The Pittsburgh Steelers provided a blueprint for how to beat the Buffalo Bills. Two weeks ago, the Steelers pulled off the upset by relying on the strength of their front four, using their linemen, usually with no help from the blitz, to wreak havoc on quarterback Josh Allen.
On Sunday, Washington tried to do the same, though with dramatically different results. The Burgundy and Gold pass-rushers just weren’t good enough to slow down Allen, who led the Bills to a 43-21 victory.
The beatdown marked another underwhelming performance for a position group that was supposed to be the strength of Washington’s team. This is a front four, after all, with four first-rounders. Only one of those top draft picks is older than 25.
This is a defensive line that dominated games in 2020, a line that San Diego Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert, before facing Washington in the season opener, called “as good as it gets.”
But three games in, Washington‘s front four hasn’t held its own, much less take over games the way it did a year ago.
Against the Bills, Washington’s lack of pressure was especially noticeable.
“They did a nice job of protecting the quarterback,” Washington coach Ron Rivera said after Sunday’s loss. “We didn’t get enough pressure on him when we had to, and it allowed for their receivers to work a little bit longer downfield.”
Allen went unsacked and was hit just six times on 43 dropbacks. According to Pro Football Focus, the defensive line did record 20 hurries, though Allen rarely seemed uncomfortable and still completed 74% of his passes.
Washington counted on the front four of Chase Young, Jonathan Allen, Daron Payne and Montez Sweat to get to the Bills signal-caller — particularly on third down.
But Washington was again horrendous on the down, allowing conversions on nine of 15 attempts. On those 15 attempts, Buffalo dropped back to pass on 12 plays — and Washington sent just four rushers 11 times, leading to eight first downs. The team’s only third-down blitz, a third and 3, still resulted in a Bills first down.
When Washington was able to get to Allen, the pressure came from the interior. Defensive tackle Daron Payne had a strong game, exploding through gaps to record two hits and nine hurries. He narrowly missed bringing Allen down a few times, notably on Buffalo’s conversion on third and 15 on its opening drive.
The edge rushers, though, were once again inconsistent — a pattern that has emerged this season. Young does not have a sack through three games and on Sunday, according to Next Gen Stats, he was on average 5.3 yards away from the quarterback per snap. That was higher than the league average of 4.52.
“I ain’t frustrated,” Young said. “I feel good running around out there. We got to play together; we’re not doing that right now.”
Young suggested the defense’s problems extend beyond the defensive line. And in a sense, he’s right. The play of the linebackers and secondary has not been pretty, and their performance is arguably a bigger reason why Washington has struggled so much to start the year
But remember, Young and Co. did not shy away from the talk that Washington’s defense — including the line — was already among the league’s best. “We could be the top defense in the league,” Young said in June. Edge rusher Montez Sweat, too, floated the idea he and Young could set the all-time sack record for a pass-rushing duo.
An elite defensive line can make up for shortcomings elsewhere because quarterbacks under pressure have to get the ball out faster.
Here’s another example of just how different the line has been in 2021: Washington has recorded a sack on just 4.7% of the opposing team’s dropbacks — 11th lowest in the league. A year ago, that percentage was 8.2 — fourth highest. The Burgundy and Gold have had six sacks, with three to defensive tackle Jonathan Allen, two to Sweat and one to cornerback Kendall Fuller.
So, what’s different? Rivera paused for a moment when asked.
“I just think people know who they are,” Rivera said. “They’re getting a little bit more attention right now, and it’ll be interesting to see what happens next week.”
Rivera has pointed out that this year, Young and Sweat are seeing more chips and double teams at the line of scrimmage. According to ESPN last week, only the Tampa Bay Buccaneers faced more protections of six players or more over the first two games than Washington. Teams understand the threat that the Burgundy and Gold’s defensive line presents and are reacting accordingly.
It will now be on Washington to make the adjustments to the adjustments. Last week against the Giants, there was progress — Washington pressured the Giants on 47% of their dropbacks, according to Next Gen Stats. But that appeared to take a step back against the Bills.
“My expectations were to play better than we did, to be honest,” Rivera said.