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The 5 O’Clock Club: Is the Washington defense better than we think it is?

It’s 5 o’clock somewhere…

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Washington Football Team Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The 5 o’clock club is published from time to time during the season, and aims to provide a forum for reader-driven discussion at a time of day when there isn’t much NFL news being published. Feel free to introduce topics that interest you in the comments below.


I often see fans saying that the defense is ‘supposed’ to be the strength of the team this year, but that it isn’t really performing up to expectations. I wanted to consider that idea critically this morning.

Opponents’ scoring

In Weeks 2 through 5, the Washington Football Team gave up 30, 34, 31, and 30 points. I used my calculator; that’s 31.25 points per game. The Football Team lost all four of those games.

In the five games since, the Football Team has surrendered 20, 3, 23, 30, and 9 points. which is just 17 points per game on average.

According to the website TeamRankings.com, the WFT ranks:

  • 10th overall in opponents’ points per game allowed at 22.7.
  • 7th in the league over the past 3 games
  • tied for 3rd for Week 11 play.

NFL scoring is up

This New York Times article only covers the first four weeks of the season, but consider what it has to say:

Through four weeks of the 2020 season, the average combined score of a game is 51.3 points, an increase of 16 percent over the same period a year ago and a roughly 20 percent increase in the average score of games since 2000.

Fifty-two times in the 63 games played during the first four weeks, a team has scored 30 or more points. In the same period last season, that happened 30 times. Teams have scored 35 or more points 16 times this season, a 78 percent increase compared with games played during the first four weeks of last season.

Here’s a screen shot of the offensive PPG for the 32 teams in the league at 23 November:

While not strictly ‘scientific’, I totaled the scoring per game from the first (2020) and last (2019) columns on the chart.

2019 = 726.5 (22.7 ppg per team)

2020 = 796.4 (24.89 ppg per team)

Teams are scoring two points per game more than they did last year through the same time period. While that’s not the 16% increase reported for the first four weeks of the season, it still represents a 9.6% increase in points scored from 2019 to 2020.

What’s my point?

Well, for one thing, I think that fans have an idea in their minds about what’s reasonable for a defense to give up, but points scored is a number that has been trending up in the NFL for the past 50 years. Consider this chart from the NY Times article quoted above.

Point scoring is at an all-time high, and fans may not have adjusted their expectations about how successful their favorite team’s defense should be in limiting opposing offensive scoring. Washington ranks tenth overall in Points per Game Allowed for the full season, but has done much better in recent weeks.

How has the strength of the opposing offenses affected that overall performance?

Well, there seems to be some correlation.

  • The four games in which the Football Team surrendered 30 points or more happen to be the four offenses that rank highest in scoring on the Washington schedule.
  • The other six games seem to be less correlated, but the two games in which the opponent scored in single digits also happen to be the two games in which the opposing quarterback was knocked out of the game, though, in both cases, the starting quarterback played well into the third quarter before being injured or concussed.
  • Taken as a whole, Washington’s opponents rank slightly below average in scoring offense, with an average ranking of 20.8 (16.5 would indicate an “average” group of opponents).

It seems as if Washington’s defense is getting a little bump from the strength (or lack of strength) of its opponents, but I don’t think that, by itself, explains the top-10 ranking.

A tale of two halves

One reason that fans seem to feel that the defense isn’t performing may be its slow starts. The Washington defense under Jack Del Rio has been, in some ways, the corollary of Jay Gruden’s teams.

Under Jay, the team often played well in the first half, then came out inexplicably flat in the third quarter, where it often lost games with 15 minutes of terrible play. Jay and his staff seemed to game plan well for a team, but were unable to adjust once the two teams got a look at what the other was doing on the field.

Rivera and Del Rio seem to take a conservative approach that sees the Football Team’s defense underperform to open the game, often allowing a score on the opening drive, then adjusting well and usually playing superior football in the second half.

Of course, since opponents are mostly defending a lead in the second half, the defensive stats may be unduly benefiting from conservative opponents’ play in the 3rd and 4th quarters.

It may be that, from a fan perspective, the lack of success in the first quarter overshadows the good play in the second half in fans’ minds — especially since the team has lost 70% of its games. The “this defense sucks” comments during the first 30 minutes hold a stronger position in fan perception than “Wow, they’ve really shut them down since halftime”, especially when the team loses.

Defensive rank (scoring) by quarter:

  • 1st quarter - 30th (6.7 ppq allowed)
  • 2nd quarter - 25th (9.0 ppq allowed)
  • 3rd quarter - 3rd (2.0 ppq allowed)
  • 4th quarter - 5th (5.0 ppq allowed)

The defensive unit is, rather amazingly, a bottom-10 unit in the first half (bottom-3 in the 1st quarter!), then a top 5 unit in the second half (top-3 in the third quarter!).

I think that this is part of the “experimentation” that Rivera is carrying out with his football team this season — tinkering with rosters and styles of play — as much as it is game script (that is, defensive success in the second half as a result of conservative opponent play).

I also think the coaches may actually be coaching during the game — explaining to their young players what they are seeing on the field and how to adjust to it — and that this may be another reason why the defense has been so much more successful in the final two stanzas.

The real key to future (and sustained) success is to start games faster — especially in the second quarter, when the team is giving up the most points (9.0). If the defense could get off to a faster start, and give up, say, the league median of about 12 points per first half instead of the current rate of 15.7, it would go a long way towards making the team more competitive in most games. In a league where most games are decided by a touchdown or less, 3.7 points per first half could represent the difference between a winning record and a losing one.

Let’s consider a few other measurable statistics

Yards per game
Washington’s defense ranks 6th overall in yards per game surrendered.

Red Zone Scoring Percentage (TDs only)
Washington ranks 5th overall in this metric, at 53.57%

Sacks per game:
Washington is tied for 3rd overall, with 3.2 sacks per game (up from 2.9 per game in 2019). Interestingly, the team averages 4.2 per game at home but only 1.8 per game on the road, but the sample sizes are small.

Opponent 3rd down conversion percentage:
Washington ranks 9th overall at 38.64%. This compares to 2019 when the Redskins defense ranked dead last in the league at 48.9%.

Opponent 4th down conversion percentage:
Washington is tied for 5th overall at 41.67%. This compares to 2019 when the Redskins defense ranked 30thin the league at 69.23%.

Across an array of key traditional statistics, whether scoring, yards, red zone defense, sacks or 3rd & 4th down conversions, Washington’s defensive unit is consistently showing up in the top-ten.

(The only metric I looked up that wasn’t top-10 was defensive takeaways, where the WFT defense is ranked 19th (t) in the league at 1.1 takeways per game)

Football Outsiders DVOA

I think most fans are aware of DVOA — enough that I’m willing to say here that if you don’t know what it is and you want to know, a quick Google search should enlighten you. DVOA is an advanced metric that is proprietary to Football Outsiders.

Currently, the Washington Football Team defense ranks 7th in overall defensive DVOA. They are rated 5th in Pass Defense and 14th in Run Defense.

This indicates that there’s not just smoke & mirrors at play with the traditional stats and opposing offenses, as DVOA is created to factor things like strength of opposition into the calculations. While no single statistical measurement, no matter how well designed, can absolutely measure the effectiveness of an NFL team, these DVOA rankings tend to confirm what my more traditional analysis above indicates; that is, the Washington Football Team defense is actually playing pretty well — that they are, in fact, a top-ten defense.

While fans are often ascribing losses to poor defensive play, Del Rio’s squad seems to be holding up its end of things; the issues seem to be with the offense.

So, is there any hope for the offense?

The $64,000,000 question in DC right now is whether the offense can play well enough for the team to win more often than it loses, and win against quality competition.

That question deserves its own article, but I want to address it briefly here.

Let’s look at the offensive output in a manner similar to how we looked at defensive success earlier:

I sorted this chart for myself by week, by points, and by quarterback. While there is no really strong correlation, the most significant single factor seems to be the strength of the opposing defense.

  • Five of the team’s 6 highest scores this season have come against the 5 of the 6 lowest ranked defenses.
  • Four of the team’s 5 lowest scores have come against 4 of the 5 highest ranked defenses.

The offense is badly underperforming overall, ranked 29th — ahead of only the Giants, Bears and Jets.

A few offensive players are showing signs of improvement — most notably Antonio Gibson.

But the biggest X-factor in the Football Team’s offensive performance is likely to be at the quarterback position. Ron Rivera has given every indication that we will probably see Alex Smith behind center for the balance of the season.

Here’s a list of the remaining opponents and their defensive rankings:

Washington’s three wins have come this season against opponents who all had overall defensive ranks between 16 - 32.

This chart indicates that the team will face three teams in that range — Philly, Seattle and Dallas — two of whom Washington has already beaten this season.

There are two games looming against Pittsburgh (No. 1) and the Niners that promise to challenge the Washington offense.

The Carolina game sits on the cusp, with the Panthers ranked 15th in overall team scoring defense.

A lot depends on what you think about Washington playing its divisional rivals on the road on Thanksgiving and in Week 17, and what you think of Alex Smith’s ability to run the Scott Turner scheme.

Personally, I am an Alex Smith believer, but I am pessimistic about winning in Dallas on Turkey Day.

When I look a the question of whether the offense can do enough to win, I really only feel good about the final three games of the season, but if the Football Team loses three in a row to fall to 3-10, I’m not sure how likely they are to play up to their potential in Weeks 15-17. They have the capacity to finish the season with between 3 and 5 wins if things go badly over the next three weeks.

So, in my mind, a lot rides on this week’s game against Dallas. If Washington can beat Dallas and go 1-2 over the next three games, I think they have a chance to go 2-1 or 3-0 in the final three games, which would mean a final record of either 6-10 or 7-9, either of which could be enough to win the division, especially if it includes a 4-2 division record.

The Cowboys, however, have played very well for the past two weeks against good competition, while Washington has played pretty well against lesser competition. The Cowboys have not played like the worst defense in the league in November. giving up 23, 24 and 28 points as the team has gone 1-2 against the Eagles, Steelers and Vikings. In short, they appear to be back from the dead.

Every team in the NFC East faces similar schedules involving NFC West and AFC North rivals between now and the end of the season, but Dallas plays the Ravens, Bengals and 49ers, which is probably the most favorable set of non-divisional games among the four teams. It’s probably up to Washington to beat Dallas in front of a national audience this Thursday if the team wants to both stay in contention and prevent Dallas from having the easiest path to a division title.

It should be a very interesting game to watch.

I hope it’s enjoyable for Washington fans as well as interesting, or we could see attention pivoting to the 2021 draft very quickly as November turns to December.

Poll

Predict Washington’s record in its remaining 6 games

This poll is closed

  • 2%
    0-6
    (18 votes)
  • 10%
    1-5
    (69 votes)
  • 36%
    2-4
    (233 votes)
  • 33%
    3-3
    (215 votes)
  • 11%
    4-2
    (76 votes)
  • 3%
    5-1
    (20 votes)
  • 2%
    6-0
    (14 votes)
645 votes total Vote Now

Poll

In your opinion, should the Washington Football Team defense be considered a top-10 unit?

This poll is closed

  • 45%
    Yes
    (247 votes)
  • 54%
    No
    (297 votes)
544 votes total Vote Now