Can the Washington Commanders fix their godawful defense?

·10 min read

In the 2022 season, the Washington Commanders have faced two teams in the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Detroit Lions whose offenses are very much under construction. In those two games, Jack Del Rio’s defense has been its opponents’ most willing contractors. In Week 1, Jacksonville’s Trevor Lawrence completed 24 of 42 passes for 275 yards, one touchdown, and one interception, and the Commanders won, 28-22. My sense was, had the Commanders faced Lawrence about a month down the road in Doug Pederson’s offense, it would be a different story.

Last Sunday, the Commanders got it handed to them by the Detroit Lions — Del Rio’s defense allowed Jared Goff (of all people) to complete 20 of 34 passes for 256 yards… and four touchdowns. Goff did not have a great game — there were times when he just couldn’t hit what he needed to in the red zone — but he was given all kinds of help by Washington’s coverage busts. Receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown had a career game with nine catches for 116 yards and two touchdowns, adding 68 rushing yards on two carries.

And that’s what we really need to talk about when we talk about the Commanders’ defense. Coverage busts, over and over. We saw them last season, when Washington allowed the NFL’s most passing touchdowns — 34, to just 11 interceptions. That defense also allowed 400 catches on 597 attempts for 4,542 yards, a completion rate of 67.0%, a yards per attempt allowed of 7.6, an opponent passer rating of 100.9, and an opponent EPA of 67.90.

Things were no better in the preseason, when Washington’s defense allowed Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs to rip it apart with even more busted looks. You do not want to give Patrick Mahomes any help.

“Well, we hope to be better, right,” Del Rio said in June of his 2022 defense. “It’s clearly, it starts with a commitment to being here and working and being able to get on the same page, make sure the communication is good. I think that kind of gives you a great start, a great foundation. So right now we’re getting a lot of great work in. There are guys that are developing,

“This time of year, you can develop and gain a great understanding of how we all fit together and defensively, that’s what it’s all about. Kind of knowing where you need to go and everybody being accountable and getting there, playing with some attitude.”

So far, the Commanders’ attitude on defense has been, “Hey, we’re going to let your passing game throw a party at our expense.” As it was in the preseason. As it was in 2021 on Del Rio’s watch.

Before we get into how to fix all this, let’s review how the Lions game went, and where the issues lie.

Communication issues run rampant.

(Syndication: Detroit Free Press)

“There are a lot of young guys on that football field for us,” head coach Ron Rivera said the day after the Lions game. “The big thing is when you’re playing young guys, you’re going to have to work through some mistakes.

“We have different teaching and coaching techniques that you try to use. Everything from just your general basic meeting to using videos, to providing them with notes,” Rivera explained. “We have stuff that we put on the iPad, we go through walkthroughs. We give them tests. We go through a variety of different teaching techniques that we try to get through to these guys.”

A lot of defenses have young players. Coaches are supposed to be cognizant of inexperience overall, and inexperience in a scheme, and act accordingly. Anybody could throw up a bunch of coverages and fronts, hoping it would eventually kick in, but making it kick in is a different story.

It certainly didn’t work against Amon-Ra St. Brown, and St. Brown’s detail of one play in that game was particularly embarrassing.

St. Brown’s first explosive play was a 49-yard catch with 10:18 left in the first quarter. Washington was playing some misbegotten version of Cover-1 — man coverage across with a single-high safety — and somehow, Detroit’s best receiver was left alone to catch and run as he pleased.

“No one even knew I had the ball,” St. Brown said after the game. “I don’t even think the safety that was looking at me knew I had the ball, and all I hear from the defense is, ‘Oh, [expletive],’ from everyone. And I knew — I knew at that point it was going to be a big play.”

Del Rio and his staff are not asking/teaching their players to do the right things.

(Syndication: Detroit Free Press)

St. Brown’s first of two touchdown catches, a 13-yarder with 1:45 left in the first quarter, may have been the worst example of Washington’s coverage all day. But there was more to it than just bad coverage. The Lions ran crossers over the middle with receiver DJ Chark to the left, and tight end T.J. Hockenson to the right, and basically, everything that could go wrong, did.

So, with Washington’s two safeties trying to figure it out, and St. Brown outside right, how did that touchdown happen? Well, the Commanders had cornerback William Jackson III, one of the best press cornerbacks in the NFL when he was in Cincinnati, playing St. Brown five yards off at the snap. In my article detailing why the team was wise to sign Jackson (I gave the deal an A+), I also pointed out that while Jackson is great in press coverage, he can get lost in the supermarket if he’s playing off the receiver.

On this play, Jackson was rough in his backpedal, and he had no help up top. Neither of the two safeties — McCain or Forrest — played to the passing strength. Detroit had three receivers to the right side after Josh Reynolds motioned over, and at least three receivers were wide-ass open when Jared Goff released the ball — St. Brown, Hockenson, and Chark.

If you want Jackson to play off-coverage this often, you need to at least teach him how to do it. Jackson let St. Brown establish inside position in the end zone, and he had no shot.

Let’s use one of Eagles cornerback Darius Slay’s two interceptions against the Vikings on Monday night as an example. Slay was playing 10 yards off Justin Jefferson at the snap — which, in the hands of most cornerbacks, would be an absolute disaster. But Slay is a smart veteran who excels in off coverage. Watch how he puts himself about where he knows Kirk Cousins is going to throw the ball, bodies Jefferson out of the spot, and puts himself in position to be the only guy to make the catch.

The question becomes: Do you think Washington’s staff is teaching Jackson how to be better and more consistent in off coverage? Or better and more consistent in anything else, for that matter?

Washington's run defense is also terrible.

(Syndication: Detroit Free Press)

If there’s a bright spot in Washington’s terrible pass defense, it’s that we’re not paying enough attention to their terrible run defense. That ends now. The Commanders gave up 123 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries to the Jaguars, and 191 yards on 24 carries against the Lions. Washington has allowed a league-worst 7.5 yards per carry, and the only reason they’ve allowed just one rushing touchdown is that touchdowns through the air have been so easy to come by.

On this 50-yard D’Andre Swift run with 6:22 left in the first quarter, Detroit’s blockers have this on lock before Swift even gets to the line of scrimmage.

The rest of the play didn’t go any better for the Commanders. Were it not for McCain chasing Swift down from the other side of the field, this would have been a 57-yard house call. It’s important to note that in tackles Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne, edge defender Montez Sweat, and linebacker Jamin Davis, Washington had four first-round players in its front seven here.

How can they fix this?

(Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)

“I like to think we’re still looking forward,” Rivera said Monday of his defense. “When they get down to the detail of what we do, then that’s where we just gotta continue to work it, make sure that we all understand it…and we’ll go from there.”

We have to ask what the detail of what they do actually is, because we’re certainly not seeing it.

Generally speaking, most immediate defensive improvements are made by new coordinators who come in and break everything down to the basics. That’s not to say that these coaches are trying to make their defenses simplistic, but they would prefer their players to act as opposed to reacting, and to move quickly as opposed to overthinking. In the NFL, a second is a lifetime, and if you have too many things in your head, you’re not going to be where you need to be. That’s just as true if you’re asked to hit the field without any plan at all.

If you look back to the Dallas’ Cowboys’ 2020 defense under Mike Nolan, you see a defense that was often working against itself, because the players weren’t buying into Nolan’s playbook, and it was a public thing.

“That [criticism] is outside-the-building noise. It doesn’t really affect us inside the building,” linebacker Joe Thomas said that season. “If there was an effort issue, it would’ve been addressed inside the building. I don’t think that was an issue at all. It’s just communication. When we’re all on the same page and we know what’s going on, we play faster and it looks a lot better.”

Communication? Sound familiar? That Cowboys defense finished 23rd in DVOA. Dallas replaced Nolan with Dan Quinn in 2021, and Quinn brought two concepts that are fundamental to him — make the fronts tough to defend with their multiplicity, and make the coverages somewhat multiple, but simple enough for even the kids to carry it to the field. The 2021 Cowboys ranked second in Defensive DVOA.

It’s easy to say that Micah Parsons made all the difference, and that the light went on for Trevon Diggs… but as we have asked before, do we really think that Washington’s defensive staff would have helped Parsons to become a weaponized edge-rusher, or walked Diggs through his own coverage busts to the other side?

Whether it’s Del Rio or somebody else, somebody needs to cut out whatever is causing these players to be so hesitant, and in the wrong places so often. Until and unless that happens, the Commanders have no shot at contention, no matter how dynamic their offense may be.

The Commanders face the Eagles and their amazing offense this Sunday, so… maybe fix a few things this week, guys.

Story originally appeared on Touchdown Wire