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Film Session: Evaluating Washington’s starting defensive unit vs. Carolina

A breakdown on Washington’s first unit defense and how a few errors resulted in ten points for the Panthers

Carolina Panthers v Washington Commanders Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

There have been a lot of conversations surrounding the Commanders’ starting defense against the Carolina Panthers, rightfully so after the alarming output from 2021. Specifically, on third downs, Washington allowed the Panthers to convert 11 third downs on 18 attempts during the game. Carolina converted on 75 percent of their third downs in the first quarter when the starting unit played. Defensive Coordinator Jack Del Rio said, in short, he did not like it. “My reaction is not to overact, but I didn’t like it,” Del Rio said about the third down issues this past Saturday. “Sometimes things go like that. For us, it’s about getting to work and understanding why. There were three different cases of what transpired. Find out why correct it, and move on.” Rivera also noticed that the younger defensive backs had issues on Saturday. “You could see some of the young corners, DBs especially, the eye discipline, how bad it was because they missed so many things that they weren’t missing out here,” Head Coach Rivera said after Monday’s practice about his thoughts after watching the film.

“You can use ‘em as examples and again, just showing guys the important significance of why you run around a specific way, why you have to do certain things when you’re playing specific coverages, why it’s important that you fit the gap the way you’re supposed to. Those little details get magnified when you’re playing in an actual game. And that’s what happened for us. It gave us a great opportunity to talk about some things. Like on the touchdown pass that they threw against [CB] Kendall [Fuller]. There’s a couple things that could have happened prior to that, that would’ve helped put Kendall in a better position to defend that ball. So we were able to point that out. So those things really help, as I said, going forward.” - Rivera on what to specifically work on for position groups

Rivera and Del Rio understood things weren’t perfect in their reflection of last weekend’s game. So what exactly went wrong for the starting defense, specifically their first drive? Let’s take a look.

As stated in the tweet. Washington’s drive and third-down issues do not begin on third down but on the downs prior. With very good coverage here in the secondary, playing Cover 1 man, can the pass rush get to the quarterback?

The Panthers' interior linemen do a good job washing Daron Payne out of his rush lane, immediately clearing a window for Baker Mayfield to throw in or scramble. On the edge, Sweat does an excellent job in his bull rush, taking the tight end upfield and into the quarterback. However, when Mayfield drops his head, he’s able to locate the window that his center and guard created after washing Payne.

Mayfield gets a cheap three yards after Davis whiffed on a tackle in what should have been a coverage sack. This turns into a third and three, giving the Panthers the ability to run or pass in this situation.

Play Description: 2nd video clip - at Carolina’s 30-yard line.

On a simple mesh concept, Washington allowed a 19-yard completion that could have been prevented if all 11 defenders were on the same page. However, Cole Holcomb, for whatever reason, believed that the coverage call was something else. This particular play is hard to break down because it all comes down to what Holcomb himself thought the defense was playing. That, we do not know. However, such a simple miscommunication on the “money” down proves how detrimental issues like this are for any defense.

Play Description: 2nd video clip - at midfield

Del Rio gambled on 2nd down here. This is fine; ultimately, a blitz is designed to speed up the offense’s internal clock, but the result can be 50/50 depending on if the quarterback and his offensive line can pick things up. Credit to Panthers quarterback Baker Mayfield for his ability to identify the fire zone and find his tight end right behind the blitzing McCain.

But for the theme of staying ahead of the sticks, Carolina continues to do so on this drive. Their 2nd and 9 turns to 3rd and 3, which running back Chuba Hubbard ultimately converts for a first down.

Washington is playing a Cover Four against a 3x1 formation on their next third down. The linebackers are responsible for hook coverage in this look, but the two safeties are deep, sharing a deep quarter of the field. Furthermore, safeties Kam Curl and Bobby McCain leave the middle of the field open to the offense, and slot corner Danny Johnson plays inside leverage to prevent the receiver from winning inside to make it difficult for the offense to penetrate the natural void in the zone. However, receiver Shi Smith did a good job with his stem, taking a wide-outside release before breaking back inward on his dig route. For Johnson, he fails to maintain his leverage and opens his hips up way too early, allowing Smith to easily cross his face on an in-breaking route in the open area of the field.

Lastly, the fumbled snap by Baker Mayfield may have actually prevented a touchdown for the Panthers. The Commanders utilized their three-safety look with Darrick Forrest, Kam Curl, and Bobby McCain. Forrest and McCain are playing in a two-high look, and Curl is playing near the line of scrimmage. From a coverage standpoint, post-snap rotations indicate that Washington ran a cover three, and Forrest was responsible for the middle-third of the field.

While Forrest slowly crept toward his area of responsibility, I believe Mayfield had an opportunity to the endzone with his tight end and receiver running a corner-post route combination. While William Jackson III would have been in position for the corner, Forrest may not have been in position for the Post route Panthers receiver Andre Roberts ran toward the back of the endzone.

In all, it is clear why Rivera and Del Rio were upset. While the Commanders had some really good pressures and run stops against the Panthers, five plays, in particular, hurt the defense. There should not be a conclusion drawn from this, but it is definitely a situation worth monitoring to identify how they clean things up heading into the Arrowhead this week.

Did the starting defense concern you this past Saturday? If so, what needs to change or improve on this side of the ball this week?