- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 28, 2022

ASHBURN —  As the ball snapped, Montez Sweat came flying off the edge and into the Washington Commanders’ backfield. The 25-year-old defensive end pulled up just in time to avoid making contact with quarterback Carson Wentz after easily dispatching the player tasked with blocking him, tight end Armani Rodgers.

That’s when the woofing began.

“Don’t put no tight end on me!” Sweat screamed. “Don’t put no [expletive] tight end on me!”

Sweat’s exuberance was appropriate for a day in which the defense thoroughly dominated the Commanders’ offense. And as the practice progressed, the chirping — not just from Sweat — got louder and louder. Even defensive backs coach Chris Harris joined in, shouting “We concede nothing!” after yet another incompletion. 

But after the final practice period, coach Ron Rivera gathered his team for a lengthy huddle. He used the session not to chew out the offense for a poor day, but to issue a reminder for the defense: There’s a fine line between celebrating and overdoing it. 

Rivera’s speech underscored what’s been another point of emphasis of the offseason for the Burgundy and Gold — humility. That lesson makes sense to anyone who paid attention to the Commanders last season. This was a defensive unit, after all, that openly spoke about breaking records before falling way short of expectations. The defense went from a top-five unit in 2020 to one of the league’s worst. 

Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio and his staff have been hammering the message to players throughout the offseason, Rivera said. 

“We don’t want it to be destructive as much as we want it to be constructive,” Rivera said. “We should have gotten past those young years of stumping the chest and all that. Now it’s about putting my arm around and making and helping my teammate to understand how to be a better football player.”

Rivera said he thinks his players have largely followed through — and felt the defense was on the right side of the line in Thursday’s practice. They understood, he said, that the offense wasn’t game planning, or preparing for certain tendencies and coverages. He’s also seen it in meetings, sitting in to see how the message is taking hold.

“The focus now is, ‘Hey, let’s just do our jobs and we’ll go from there,’” Rivera said. 

Earlier in the offseason, Del Rio said that the Commanders had been served some “humble pie” in 2021.

It wasn’t just that outside analysts thought the team’s defense was among the best — players themselves fed into the hype. Star pass-rusher Chase Young said the group had the potential to be the best in the league. Sweat added more fuel, telling reporters he and Young could break the tandem all-time sack record. 

Young and Sweat ultimately combined for just 6½ sacks last season — or 32½ short of what’s believed to be the record held by former Vikings Chris Doleman and Keith Millard. 

In June, Sweat didn’t seem to regret making the comment. But his tone had also changed.

“I still feel like we’re still capable of those things, but I do feel like having the main goal of winning and all that will (take care of) itself,” he said. 

As the defense has gotten off to a fast start in camp, the difference in the on-field improvements is especially noticeable in the back end. Washington’s starting secondary mostly stayed the same this offseason — with the main exception being that cornerback Benjamin St-Juste is now the team’s primary nickel defender after safety Landon Collins was released in the offseason.

But the Commanders are playing with tight, sound coverage that has led to a flurry of incompletions for Wentz and the rest of the quarterbacks. On Thursday, linebacker Cole Holcomb picked off Wentz after corner Kendall Fuller made a diving effort to bat the ball up in the air. 

Yet as safety Bobby McCain — who once last season called on the media amid a slow start to “write the same (stuff), y’all been writing’ when “we start balling” — spoke with reporters, he didn’t make much of the practice. 

“Just coming out,” McCain said, “competing.” 

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

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