ASHBURN — This offseason, Chase Young worked on improving his hands. The Washington defensive end went through drill after drill, perfecting the tricks, techniques and movements that the NFL’s best pass-rushers use to go through, over or around opposing linemen. He watched film, took notes and learned. He focused on repetition and muscle memory — going through the same exercises over and over so that new moves would feel natural.
Through all that work, Young kept coming back to a simple thought about his hands: Just use them.
“I mean, for real,” Young said Tuesday. “When you pass-rushing, it’s like you’re so focused on what’s in front of you, you’ll forget to use your hands. I mean that’s what happens with a lot of dudes. Maybe young dudes just coming in.”
Last season, Young was exactly that: A “young dude” who entered the league and occasionally forgot to use his hands to get to the quarterback. That didn’t mean he wasn’t a dominant force — he won Defensive Rookie of the Year quite easily — but his sack numbers (7½) were perhaps lower than expected, in part, because he was still getting used to the ways NFL linemen would block him.
That’s not likely to happen this year.
Young’s improved handwork has been on display throughout training camp and the preseason — particularly when he used a swim move to beat Patriots left tackle Isaih Wynn and hit quarterback Cam Newton in Washington’s first preseason game. The sequence caused observers like former All-Pro Mitchell Schwartz and offensive line guru Duke Manyweather to praise the 22-year-old.
Young’s own teammates and coaches have noticed a leap, too. Ryan Fitzpatrick wasn’t with Washington in 2020, but the quarterback said Tuesday that Young’s speed and technique has been “great work for me’ in practice.
“He’s a guy that you love that he’s on your team,” Fitzpatrick said. “Even just the limited work that he’s had in the preseason … he makes game-changing plays all the time. Those are great guys to have on your team.”
A closer look at the play against Wynn shows the improvement in Young’s game. Technically, the pass-rusher is late off the snap — but he makes up the ground in no time.
To beat Wynn, a 2018 first-rounder, Young first used his left hand to make contact with the tackle’s shoulder and drive the 313-pound lineman back. Then, in an instant, Young catches Wynn off guard by swiping down — swimming through his opponent to break free and get a clear shot on Newton. Newton just got the ball released in time, though he was a second or two away from a strip sack.
Young’s development isn’t defined by that one sequence. Plays like that one happen regularly at practice. In Monday’s session, for instance, Young came flying around the edge and forced Fitzpatrick to step up in the pocket. The quarterback then fired the ball right to linebacker Cole Holcomb, an interception arguably caused from Young’s pressure.
Coach Ron Rivera said part of Young’s growth can also be attributed to experience. This year, Rivera said, Young is coming in with a better understanding of his surroundings. Young doesn’t just have to account for the opposing lineman’s plan to stop him, but has to consider other factors like whether the quarterback is dropping back in three steps or five and what technique the teammate next to him is using, Rivera said.
From there, Young judges what moves to break out and when. He’s coming up with a counter to the opposing lineman’s counter, Rivera said.
“It’s about having a plan more so than anything else and just not relying on your tremendous athletic ability,” Rivera said. “Secondly, as he’s developing that repertoire, he has to have a good feel for setting up one to complement the other.
“These are all things that as he gets more and more experience, becomes more of a veteran player, it will become even more natural.”