the Washington pass rusher was tasked with facing All-Pros like Dallas’ Tyronn Smith and Philadelphia’s Jason Peters. But midway through the season, something for Sweat started to click.
After recording just 1½ sacks through the first half of 2019, Sweat compiled 5½ sacks over the last eight weeks to finish his rookie year with 7. By season’s end, he had the second-most sacks and pressures (27) for Washington. Sweat credited the jump as the result of taking film study more seriously and developing a game plan for how he wanted to exploit opposing offensive linemen’s weaknesses.
Despite the progress, Sweat’s rookie year left him unsatisfied.
“It definitely didn’t live up to my expectations or my standards,” Sweat said Thursday.
Entering Year 2, Sweat focused this offseason on getting stronger. With Washington switching to a 4-3 defense, Sweat said he “bulked up” to 265 pounds after ending 2019 at 250. The 4-3 scheme tends to call for bigger linemen, and Sweat wants to show he can handle it. At Mississippi State, Sweat played in that defensive system and weighed 262 pounds.
Sweat said one of his goals for 2020 is to maintain his weight. Last year, the 23-year-old opened camp at 260 pounds, but lost weight as the season progressed.
With Chase Young’s arrival and questions over Ryan Kerrigan’s role, Sweat can be overlooked at times in Washington’s crowded defensive line. But asked about Sweat this week, coach Ron Rivera cracked a smile midway through the question before eagerly answering.
Sweat was a player that Rivera liked coming out of the draft when he was coaching the Carolina Panthers. Rivera recalled watching tape of the Mississippi State product, noticing his explosiveness off the scrimmage and his development throughout his two years.
Sweat ranked fifth all-time at Mississippi State with 22½ sacks after transferring from a junior college. He also wowed at the scouting combine, running a 4.41 40-yard dash with a 6-foot-6 frame.
“Seeing that he’s here and we’ve had an opportunity to watch him the last couple days, it’s pretty exciting,” Rivera said. “He’s a tremendously gifted athlete.”
Rivera said the defensive line has the ability to become a “special unit.” The team has invested heavily, drafting four first-rounders at the position in the last four years. That included trading up for Sweat, who Washington took 26th overall after sending two second-round picks to the Indianapolis Colts.
Rivera suggested the 4-3 will better suit Sweat. He has often mentioned the team’s plan to have the linemen be aggressive in the trenches, asking them to attack the ball. Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio has said he wants his pass rushers to get after the quarterback more and drop into coverage less.
Collectively, Washington plans for its defensive line to be the “tip of the spear” for the defense, defensive line coach Sam Mills III said. The team plans to rotate upfront, keeping players fresh and mixing in an assortment of players. Sweat said while he wants to play every snap, he’s more than fine with a rotation.
Over the offseason, Sweat spent time reviewing every one of his games. He said learned throughout the year that his speed alone wasn’t enough to win battles. He would have to rely on technique.
“I feel pretty confident going into this season just learning from my mistakes from last year,” he said.