LANDOVER — Before New Orleans quarterback Jameis Winston heaved a Hail Mary to a streaking Marquez Callaway, before the wide receiver easily caught it in the end zone amid a sea of flat-footed defenders, the Washington Football Team defense was expecting the Saints to play for the field goal.
With eight seconds left until halftime of Sunday’s 33-22 loss to the Saints, the unit anticipated a throw to the outside to get in range and stop the clock, multiple players said.
Instead, Callaway raced past the pack.
“When the ball went in the air,” safety Landon Collins said, “we just weren’t prepared for that one.”
“We wasn’t expecting them to go Hail Mary there,” cornerback William Jackson III said. “A regular team would try to get a little yards and then kick a field goal.”
The end result was a 49-yard touchdown. But the explanations from Collins and Jackson shed light on the bigger problems.
Again, Washington’s defense seemed to lack contextual awareness in a crucial situation. How was it that the unit wasn’t expecting a bomb from Winston, one of the NFL’s most-willing deep throwers?
Did Washington really think New Orleans was going to settle for a field goal with Cody Parkey, of all kickers? Parkey not only missed two extra points on Sunday, but he’s the “Double Doink” kicker, the one who cost the Bears a playoff game a few years back by clanking the ball off the upright and crossbar.
The miscues didn’t just extend to the Hail Mary, either. On Sunday, Winston threw for a season-high 279 yards and four touchdowns, despite the Saints averaging the second-fewest passing yards per game through the first four weeks. Winston completed only 50% of his passes, but he seized on coverage busts.
Winston, of course, is not Drew Brees — the future Hall of Fame quarterback who set the all-time career passing yards mark the last time these two teams played in 2018. He is Jameis Winston — the uneven, turnover-prone quarterback who played his way out of Tampa Bay after being drafted first overall in 2015.
Before the season, Washington’s defenders embraced the speculation that they were one of the top units in the league. Now after five weeks, they’re the primary reason the team is sitting at 2-3 with a daunting slate of quarterbacks — Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes next week followed by Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers — on deck.
“We lack a little bit of confidence right now,” coach Ron Rivera said. “I am very frustrated because we’ve got too many good football players to not be better than what we are right now. But your record tells everybody what you are. That’s what we are. We’re a 2-3 football team right now.”
Sunday’s loss can’t be solely pinned on the defense. Quarterback Taylor Heinicke (249 yards) threw two interceptions, one as Washington was in scoring territory, the other that set up a Saints touchdown. The offense fizzled out one too many times, leading to three Dustin Hopkins field goals. Rivera even made a curious decision to pass up a 53-yarder when the game was tied at 13.
But the season-long mistakes from the defense can’t be ignored. These are the types of performances that eventually lead to staff shakeups, and indeed, social media users were already calling for defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio to be fired. There were so many tweets about Del Rio that he was a trending topic during the contest.
Rivera defended Del Rio afterward, telling reporters that his staff was “coaching as best as we can.” Still, the coach added that he would watch the tape to see if the right calls are being made. “That’s stuff I have to work out,” he said.
Coverage breakdowns and missed tackles appear to be Washington’s biggest issues. On New Orleans’ first touchdown, Washington disguised the blitz pre-snap with Collins — but Winston diagnosed the play perfectly and found a wide-open Deonte Harris for a 72-yard touchdown. Collins failed to get back in time, freeing up Harris over the middle.
“(Collins) was probably about 12 yards (off the receiver) and his speed versus Deonte’s speed is not really a comparison,” Winston said.
“It was a quick snap,” Jackson said. “We couldn’t even communicate.”
Jackson said he felt the defense did better as a whole compared to recent weeks. And in a sense, he’s right. The unit forced two turnovers — one interception, one forced fumble. Winston was sacked twice. And the Saints were just 4-of-11 on third down, more in line with Washington’s conversion percentage last season.
That only went so far. A missed tackle from Bobby McCain led to a 23-yard rushing touchdown from Alvin Kamara, New Orleans’ top weapon. Callaway took advantage of a missed coverage and caught a wide-open 12-yard touchdown.
And when the contest was still in reach for Washington — down only 27-22 with just under eight minutes left — the Saints converted a key fourth-and-1 from their own 34-yard line and then put the game away with a 19-yard receiving touchdown to Kamara.
If there was a consensus scouting report when facing the Saints, the two main objectives for a defense would be to limit Kamara (122 yards from scrimmage) and Winston’s deep ball.
Washington failed to do both. Its defense fell short of expectations for a fifth straight week.
“Obviously, there’s a lot of hype around this defensive line and we’re tremendously talented,” defensive tackle Matt Ioannidis said. “And when it doesn’t go our way, I think, we need to look at ourselves and say, ‘Hey, listen, people put faith and trust in us. Let’s live up to that.’”
Ioannidis was speaking about his position, but he could have easily expanded the message to the entire unit.