ASHBURN — Before the 2020 NFL draft, the Washington Football Team met with quarterback Justin Herbert. The team was hardly set at the position, even with 2019 first-rounder Dwayne Haskins, and so coach Ron Rivera took a close look at the Oregon product.
He was a fan.
“Tremendous arm,” Rivera said.
But in the end, Washington drafted defensive end Chase Young second overall — a pick that Washington has no reason to regret, even if the team still lacks a long-term answer at quarterback.
“You draft who you think you need,” Rivera said, “and that’s what we did.”
Young, without a doubt, was who Washington needed at the time. With Young on the edge, a new coaching staff and other upgrades, the 2020 defense improved dramatically — going from sixth-worst to third-best in the league, according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA rankings, a metric that measures efficiency. That turnaround was the league’s eighth-biggest year-to-year improvement dating back to 1983.
This week, Washington will prepare for Herbert — now with the Los Angeles Chargers, who come to FedEx Field for a Week 1 showdown Sunday at 1 p.m. The matchup pits the reigning defensive (Young) and offensive (Herbert) rookies of the year against each other, but that almost misses the larger point: Herbert is just one of the many excellent quarterbacks Washington will have to face this season as the team’s defense looks to take another step forward.
The quality of opposing quarterback play — and the strength of schedule as a whole — is why most experts expect Washington’s defense to take a step back over the next few months. In the NFL, defensive success can be fleeting and Washington will likely have a tough time replicating its top-five ranking from a year ago.
If — or when — the dropoff happens, the question becomes whether the regression will be severe enough to tank Washington’s season.
“Put it this way: It’s harder to retain a top-five defense year over year, or a top-three defense year over year, than a top 10 defense,” said Football Outsiders editor-in-chief Aaron Schatz. “Washington’s defense could decline and still be a top 10 defense. … It’s very difficult to have to a top three or a top five defense for multiple years in a row.”
Schatz said there isn’t an obvious category in which Washington will likely fall off dramatically. Instead, the changes will be more subtle. A few more passes completed, here and there. Perhaps a worse third-down percentage. Normally when teams regress defensively, it’s because they were heavily reliant on forcing turnovers the year prior — something that Washington ranked near the middle of the pack last year.
As strong as Washington’s defense was in 2020, the team benefited from facing a number of backup quarterbacks. Of its seven wins, these were the following quarterbacks by the end of the fourth quarter: Carson Wentz, Ben DiNucci, Ryan Finley, Andy Dalton, Ben Roethlisberger, Nick Mullens and Nate Sudfeld. Five of those were backups. The others were the second-lowest rated passer in football (Wentz) and a near 40-year-old (Roethlisberger).
Washington understood the circumstances, which is why it tried to address weaknesses in the offseason. The team signed a No. 1 corner in William Jackson — a move Schatz particularly liked. It drafted linebacker Jamin Davis and cornerback Benjamin St-Juste, two potential Week 1 starters. And schematically, Washington wants to play more man-to-man after going heavy on zone defense in 2020.
Rivera said what he’s concerned about regarding the defense is the team’s “maturity level.” In other words, can the team handle its success from a year ago and build upon it?
Rivera generally had strong defenses in Carolina, but had a mixed track record of carrying over that dominance from year to year. Twice, Rivera’s Panthers had a top-five defense but failed to retain that ranking the following year — falling from third to 14th in 2014 and third to 10th in 2016. In eight-plus seasons, Carolina finished with a top 10 defense in four of those years.
“Is it hard to get back there? It shouldn’t be, in my opinion, if you have the right approach,” Rivera said. “Especially if you’ve got a lot of the same guys back and you’ve added on a couple of pieces, you feel good about that. You hope you’re building and it’s trending in the right direction. That’s what I hope I’m seeing right now.”
The hope for Washington is that if the defense takes a step back, the offense will be improved enough to make up for any lost ground. The team hasn’t had a top 10 offense by DVOA standards since Kirk Cousins was under center in 2016. The team ranked dead last in that category last year, bringing in quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and a slew of playmakers to try and fix it.
Washington is also counting on younger players like Young and Montez Sweat to continue to progress.
““Hype doesn’t mean anything at the end of this day,” cornerback Kendall Fuller said. “This is a business where it’s all about production. It’s all about what you did lately. Anything that we did last year, it could sound good, but it doesn’t mean anything.”