Coming into the season the Washington Football Team had designs of repeating as NFC East champions and becoming a major force in the league being led by their young talented core on their vaunted defensive line, including Chase Young and Montez Sweat.
The thought was free-agent acquisition Ryan Fitzpatrick, a grizzled veteran quarterback, could master the scheme fast enough to take the offense from anemic to at least league average at which point the defense would take up the slack.
Well, in the first half of the season opener a tough pass rush knocked Fitzpatrick out for several weeks with a hip injury, and Washington’s star free agent receiver Curtis Samuel was sidelined from the offseason all the way through week three.
Then the defense that finished 2020 ranked second found itself sliced and diced by San Diego’s Justin Herbert, New York’s Daniel Jones, Buffalo’s Josh Allen and Atlanta’s Matt Ryan. The defense played pretty decent ball on first and second down, but third down turned out to be the defense’s Achilles’ heel.
Typically, every quarterback the WFT faced in the first third of the season found wide receivers, running backs and tight ends available to overcome third and long yardage dilemmas. In the first three weeks of the season, offenses scored touchdowns on their first possession. In week four there was a slight improvement as Matt Ryan and the Falcons were only able to muster a field goal.
In the absence of Fitzpatrick, Washington fan-favorite Taylor Heinicke has taken the reins and been a spark plug for what in 2020 was an anemic passing offense and mediocre offense overall. Heinicke’s statistics marked one of the best starts for a Washington quarterback in decades. His teammates believe a game is never over with Heinicke at the controls because of his never-give-up attitude.
While the Washington offense has been able to move the ball and has been plucky and productive. The defense has not held up their end of the bargain. The defense has given up 30 points every week except for week one. Getting off the field on third down has been a struggle, as has been getting to the opponent’s quarterbacks. Through five games, Chase Young only has one sack, and the secondary has struggled.
The secondary has given up wide-open touchdowns in every game. Inexplicable breakdowns in coverage have been frustrating to Rivera and defense coordinator Jack Del Rio. The front four were able to get pressure on New Orleans quarterback Jameis Winston in their fifth game this past weekend, and caused a fumble, and picked off Winston. But Winston also passed for four touchdowns, including a Hail Mary touchdown just before halftime.
Piled on top of the disappointing start for Washington’s defense are injuries that are piling up week after week. In week five, Brandon Scherff (OG), Logan Thomas (TE) and wideouts Dyami Brown and Cam Sims were inactive because of injuries. Before the New Orleans ended rookie Offensive Tackle, Sam Cosmi and receiver Curtis Samuel were added to that list.
After game 5 the frustration in Rivera’s voice was evident in the post-game press conference.
“I think we lack a little bit of confidence right now,” he said. “We have too many good football players to be where we are. Our record reflects what we are. We are a 2-3 football team.”
On Monday in his weekly interview with the Sports Junkies of 106.7 The FAN, Rivera voiced disappointment and said that this team was still in a rebuild, that the team still needed to learn and grow.
On the positive side, the offense has been able to move the football, and the pass rush which had struggled for four weeks is starting to play together and make plays. The front four did get pressure on Jameis, and caused two turnovers. While Heinicke suffered an off day in game 5, he has generally sparked and stabilized the offense. All is not lost yet for this season, there’s still an opportunity to grab a playoff spot. If the defensive line can consistently get pressure and stop the run, and the secondary at least stop having busted coverages every week. There’s some growth reason for optimism.