- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 21, 2022

There was one play from Saturday’s 24-14 preseason loss to the Kansas City Chiefs that particularly bothered Ron Rivera, one that irked him enough that the Commanders coach brought it up as an example to illustrate his team’s lack of discipline in the pass rush. 

With 13:22 left to go in the first half on third-and-goal, the Commanders generated strong pressure from the backside on Patrick Mahomes. But defensive end Casey Toohill overshot his rush on the opposite end — giving the Chiefs quarterback the freedom to step aside and avoid the team’s closing rushers. On the run, Mahomes calmly fired off a dart to tight Jody Fortson for the touchdown. It was another missed chance to make the stop. 

“You have to stick to the process,” Rivera said. “You have to do your job.”

Toohill’s mistake was hardly the first time that Rivera harped on the team’s defensive line for failing to be in sync. Last season, the coach repeatedly stressed the need for the team’s line to stay within their rush lanes. The issues led to breakdowns and were one of the main reasons that Washington’s front regressed in 2021. 

Perhaps as concerning for Washington, Rivera has already taken a dramatic approach to try and get the line to play better. Just weeks ago, Rivera fired defensive line coach Sam Mills III and promoted Jeff Zgonina to take over the role. Rivera didn’t say much about why he made the change, but made clear he felt it was needed after going through a large chunk of the offseason.

But the problems keep happening.

“This is team defense,” Rivera said. “You don’t just run around the edge. You have to be disciplined and we have to make sure we coach them up to be disciplined. As always, we have to go back and look at what we are doing and we have to make sure what we are doing gives them a chance to succeed.”

The pass-rush troubles contributed to another week of horrific third-down defense. After the Carolina Panthers converted 61% of their third downs last week, the Commanders allowed the Chiefs to go 9 of 15 in that area — including 6 of 6 when Mahomes was on the field.  Through two preseason games, opponents are 20 of 33 against Washington on third down. 

Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said last week that he tries to not overreact to the third-down woes because Washington still is, after all, in the preseason. That said, the Burgundy and Gold ranked 31st in third-down defense last year as opponents converted a first down 48.5% of the time. At some point, Washington is going to have to show it can consistently get off the field.

Against Kansas City, Washington showed little to no improvement in that regard. While the Commanders were better at putting the Chiefs‘ offense in longer to-go situations — say third-and-10 instead of third-and-3 —the Chiefs still managed to convert plenty. 

Kansas City’s longest play of the game — a 39-yard bomb from Mahomes to receiver Justin Watson — happened on third-and-10. There, Washington sent a six-rusher blitz and Mahomes still easily found Watson over safety Kam Curl.

Elsewhere, Mahomes expressed surprise at Washington’s approach. The 2018 MVP noted how the Commanders sent a fire-zone blitz in one instance on third-and-six, a play in which “they dropped the big guys and brought the little guys, which you don’t see a lot in the preseason.” Despite the aggression, Mahomes hit Watson again for a 14-yard gain.

Mahomes is one of the game’s greatest quarterbacks, but the plays highlighted Washington’s inability to hit home with pressure. In 2021, the Burgundy and Gold had just 11 sacks on third down — the sixth-fewest in the NFL. 

On every other down, Washington had 27 sacks — tied for ninth. 

 “We have to put it all together.,” linebacker Cole Holcomb said. “You can’t have a rush without coverage, and you can’t cover without a rush.  We have to learn how to play off each other.”

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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