All of those people play for the Washington Commanders’ defensive unit. Sounds like a pretty stout bunch. So, why aren’t they — oh, I don’t know — good?
“We’ve had some ups and downs,” said Jack Del Rio, in his fourth year as the team’s defensive coordinator. “I think we’ve had some great moments, and we’ve had some moments that are a little bit disappointing.”
Lay that over the entirety of the past four seasons. This group believes it has top-10 talent. It hasn’t consistently produced top-10 results. “It’s early in the season,” Del Rio said. Maybe, but it’s getting late in the tenures of Del Rio and his boss, head coach Ron Rivera. The two square-jawed linebackers from the 1980s and 90s have a defense with impact players that, collectively, isn’t making a consistent impact.
The numbers are stark: The Commander are giving up 29.3 points and 377.2 yards per game. The first mark is tied for 29th in the league and the second is 29th all by itself. Those stats are easy to understand, but they’re a little archaic because they don’t offer much context. Did the opposing offense take over the ball in Washington territory, etc.? (They contrast, though, with last season’s ranks of seventh in points allowed and third in yards allowed.)
What’s more telling: Washington is allowing 5.7 yards per play, which ranks 27th in the league. The Commanders are in the NFL’s bottom seven in both net yards per pass attempt and yards per rushing attempt. And how about this one: Opponents have scored on 51.6 percent of their possessions, a higher percentage than every team but one (Denver).
This isn’t to pick on a group that picked off three Desmond Ridder passes and secured Sunday’s 24-16 victory over the Atlanta Falcons. It’s to say that had the Commanders played a more experienced, competent quarterback Sunday, they would have lost. More importantly, it’s to say that in three-and-a-third seasons under Del Rio and Rivera, the defense hasn’t developed into the kind of game-wrecking force it could be — even if it employs a few game-wrecking forces.
Somehow, the sum seems to be less than the parts.
This coaching staff and front office — which, in a way, are one and the same, given Rivera’s position atop both organizational charts — have invested in defense, both financially and in draft capital. Of Rivera’s seven first- and second-round picks, five have been defensive players. The Commanders locked up Allen for $72 million and Payne for $90 million. The most expensive free agent they brought in from elsewhere was a cornerback, William Jackson III, whom they ended up paying about $24 million to play 16 mostly ineffective games. They signed Fuller, another cornerback, for $40 million. They’re likely to pay either Young or Sweat after this season.
The point: This is a defense assembled by a former linebacker and defensive coordinator, coached by a former linebacker as its defensive coordinator, that hasn’t developed into what it looked like it might be last season — one of the most disruptive units in the game.
There are moments along the way that are both puzzling and emblematic. Three weeks ago in Philadelphia, the coaching staff decided that Emmanuel Forbes Jr., its first-round draft pick, was mature and skilled enough to cover Eagles receiver A.J. Brown. Brown caught nine balls for 175 yards and two touchdowns. Five days later, Forbes was part of a crew that gave up eight catches, 230 yards and three scores to Chicago’s D.J. Moore.
Last week against Atlanta, Forbes didn’t play a snap.
“We look at certain things and we know what he can bring to the table,” Rivera said. “We’ve seen it. So, it’s about trying to find that balance of — you get to a certain situation and say, ‘You know what? Let’s sit him for a while. Let’s let him grow.’”
Letting a rookie grow makes sense. Rivera pointed out that Davis, a first-round pick in 2021, initially struggled. Sunday, he made the game-clinching interception against the Falcons. Last month, he turned around a comeback victory with a strip of Denver quarterback Russell Wilson. Players get better with time and experience. That’s fair.
But is exposing Forbes to Brown and Moore, and then benching him altogether, best for his growth? We’ll see, but it seems like there could and should have been a middle ground, some packages in which Forbes fit and others in which he sat. Instead, coaches threw him in the deep end one week, then two weeks later wouldn’t even let him stick his pinkie toe in the kiddie pool.
“That’s a fluid situation,” Del Rio said Thursday.
Which might describe the entire defense. Maybe this is the week it gets better, when a unit that views itself as potentially dominant actually dominates. Not for a play or a series or a half. But for 60 minutes.
The opponent: the New York Giants. They have allowed the second-most sacks in the league (one fewer than guess who). They rank dead last in yards per offensive play. They rank dead last in points per game — a measly 11.8. Shoot, the Giants haven’t even scored a first-half touchdown this season.
“I would say that the best is yet to come for our group and what we’re capable of and what we’re going to do,” Del Rio said. “I love the fact that we are a relentless group. We’re a group that’s stuck together and we’re working through some of the issues that were the problem.
“We’ll come out on the other side. I feel very confident about that.”
If the season is to be a success, that has to be right. The Commanders employ a quarterback who is starting the eighth game of his career and working with a first-time play-caller as an offensive coordinator. Their defense features six first-round picks, five of whom have played together for the past three seasons.
They have a head coach who played and coached defense, a defensive coordinator who has been a head coach. It’s no longer time to grow and develop. It’s time to devastate from the first snap to the last.