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Washington’s 2020 defense was a mirage

We should stop chasing it

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Washington Football Team Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Arguably the most disappointing feature of the Washington Football Team’s 2021 season was the abysmal performance of the defense. In 2020, the WFT’s defense finished a stout 4th in the overall defensive rankings. They were even more impressive - second in the league - if you looked at their passing yardage allowed, finishing just behind the LA Rams.

It looked like the massive draft investment in the defense was finally paying off, surely abetted by the expert defensive tutelage of Jack Del Rio and Ron Rivera.

And then 2021 hit. Washington’s overall defensive performance dropped to 25th in the league and the formerly menacing pass defense fell to fourth worst in the NFL.

Washington Football Team v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

What Happened?

One obvious spot to look for the root of the better defensive performance in 2020 is the performance of the offense over both years. As you’ll recall, the 2020 offense was led by the 3-headed monster of Dwayne Haskins, Alex Smith, and Kyle Allen. Though the team finished 7-9 and made the playoffs, the offense was putrid, finishing 30th in total yardage and 25th in total points scored. In this case, the defense was very likely assisting the offense, as opposed to the reverse.

In 2021, even helmed by former UDFA and journeyman Taylor Heinicke, the offense improved significantly, finishing 21st in total yardage and 24th in total points scored. Given the steep defensive drop off in 2021, this offensive performance by both Heinicke and Scott Turner looks even more compelling.

So, given that there doesn’t appear to be a positive association between Washington’s offensive performance and defensive performance in these cases - actually quite the contrary - let’s do a deeper dive into that 2020 defense.

In 2020, Washington’s defense gave up, on average, 21 points and 305 yards per game. They lost 100% (7) of the games in which they allowed more than 21 points. In fact, they lost 100% (9) of the games in which they allowed 20 points or more. As Steve Spurrier might say, “Not very good.”

Memphis Express v Orlando Apollos Photo by Julio Aguilar/AAF/Getty Images

But let’s dig into those seven, sweet victories to see what was going on there.

Week 1 - Eagles (27-17) - QB Carson Wentz (QB35 NFL QB Index)

This game, in which Wentz was sacked 8 times, fumbled twice, and was intercepted twice amped up the hopes of WFT fans and papered over Haskins’ pedestrian performance (17-31, 178 yards, 1 TD and 1 fumble), giving fans hope that would last for at least a couple of weeks.

The defense held the Eagles to 239 total yards in week 1, but wouldn’t pull out another win for 6 more weeks.

Week 7 - Cowboys (25-3) - QBs Andy Dalton (QB25) & Ben DiNucci (QB59)

With Dak Prescott down with injury, Washington’s defense feasted on Dallas’ second and third string QBs, collecting 6 sacks, an interception, and forcing 3 fumbles. Kyle Allen did what he had to in order to preserve the win. Dallas put up 397 total yards.

Week 11 - Bengals (20-9) - QBs Joe Burrow (QB18) & Ryan Finley (QB52)

The rookie, Joe Burrow, started this game, but ended up leaving with a serious knee injury midway through the game. To that point, the game had been close - even with Burrow losing a fumble - and then Ryan Finley entered stage right and was devoured by Washington’s defense. Finley was sacked four times and threw an interception. The Bengals totaled 325 yards during the game, with Finley accounting for 49 of them.

Week 12 - Cowboys (41-16) - QB Andy Dalton (QB25)

In Washington’s second run at Dalton and the Cowboys, they’d give them a thorough drubbing, collecting 4 sacks and an interception, and forcing a fumble from Zeke Elliott. Alex Smith, despite passing for 149 yards would oversee the victory.

In total, the Cowboys would collect 338 yards, most of them coming on the ground.

Week 13 - Steelers (23-17) - QB Beth Roethlisberger (QB20)

In what was likely Washington’s most impressive victory of the season, they defeated the Steelers and the barely re-animated corpse of Ben Roethlisberger. Washington sacked Big Ben once, and although he threw for 305 yards and 2 TDs, Alex Smith’s best performance of the season was enough to help the WFT secure victory.

Week 14 - 49ers (23-15) - QB Nick Mullens (QB42)

The 49ers rolled out their QB3, Mullens, and Washington’s defense again took advantage, sacking him 4 times, intercepting him once, and culminating with Chase Young returning a fumble for a touchdown that would put Washington up for good.

Week 17 - Eagles (20-14) - QBs Jalen Hurts (QB23) & Nate Sudfeld (NR)

With the playoffs on the line, Washington would put up a “W” against yet another team’s QB2 and QB3. Hurts was actually pulled for Sudfeld with a significant amount of time left on the clock in what looked to many observers like a deliberate effort to tank the game.

Washington ultimately collected two interceptions, three sacks, and a fumble recovery against the back-up QBs, allowing only 248 total yards.

In Summary

In looking back over these 7 games - 43% of the schedule - the team collected 57% of its interceptions (9 of 16), 62% of its sacks (29 of 47), and 100% of its victories against a rogue’s gallery of some of the worst QBs in the league. Even when they faced a QB who approached respectability, like Burrow, he was replaced during the game with one of the worst back-ups in the league.

I’ll confess, my own recollection of the 2020 defense was far rosier before looking up the data and writing this piece. Having evaluated the unit with this information, it seems fairly clear that 2021 was probably a much more accurate reflection of this defense’s ability than 2020 was, and that we should probably be bracing ourselves for another bottom third defensive finish, unless something dramatic and unexpected occurs.

Poll

How do you feel about Washington’s defense going into 2022?

  • 40%
    It was overrated in 2020 and it’s overrated now.
    (421 votes)
  • 6%
    I expect it to return to its 2020 glory.
    (65 votes)
  • 34%
    I think it’s average.
    (364 votes)
  • 18%
    Please add more everclear to the Kool Aid.
    (191 votes)
1041 votes total Vote Now