The Saints game was a bit of a gut punch. Watching the game, I got the sense that, if the team had played to their potential, they would have handed the Saints a loss. Instead, we saw more confusion, coverage breakdowns and poor tackling that have plagued the defense all season, and Taylor Heinicke had a pair of brutally bad interceptions — one of which ended a scoring drive and the other of which put the defense in a bad situation defending a short field.
The result was that fan confidence, as measured by the weekly SB Nation poll, dived to its lowest point of the 2021 season, with just 33% of Hogs Haven readers who responded saying that they currently feel confident in the direction of the franchise.
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While there might be some concern about the offensive side of the ball, in all honesty, I doubt that’s driving the loss of confidence. Taylor Heinicke is the ultimate “gamer” and is a great story and easy to root for. He has offered more good news than bad this season. The offensive line has been a net positive. For example, per PFF, Washington’s OL has the highest team pass-blocking grade in the NFL, and they have given up the 3rd-fewest sacks in the league behind only the Rams & Bills. The team is 12th in points per game and has been one of the most successful teams in the league in converting on 2nd down, meaning that the offense is extending drives without having to run a high number of 3rd down plays.
Offensively, the team has improved since last season, and players like Terry McLaurin, Antonio Gibson and JD McKissic have contributed heavily over the first 5 games, and even players limited by injury like Logan Thomas and Curtis Samuel have been able to watch their replacements play competently.
The problem has been on defense, where Jack Del Rio’s group has regressed.
It’s not really the entire defense — the problems have been focused on the back end. Going back to PFF, the defensive line is currently 2nd in pass rush grade, 2nd in pass rush win %, 4th in pressure %, and 5th in hurries. While Washington’s defense has an 84.6 pass-rush grade (2nd best in NFL), the secondary has earned a 39.1 coverage grade (2nd worst)
There’s no reason it should be this way.
The off-season they wanted — 10 draft picks and plenty of salary cap space
Washington’s front office and coaching staff had every opportunity this offseason to build the linebacker, cornerback and safety groups they wanted.
At linebacker, in the draft, the front office passed on Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, who played 68 defensive snaps for the Browns in Week 5, in favor of Jamin Davis, who played 13 snaps against the Saints. While PFF grades are not always the best way to compare players, JOK has a 5-game defensive grade of 85.3, while Davis has earned a grade of 51.9 — a large enough differential to raise eyebrows.
There’s nothing to say that Davis won’t develop into a superior linebacker with time — he certainly has the physical tools — but the front office chose to rely on him coming into the season, when they could have tried to hold onto Kevin Pierre-Louis, who played for Washington last year, but who signed with the Texans in free agency. Houston signed him to a 2-year, $6.8m contract, so it wasn’t concern for salary cap that caused the front office to let KPL go. Imagine how different things would be if he were still here in 2021.
The roster move that seems to have bothered most fans is the training camp decision to cut Jimmy Moreland, who also ended up with the Texans. Honestly, that didn’t surprise me or bother me much. Moreland hasn’t yet played a defensive snap this season, though he will eventually.
Rather, the big move at CB by the front office was the decision to let Ronald Darby leave in free agency and pay more money to replace him with William Jackson. Darby was more of a zone corner, while Jackson is known for his man-to-man skills.
This seemed to be an odd decision until the team drafted Benjamin St-Juste, a low-profile college cornerback with great length and a physical style of play. The combination of Jackson and St-Juste seemed to signal that the defense would play an entirely different scheme in 2021 — one that would be more complementary to the strong pass rush that the DL was expected to provide.
We’ve seen Jackson struggling to adjust to the defensive scheme and techniques that Rivera and Del Rio want him to play, and the overall cornerback play through 5 weeks has appeared…uncomfortable.
At the safety position, there was a major addition, as the team signed Bobby McCain after his release from the Dolphins. The return of Landon Collins from injury also changed the complexion of the position.
Popular player, Jeremy Reaves, who played well in the final few games of 2020, ended up back on the practice squad, and, at least initially, Collins played more snaps at strong safety than did 2nd year player, Kamren Curl.
The mix of snaps at different positions has varied a lot for these three players (McCain, Collins, Curl) through the first five weeks as coaches have tinkered around, looking for the right mix.
McCain has played free safety almost exclusively, though his snap counts dipped in Weeks 2 & 3 as Curl took more snaps at free safety.
In Weeks 4 & 5 however, Curl hasn’t lined up at FS at all, leaving that to McCain for the most part. In those two weeks, Curl has lined up at slot corner 54 times, compared to just 14 snaps in the slot in the previous two weeks. In Weeks 4 & 5, Collins has lined up in the box 79 times, compared to just 45 snaps in Weeks 2 & 3.
While the secondary showed some signs of improvement in Week 5 against the Saints, there were still several breakdowns, leading to some huge game-changing plays as a result of poor or busted coverage.
No excuses for the coaches and front office
The point I’m trying to make here is that the coaches & front office (which, in Washington right now means Ron Rivera) made the 2nd & 3rd levels of the defense in the image that they wanted.
They picked Jamin Davis over other options like JOK and seem to have deliberately let Kevin PIerre-Louis walk in free agency. They paid William Jackson more to come here in free agency than Ronald Darby was paid to leave, and they kept Darryl Williams instead of Jimmy Moreland once they’d seen both of them in camp and preseason. At safety, they chose to add Bobby McCain while relegating Jeremy Reaves to the practice squad, and they’ve stuck with Landon Collins despite his repeated mistakes on run fits, busted coverages and missed tackles.
The coaches got the defense they wanted, which means fans have every right to expect that defense to perform at a high level.
Instead, it is ranked in the bottom 6 in the league in major defensive categories, and is 31st in points allowed.
The effect on fan confidence is predictable.
It’s not the win-loss record by itself that is driving the downward trend, but the play of the hand-picked defensive secondary and the coaches’ apparent lack of any answers to the ongoing problems.
Meanwhile, in Kansas City
I mentioned that Washington is ranked 31st in points surrendered.
You’ll never guess who’s 32nd…
While Washington is giving up 31 points per game, KC is giving up a league-worst 32.6 points per game! When Patrick Mahomes and the offense are scoring 36 a game, that’s not a huge problem, but they are, instead, averaging 30.8 points per game.
As a result, the Chiefs, like the Football Team, are 2-3 and looking for wins. Unlike Washington, who sit in 2nd place in the NFC East, Kansas City is all alone in last place in the AFC West.
Washington fans entered this season expecting either a division win or a 2nd place finish in the NFCE behind the Cowboys. Chiefs fans expected to be in the AFC Championship game, so their current situation seems perhaps a bit more dire in light of the greater expectations. That is reflected in their fan confidence, which has fallen to just 26%.
Chiefs fans are, no doubt, looking for a ‘get well’ game at FedEx Field on Sunday. Washington fans, though possibly hopeful, likely doubt their team’s ability to come away with a win in Week 6, though the Chiefs have not proven to be the same juggernaut this season that they had been in the previous couple of years when they made back-to-back superbowl appearances. The losses so far have come to the Ravens, Chargers and Bills — all likely playoff teams — while Andy Reid handed his old team, the Philadelphia Eagles, a right good thrashing, 42-30, in Week 4. Chances are good that KC fan confidence makes a bit of a rebound in Week 6, while Washington fan confidence is likely to take another hit.
Looking at NFC East fan confidence, the Eagles fans, whose team’s 2-3 record is identical to that of the Washington Football Team, have an identical 33% confidence level. Giants fans are aligned with KC fans, with both sitting at 26%. Cowboys fans are riding high at 85% confidence, the highest its been among Dallas fans so far in this young season.
Week 6 sees the following matchups for the NFC East division teams:
Thursday Night Football
- Buccaneers -7 @ Eagles
- Chiefs -7 @ Washington
- Rams -9.5 @ Giants
- Cowboys -3.5 @ Patriots
The silver lining (a pretty dim one) is that if all 4 games follow the point spreads, then the Eagles and Giants won’t pass Washington in the standings, and Washington will have at least two days in sole possession of 2nd place, but I think every non-Cowboys NFC East fan needs to be pulling for the Patriots to get the home upset this week. Even better, Washington’s defense needs to find the “on” switch and shock the NFL by winning at home against the Chiefs. Right now, Washington is 2 games behind the Cowboys; I really don’t want to see us fall 3 games back at the end of Week 6.