GREEN BAY, Wis. — Jonathan Allen likes to say sacks are a misleading stat. The Washington defensive tackle, for instance, had two in Sunday’s 24-10 loss to the Green Bay Packers. But those, he said, were just a reflection of Aaron Rodgers’ tendency to hold the ball longer than other quarterbacks.
That said, even the usually stoic Allen acknowledged the obvious: Washington’s defensive line is starting to play up to its reputation. The 26-year-old went as far as to even deem the defense’s performance “the best of the season.”
It just wasn’t enough.
“Losing teams find ways to lose games and winning teams find ways to win games,” Allen said, “and right now we’re finding ways to lose.”
Washington held the Packers to only 304 total yards — fewest of the year for a defense that had given up the second-most yards in the NFL entering the weekend. And by allowing “only” 24 points, the Burgundy and Gold snapped its five-game streak of surrendering at least 29 points.
That, admittedly, might be setting the bar low for a defense expected to be a top-five unit before the year. The defense’s breakdowns, against the Packers, too, were costly. While coverage busts had been mostly eliminated — Green Bay’s longest play went for 26 yards — Rodgers still seized on open windows and pounced on mistakes.
Rodgers’ first touchdown of the game, for instance, came on a defensive miscue. On fourth-and-3 on Green Bay’s opening drive, Rodgers scrambled to the outside and as he ran away from the pocket, he found an open Devante Adams — who caught it and took off for a 17-yard touchdown.
Coach Ron Rivera indicated afterward that Washington lost contain on the play and failed to account for Adams while Rodgers was scrambling. On replay, cornerback Danny Johnson looks to leave Adams in order to chase Rodgers.
“That’s why he is special,” Rivera said of Rodgers.
Johnson was filling in for an injured William Jackson III, who was ruled out prior to kickoff with a knee injury. Without Jackson, Johnson was playing his first defensive snaps of the season — and Rodgers went after the slot cornerback. Rodgers repeatedly targeted Johnson on Green Bay’s two-minute drive before halftime, a series that resulted in a 10-yard touchdown to Allan Lazard.
Jackson’s injury, meanwhile, also paved the way for more playing time for rookie Benjamin St-Juste. The third-rounder got the start in place of Jackson and appeared to have his best game of the year. St-Juste said that he was able to show off his growth — understanding how to play receivers differently at the line of scrimmage.
If Washington‘s defense is truly going to turn a corner, the unit is going to need players like St-Juste to take more steps forward.
“Week 1, it was tough as a rookie just thrown out of there in the fire,” St-Juste said. “I’m learning the technique of how to play receivers and learning how accurate the quarterbacks are. Fast forward to now, I almost got myself a pick (against the Packers).”
With Washington now at 2-5, its defense will need to continue to improve if it has any shot of turning around the season. On Friday, defensive backs coach Chris Harris noted the similarities to last season — with Washington’s defense starting slow only to dominate teams toward the end of the year. Washington, too, sat 2-5 in 2020 before finishing 7-9.
Still, a turnaround this year can’t be assumed. Washington’s players understand they have work to do.
“We’re such a better football team than what our record says, but at the end of the day, you can only go by what we’ve done,” Allen said. “So we’re what, 2-5? Then that’s just who we are.”