ASHBURN — Safety Landon Collins insists when problems arise for Washington’s defense, players and coaches act fast to “nip it in the bud.” During Sunday’s win over the Atlanta Falcons, for instance, Washington’s defense was seen huddled as a group on the sideline after going down 10-0.
But if Washington’s defense could be fixed simply by talking about its problems, well, then, the unit wouldn’t be ranked near the bottom of the league statistically.
After four games, there appears to be a disconnect for the defense: Players and coaches agree that they recognize the problems at hand — but so far, the group has not been effective at stopping them. For a unit that was expected to be among the league’s elite, the defense is giving up 30.5 points and 417.5 total yards per game.
Coach Ron Rivera has used the word “disappointment” to describe his team’s 2-2 start. If the defense had played to the level he thought they were capable, he said, that record would be even better.
“One of the things that happens is, when you get under duress, you put yourself in a tough position,” Rivera said. “One of the things that people tend to do is revert to what they know best or what they’ve been trained to do or how they used to do it. And what we’re trying to get them to understand is stick to what we do, stick to what we’re teaching and give yourselves a chance to be competitive.
“That was the message (after the Falcons game).”
In his weekly radio appearance on 106.7 The Fan, Rivera wondered aloud if the team’s defense had been too complex for his players — pondering if the team needed to simplify its concepts under defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio. But after considering it more, Rivera told reporters Wednesday that he likes what the team is doing schematically.
Before the season, Rivera acknowledged Washington would play more man-to-man defense in 2021 after being a zone-heavy team the previous season. The team signed William Jackson III and drafted third-rounder Benjamin St-Juste — two tall, physical cornerbacks — to help accommodate that switch.
Through four games, there has been an increase in man coverage. According to Pro Football Focus, Washington is in a man-to-man defense 28% of the time — up from 23.5% last year. The problem, though, is when Washington is in zone — 58% of the time — it isn’t very effective. Opposing offenses have completed 75% of its passes against the defense, good for 8.1 yards per attempt.
In zone, Washington is giving up 275.5 yards per game compared to 129.5 in man.
It would be overly simplistic to suggest, however, that Washington should just play more man defense. The team’s biggest issue defensively has arguably been on third down, with Washington giving up a league-high 59.7% conversion rate. On third down, Washington has actually deployed more man-to-man coverage (29 plays) than zone (21).
“You take a step back and go, man, ‘How can we miss this? Or why didn’t we do that?,’” Rivera said. “So you just go back to the drawing board and keep working at it.”
Washington was one of the league’s better units in that area last season. Opponents converted on 37.8% of its chances — giving Washington the seventh-best third-down defense.
So far, Collins and many other defenders have stressed that it’s still early into the season. Washington, too, overcame a 2-7 start last year before finishing with a top-five defense.
But the list of issues to correct is long. Beyond third down, Washington has allowed points on each of its opponent’s opening drives — surrendering three touchdowns and a field goal. There have been coverage busts and uncoordinated pass rushes, as well.
“Offenses are not even doing too much to confuse us,” Collins said. “We’ve just got to go do it and play fast and be destructive when we play on that field. That’s the biggest thing.”