Third Down Defense Dooms Washington Football Team in Week 1 Loss

Washington Defense

Coming off their first division crown since 2015 and with perhaps their most talented team in the Daniel Snyder era, the Washington Football Team had sky-high expectations heading into a Week 1 duel with the Los Angeles Chargers. However, Chargers Quarterback Justin Herbert ended Head Coach Ron Rivera’s bid for a second consecutive Week 1 win in Washington. The final score – Chargers 20, Washington 16. Despite Ryan Fitzpatrick suffering a hip subluxation that could sideline him 6-8 weeks, the primary storyline for Washington in Week 1 is the performance of their uber-talented defense. 

Washington Football Team Defense Struggles Mightily on Third Down in Week 1 Loss

Last year, Washington’s defense ranked fourth in scoring, headlined by Chase Young and Montez Sweat. Nevertheless, a revamped Chargers offensive line got the best of them. Therefore paving way for Keenan Allen and Mike Williams to combine for 17 catches and 182 yards. All while Washington’s defense totaled just two sacks.

Moreover, the most concerning statistic for Washington is undoubtedly their third-down defense. Los Angeles converted 14 of 18 times on third down, including a back-breaking third and 16 on the final drive. This conversion rate could be attributed to all three levels of the Washington defense.

Chase Young and Company Stifled by the Chargers Offensive Line

The 2020 Defensive Rookie of the Year Chase Young is coming off a magical rookie season, where he had 8.5 sacks and an iconic fumble return for a touchdown against the San Francisco 49ers. However, Young was all but eliminated once again by Northwestern product Rashawn Slater. Young was matched up with Slater for 53 snaps on Sunday and recorded zero pressures. Later in the game, Young moved over to the right side and was still relatively quiet. Young did have one pressure, and recorded one tackle for loss against the run. 

Outside of Young, the rest of the Washington defensive line also had a limited impact on Herbert. While Sweat had more consistent pressure and recorded a strip-sack (a questionable call) on Herbert, there were far too many occasions in the second half where Herbert had a clean pocket on third down. The interior of Washington’s defensive line was also quiet as Matt Ioannidis and DaRon Payne both recorded zero quarterback hits. Jonathan Allen, with a sack and three quarterback hits, was Washington’s most productive defensive lineman. 

Another concern for Washington is depth off the edge, which has been a concern throughout the offseason. When Sweat or Young were rotated off, Casey Toohill and James Smith-Williams got limited pressure in passing downs. 

Jamin Davis has a Rough First Game as Linebackers Continue to be an Issue

Meanwhile, the linebacking corps, Washington’s glaring weaknesses heading into the season, struggled in coverage. While Cole Holcomb played relatively well, recording 11 tackles, a quarterback hit, and looking much improved in coverage, Jamin Davis had a rough first game as a pro, which is to be expected as he was projected to be a more “raw” player from Kentucky. He played 45 snaps and posted just two tackles. Davis may have the potential to become a great coverage linebacker, but he was not in for nickel packages. Rather, veteran Jon Bostic played alongside Holcomb. Bostic had eight tackles himself, but he does not have the upside in coverage, like Davis and Holcomb. This was obvious as Austin Ekeler broke a few runs and Jared Cook recorded five receptions. 

This off-season, Washington lost Kevin Pierre-Louis in free agency, creating an even thinner linebacker corps. Washington needed Davis to immediately step in as a difference-maker. Something that given his initial draft outlook, may have been unrealistic. This could be a sign of things to come for Washington who plays plenty of elite quarterbacks this season, including Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, and Tom Brady.

Kendall Fuller and Benjamin St-Juste Struggle as Washington Falters in both Man and Zone

As the pass rush was relatively absent, Washington’s secondary then had their own issues. This year’s major free-agent acquisition, William Jackson III, had a clutch red zone interception, 2020 free-agent signing Kendall Fuller had a rough start to the 2020 season. After an excellent 2020 campaign with four interceptions and 11 passes defended, Fuller missed multiple tackles and had a rough day in coverage with Keenan Allen in the slot. In addition to Fuller, 2021 third-round pick Benjamin St-Juste was under attack, especially in matchups with Mike Williams. St-Juste had solid coverage on Mike Williams’ touchdown reception following the Antonio Gibson fumble, but Herbert made a terrific back-shoulder throw. 

In the offseason, Washington made a clear emphasis on physical, press coverage with the additions of St-Juste and Jackson III. However, they could not contain Allen or Williams and seemed to miss defensive assignments in zone coverage, especially on the third and 16 late in the game. While Washington undoubtedly has a talented cornerback and safety trio, with Kamren Curl, Landon Collins, and Bobby McCain, who played well in his first game with Washington, it will need to work out these growing pains quickly with more elite quarterbacks on the horizon. 

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