ASHBURN — By the time Chase Young boards the team bus on game days, the transformation is already underway. He’s locked in. As the sights of the city roll past his window, his mind is focused on the contest ahead. He thinks about all that’s required to dominate his matchup.
Get off the ball.
Use your hands.
It’s part of his process, he says.
“When I put the helmet on, I’m not Chase Young anymore,” the Washington defensive end said. “I turn into something different.”
There are all kinds of reasons to think Washington’s defense will be much improved in 2020 as the team prepares for Sunday’s season opener against the Philadelphia Eagles. But it starts with Young, the second overall pick who wrecked opponents at Ohio State.
He is the overwhelming favorite to win defensive rookie of the year and draft experts viewed him as the best prospect in this year’s class.
When Washington selected the 21-year-old, coach Ron Rivera said he saw Young as a game-changer, capable of affecting every aspect of the defense. Washington’s pass rush should be stronger, giving opposing quarterbacks less time to throw. That should translate to better play in the secondary. More stops on defense means more opportunities for quarterback Dwayne Haskins and … you get the point. It’s the football version of “If you give a mouse a cookie.”
Dramatic improvements in the NFL from year-to-year are rare, even on just one side of the ball. But it can be done. Just look at the San Francisco 49ers, who lept from 24th to 2nd overall in defensive DVOA (efficiency) after adding pass rusher (and former Young teammate) Nick Bosa. According to Football Outsiders, Bosa’s nine sacks and 62 hurries — third in the NFL — helped the 49ers’ rise as they made it to the Super Bowl.
San Francisco has more talent than Washington, which ranked 27th in defensive DVOA last season. Washington did rank 10th in sacks with 46, but according to Football Outsiders, the defense generated pressure on just 26.1% of dropbacks — 29th in the NFL.
The line was particularly poor on the edges, where rushers generated just 40.2% of the defense’s total sacks — also 29th in the league.
But Washington has strength on the interior with Matt Ioannidis, Daron Payne and Jonathan Allen. Young, a dominant force with 16 ½ sacks at Ohio State, should help Montez Sweat and Ryan Kerrigan on the edges.
Expectations for Young are high and he’ll have his hands full early with the Eagles. Lane Johnson is one of the league’s best right tackles and Jason Peters, on the left, is a nine-time Pro Bowler.
Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, however, tried to keep the hype in check.
“We’re not asking anything more from him that we are anyone else on the defense,” Del Rio said. “Know where you are, know what you’re doing and go fast, play hard. Be technique-sound. Play with great energy. Help the team win in any way we can.”
If Young is the biggest reason why Washington’s defense could finally be among the league’s elite, Del Rio might be the close second.
As a coordinator and head coach, Del Rio has experience whipping his units into shape. Fast. The Denver Broncos saw a 14-spot jump (20th to sixth) in defensive DVOA in their first year with Del Rio in 2012. When he took over the Raiders in 2015, Oakland went from bad (26h) to average (16).
Del Rio shares much of the same philosophy as Rivera, who went about adding players who fit his vision this offseason.
Washington’s secondary was a pleasant surprise in training camp with the addition of cornerbacks Kendall Fuller and Ronald Darby bringing cohesion and stability to a unit led by Landon Collins.
At linebacker, Washington put an emphasis on speed and versatility — signing Kevin Pierre-Louis and Thomas Davis.
Pierre-Louis, in particular, is a player Washington identified as capable of making a leap. The seven-year veteran had been mostly a career special teams player, but shined in the last month of the season for the Chicago Bears when filling in for an injured Roquan Smith. Del Rio said it looked like a “light had gone on.”
Del Rio said his job is to make sure everyone is on the same page.
“That’s what we’re looking to create,” Del Rio said. “We want to play fast, we want to know what our problems are, what our answers are to those problems and make sure we solve them quickly, adjust quickly and put our guys in positions to make plays they’re capable of making.”
When Young suits up on Sunday at FedEx Field, he’ll be a 12-minute drive from his childhood home. Born in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, he often watched Redskins games growing up, learning to love players like Clinton Portis and Sean Taylor.
In fact, he even went to a game once. It was against the Eagles, the team he’ll face in his debut.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Young said.