clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Is Washington’s defense better with Chase Young out of the line-up?

By at least one metric, it looks that way.

Chicago Bears v Washington Commanders Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images

If I told you that over the course of his entire four year career in Washington, that the Commander’s defense was more stout with Chase Young out of the line-up than with him in it, you’d likely think I was insane. In that case, prepare the Haldol and straight jacket, Nurse Ratchet, and buckle yourself in for a ride.

After Young’s Defensive Rookie of the Year season, everyone was caught up in the hoopla and what looked like it was going to be an impressive - and disruptive - career. It wasn’t until the wheels came off in Young’s sophomore season, when the team went 3-6 through the first nine games - with Young collecting only 1.5 sacks - that doubts began to arise. Then Young went down with a serious knee injury.

He didn’t look great before the injury, and the team was terrible, but something strange happened over the stretch of the next 8 games: The team went 4-4, in part by giving up 4.3 points less per game than it did with Young in the line-up.

I remember making some offhand remarks about this phenomenon at the time, because Montez Sweat also missed many of these same games, and it struck me as quite counterintuitive that the defense seemed to play better without its two vaunted pass rushers.

With the defense in a funk again this season, poster Marook! pointed out that Washington’s only decent performance this year came in week 1, where Chase Young was again absent. That prompted me to do a little more digging.

Chase’s pro career thus far has been marred by serious injury, but in a way, that’s provided a nice natural experiment to explore this hypothesis. In 2020, Young was basically fully healthy, missing just one game. In year 2, Young was healthy the first half of the season and injured the second half. In year 3, Young missed most of the season to injury, but played in a few games toward the end of the year. In 2023, so far, Young has missed one game and played in four.

Below are Washington’s average points against in each of those seasons (with Young’s games played or missed in parentheses):

2020:

With (15): 19.9

Without (1): 31

2021:

With (9): 27.3

Without (8): 23

2022:

With (3): 22.3

Without (14): 19.7

2023:

With (4): 36

Without (1): 16

Career:

With: 24.4

Without: 21

Career (Post rookie season):

With: 28.6

Without: 20.6

It’s hard to say a lot about 2020 and 2023 - other than that the team’s defensive performance in 2020 looks pretty solid (though that could be, in part, due to having played against some of the worst QBs the league has ever seen) - because of very small numbers of games missed in both seasons.

But what if we look at 2021-2022, where Young was healthy on the front end, and recuperating on the back end, to the tune of 12 games played and 22 games missed. During the period of Young’s absence, Washington’s defense was fairly solid, surrendering 20.8 points per game. For reference, in 2021, that would have ranked Washington 8th in the league. With Young in the line-up during that period, the team gave up 26.1 points per game. That would have ranked 27th in the league in 2021.

Arizona Cardinals v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images

Peer Comparison: Nick Bosa

In terms of early career expectation followed by severe injury, there might not be any better comp to Young than San Francisco’s Nick Bosa. Bosa played in all 16 games his rookie year (2019), and then in 2020, in the second game of the season, injured his knee and missed the rest of the year. Like Young, Bosa was a Defensive Rookie of the Year.

So how did the 49ers perform with Bosa in the line-up, out of the line-up, and back in the line-up again after injury?

2019:

With (16): 19.4

2020:

With (2): 18.5

Without (14): 25.2

2021:

With (17): 21.5

2022:

With (16): 15.6

Without (1): 28

Interestingly, in Bosa’s rookie year, we see a team defensive performance quite similar to Young’s (19.4 v. 19.9). But, that’s really where the similarities end. During Bosa’s sophomore season, where he was injured early on, the 49ers defense performed how you would expect a defense to perform losing a key cog: It was giving up nearly one extra touchdown (6.8 points) in his absence. Contrast that with Washington’s 2021 season, where the defense gave up 4.3 fewer points once Young left the field.

By 2021, Bosa was nearly fully recovered, and the 49ers defense returned back pretty close to its 2019 performance levels. By 2022, Bosa and the 49ers’ defense were performing at All Pro levels, giving up less than 16 points per game when Nick was active.

We’ve seen no such post-injury rebound with Young, and in fact the team’s defense has been consistently worse with him in the line-up in 2022 and 2023 since coming back from injury.

What Could Explain the Gap?

How could the addition of a so-called “generational talent” make the unit he’s on play worse? The only thing that comes to mind, and that was pointed out repeatedly during the 2021 season, is that any unit requires cohesive play in order to optimize performance.

During that season, in particular, both Sweat and Young were accused of “freelancing” from a variety of sources. Essentially, it appeared they were playing to boost their individual accolades, as opposed to performing a less flashy role in a functional defense.

I’m hearing rumblings of similar complaints this year about Young - though his individual statistics are at the top of the league. In any case, I’ll leave that topic for others to explore more deeply at this point. I simply wanted to share this counterintuitive finding in the hopes we might get to the bottom of this mystery.

Poll

Do you think this defense would perform better with or without Chase Young?

This poll is closed

  • 30%
    With.
    (266 votes)
  • 69%
    Without.
    (608 votes)
874 votes total Vote Now