ASHBURN — As much as Ron Rivera has developed a reputation for leading his teams over the second half of seasons — just look at last year — the Washington coach knows as well as anyone that a late-season surge isn’t always the case.
Specifically, Rivera can think back to 2018 when, as coach of the Panthers, his team lost seven in a row to put them out of the postseason. Three of those losses were by three points or fewer.
“You can’t win two in a row until you’ve won one,” Rivera said.
With Washington back from its bye week, the Burgundy and Gold will keep that simple advice in mind as it looks to salvage a season in which last year’s NFC East champs are 2-6 and in last place in the division.
The 2021 team is far removed from the progress shown down the stretch of last season when Washington made the playoffs at 7-9 and lost to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The Buccaneers, coincidentally, will be Washington’s first opponent out of the bye when the two teams meet Sunday at FedEx Field.
During the time off, Rivera said he reevaluated the team’s first eight games and received reports from his assistants to see if they were “on the same page” about what needs to be corrected for the final nine games.
The takeaways? The team’s third-down defense must improve and the offense has to convert in the red zone, he said.
“I still think this team’s going to develop and grow and be what I believe it can be,” Rivera said. “Just because you take a step backwards, it doesn’t mean you’re not learning and growing. This has been tough. I agree. It’s about winning and there were high expectations. … (But) I’m not going to waiver, I’m going to stick to the plan.”
Of course, Rivera didn’t need a week-long break to understand the team’s third-down defense and red zone efficiency were major weaknesses. But the tape provided a reminder of just how those problems came to be.
On third down, for instance, Rivera said the problem actually started to manifest over the first two downs. The defense, he said, wasn’t doing a good enough job to put the team into third and long situations. And indeed, according to Pro Football Reference, Washington has faced 47 plays in which the distance has been no longer than third and 4. That’s the fifth-most in the league.
Further, Washington has faced 116 third downs this year — and almost half of those (49%) have been no longer than third and 5. Teams have converted a league-high 56% of their third downs against Washington.
“We had way too many third and shorts,” he said.
For Washington to play better in the second half of the year, individual players will also have to step up.
Defensive end Chase Young is an example, especially with edge rusher Montez Sweat out with a broken jaw. Young only has 1½ sacks this season and has struggled with the extra attention given to him from blockers.
Rivera said he’d like to see Young more patient on the outside and cut back on his tendency to dive on the inside of plays. With Sweat out, Washington will rely on inexperienced younger players such as James Smith-Williams, Casey Toohill and Shaka Toney — making Young’s contribution more critical.
Rivera said he doesn’t want Young to let the pressure get to him.
“He doesn’t have to do something extraordinary,” Rivera said.
Last week, Rivera said he was hoping that the time off would be good for Washington’s health. And that appeared to be the case as a number of injured players participated in Monday’s practice. That included guard Brandon Scherff (knee) and tackle Sam Cosmi (ankle) — the right side of the offensive line that has been sidelined recently.
One player who wasn’t seen participating in individual drills was tight end Logan Thomas (hamstring), but Rivera said the training staff “put a little more stress on him” to see how he would react. If all goes well, Rivera said Thomas should be able to practice Wednesday. That would be a boost for Washington as Thomas, a red zone threat, hasn’t played since Week 4.
But for now, Washington will have to do with the players available.
“The only way through this is to work hard,” Rivera said. “There’s no quick fix. There really isn’t.”