The secondary hurts the rest of the unit. The whole defense is ranked one of the league’s best — it entered this week fourth in defense-adjusted value over average, a Football Outsiders metric measuring efficiency by evaluating every play based on situation and opponent — but the big-play problem undercuts it. The 30-10 loss to the Rams highlighted the group’s season-long struggles, though it’s impossible to blame specific players without knowing the coverage for each play.
The issues seem to stem from poor technique and miscommunication. Washington allowed four plays of 25 yards or more in its first four games, but then it allowed four more Sunday. The Rams are talented and explosive, but it’s notable that Washington Coach Ron Rivera felt more troubled by his defense than by his offensive line, which allowed eight sacks.
“We didn’t play as well as I would’ve liked us to play on defense,” he said. “That, to me, is a little more concerning than the protection.”
Two things particularly bothered Rivera. He thought the pass rush didn’t work in concert with coverage, and defenders struggled to cover because they didn’t use proper “leverage,” or body positioning. He saw this as a byproduct of starting inexperienced players, such as free safety Troy Apke.
“Part of [the young guys’ growth] is understanding where their help is,” Rivera said. “They [have to] stay in position and, again, go through [their] reads as a safety and as a linebacker. That’s all part of it.”
Sportradar defines “big plays” as rushes over 10 yards or passes over 20, and Washington allows an average number of those per game (6.8). But here’s the problem: When things go wrong, they combust.
In five games, Washington has allowed eight plays of 40 yards or more, most in the league. It has allowed four plays of 50 yards or more, twice as many as any other defense. This is detrimental in a league in which offenses hunt chunk plays, and the concerns of allowing them are amplified because this unit has a thin margin for error. Playing defense is hard enough without a struggling offense leaving the unit on the field for long periods of time.
The touchdown to Woods epitomized those breakdowns and offered a familiar visual: the cornerback and safety looking at one another, puzzled.
“[In a zone defense, strong safety Landon Collins and I were] seeing it two different ways,” cornerback Kendall Fuller said. “Every time a corner and a safety see it a different way, you’re going to give up explosive plays. We’ve got to go into the film room, learn from it and make sure that throughout the course of the game we see everything the same way to limit explosive plays.”
For years, secondary miscommunication has hamstrung Washington. Fuller denied it was the problem here, though, saying it was more about consistency and execution. This echoed defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, who has been tight-lipped about his group. The coordinator has deflected when asked about Collins’s missed tackles — “[Tackling] is definitely part of the game, and we’re looking to be strong at it,” he said — as well as miscommunication.
“I don’t think it was a lack of communication,” Del Rio said of a touchdown allowed to the Arizona Cardinals in Week 2. “I just think we didn’t execute the way we need to.”
His group seems to lack personnel solutions, barely changing beyond a brief benching of Apke on Sunday. Late in the first quarter, Washington made its first substantial lineup change since Fuller returned in Week 2 by replacing Apke with Deshazor Everett. The backup then committed pass interference on third and 10 to give the Rams a first down. Apke returned to the field on the next drive. Rookie safety Kamren Curl, who has played linebacker and slot corner in sub packages, could get a chance there.
“We’re still trying to find out who’s going to be the free safety,” Rivera said. “We’ve got some young guys who are trying to figure out and grow at the position. … We’re trying to see if they can do it.”
Midway through the third quarter, it happened again. Rams receiver Cooper Kupp ran out of the slot and froze Curl with a hesitation move. Kupp broke inside, caught the pass about five yards from the line of scrimmage and turned upfield. He sped by Collins, who seemed to take a poor angle, and jetted past Apke, who had to chase him down from behind.
The play looked as though it was designed to be short. But with a combination of factors, poor technique among them, it went for a gain of 49 yards. Four plays later, the Washington defense ran off the field after allowing another scoring drive. And though it was only a field goal, the momentary lapse — and ensuing big gain — was a reminder of how much more the defense needs from the secondary.