How Washington's Defense Fell Apart
The Washington Football Team stumbled to a division championship in a miserable NFC East last season. A carousel of bad or uninspiring quarterback play left much to be desired from the offense, but the Washington defense finished as the third-best unit in the league per DVOA. Their fierce pass rush and stable of quality cornerbacks gave them all the tools to hold their final seven opponents to 20 points or less. The team cruised to a 5-2 record over that span, just barely getting them to January football.
Heading into this season, the expectation was that Washington would again boast one of the league's best defenses and use that to propel them to the postseason. Some personnel shuffling at cornerback left some questions, but the defensive line, with Pro Bowlers across the board led by a rising star in Chase Young, was supposed to be too good to fail.
That "too good to fail" formula was dependent on the new-look secondary being at least competent. If the secondary could at least do the bare minimum, the pass rush should have been able to get home consistently and put offenses in bad down-and-distances—a decent formula when paired with their above-average run defense that also serves to limit quality down-and-distance situations for the offense.
Through four games, Washington ranks 10th in pressure rate, per Sports Info Solutions. Perhaps that is a tad lower than would be expected of a unit with this much talent, but it's still a good number on its own. They are not converting those pressures into much, though. Washington has the fifth-lowest sack rate in the league despite all their pressures. Moreover, four of their seven sacks on their year came in Week 3 alone against the sack-prone Daniel Jones. They have only accrued one combined sack over the past two weeks against Buffalo and Atlanta. Washington's front is doing their job, though. It's the secondary which is doing the rest of the squad no favors.
Washington has resorted to softer coverages and techniques because they do not have cornerback talent to match up one-on-one like they did a year ago. The problem is two-fold. Not only are new additions William Jackson (free agent) and Benjamin St. Juste (third-round rookie) playing worse than Ronald Darby and Jimmy Moreland were last year, but both of them are strictly outside cornerbacks, which forces Washington's best corner, Kendall Fuller, into the slot when the team goes to nickel.
Whereas Moreland handled the slot last season, Fuller now has to take over. Fuller only played 29.4% of his cornerback snaps out of the slot in 2020, but this year, that figure has jumped all the way to 65.0%, according to Sports Info Solutions. He still plays outside in base personnel, but it's a nickel league, and that means Fuller ends up inside more often than not. Being inside often means Fuller is up close and personal with his opponent and/or can no longer use the sideline as help, which runs counter to his strengths: his great eyes, trigger, and leverage. He wants to play what is in front of him and use the sideline as help, not play through the wide receiver in space and have to deal with two-way goes.
Fuller (29) is the point man against the Chargers' bunch formation, the second defender from the bottom of the screen. Washington is playing Cover-1 with a rat in the hole underneath, which means Fuller will not have any help deep outside. It's on him to navigate the traffic that bunch sets naturally create, keep pace with the receiver, and play the ball through the receiver's eyes and hands when the ball is in the air. Fuller does not do any of that and struggles to play the ball in the air because he was exerting all his energy to make up the ground he lost when the receiver turned up the field.
This time, Fuller is off the ball over Sterling Shepard (3) in the left slot, lined up near the hashmarks at the snap. Washington is in a form of match Cover-2 that Nick Saban calls "Cut," which tells the strong hook player (Fuller) to take all of No. 2 man-to-man if the back is to his side and out on a route. The inside leverage technique he plays with by turning to the sideline helps him set a wall to the middle of the field and makes it easier to turn to run up the seam. He can do this because he knows he has help outside.
Shepard starts to run a bender before breaking it back outside and working back to the line of scrimmage, but Fuller is a bit too slow reading the receiver's intentions and confidently breaking on the ball. Fuller is great at playing from depth and triggering based on the quarterback's intentions, but not so much when all he can see is the man in front of him.
Fuller did not suddenly become a bad player, he is just being miscast as a result of ill-fitting talent elsewhere on the roster. When allowed to play outside, Fuller has looked more like his old self, at least between the 20s where he was less susceptible to being Mossed by Cordarrelle Patterson last week. That was a big play to give up, of course, but Fuller was mostly lights-out otherwise, playing the most he has outside this season while the team opted for "big nickel" sets with a third safety to deal with tight end Kyle Pitts.
What little we saw out of Torry McTyer trying to replace Fuller in the slot last week against Atlanta was not inspiring. Fuller himself looked better out wide, but the slot play was even worse, particularly in some of the zone instances where Fuller may have actually been able to make a play from the slot.
Look at the difference between Washington's two slot players on this rep. Safety Kam Curl (31) is to the bottom of the screen and McTyer (35) is to the top. Both players are responsible for the flat. The difference is that Curl recognizes the tight end in the slot heading to the flat and triggers immediately, whereas McTyer stays high over the slot player and refuses to break on the route until the ball is halfway to its target. McTyer starts from inside leverage, to be fair, but he has to be able to feel this route and drive on the catch point. He did not get close. McTyer is on IR now anyway, but he is not going to cut it in the slot over Fuller.
Some of Washington's other issues have to do with communication. Every week they have come with a couple of major coverage busts. They have not given up too many explosive passes thanks in part to their conservative coverage techniques, but when they do give up big-play chances, it has been due to a massive breakdown in communication. Those look much uglier than just having someone lose one-on-one.
Defenses can handle potential deep over routes in a number of ways. Some teams will ask their safety to stay high and have the cornerback run with the over route across the field. Some teams will ask the cornerback to come off the over route as soon as it breaks inside and float up to help defend the post while the safety drives down on the over. Sometimes teams will even have the cornerback on the other side fall off of the post route and settle down to cut off the over route coming across, letting the post receiver run into the deep safety. Any of those is fine so long as the players are on the same page, but in this case all three defenders thought they were responsible for the over route instead of the post. Of course, it looks even worse because the receiver does not even run the over route and just runs a stop, which is a common wrinkle off of this classic Yankee concept. With how strongly the safety is eyeing downhill the whole time, my guess is this bust is on William Jackson (23) at the top of the screen. And so is this next play.
Buffalo had originally lined up in a 2x2 with a running back to Josh Allen's left. Allen then shifted the running back out wide to the left and brought one of the receivers to his right into the backfield, changing the look to a 3x1. Cover-2 is a good defense versus 2x2 because the field is distributed evenly, but Cover-4 is better against trips because you can do more to shift the strength of the coverage around. Washington appears to check into Cover-4 after all the motion but may have been in Cover-2 beforehand, based on Jackson's play.
Neither of Washington's safeties fly off the hashes. In Cover-2, they would vacate the middle to have presence on the sideline, but in Cover-4, they can count on the cornerbacks to handle the deep sideline. The weak safety (Curl, 31) is also playing a "poach" technique, which asks him to eye the strength of the formation for any vertical or deep over route coming across from the No. 3 (innermost player). Jackson, however, thinks the defense is in some form of Cover-2, which they may have been before the offense moved pieces around. He expects to have help over the top, leaving him to fall off for the flat route rather than carry Stefon Diggs (14) down the field. Allen misses the throw, but this should have been a huge play.
Maybe Curl communicated this poorly, maybe Jackson didn't hear him right, or maybe Jackson just misplayed it, but these kinds of breakdowns cannot happen in a defensive structure that has emphasized keeping vertical routes capped.
Washington does not have a clear answer for their cornerback room right now. Some of it may be an odd mix of talents and schematic fits that do not work well together, but nobody is playing well at that position for them, save for Fuller's 30%-or-so snaps on the outside. As the group stands now, any schematic answer to favor one player will likely hinder another.
Considering Stephon Gilmore has now been traded to Carolina, it's hard to see any options for Washington to immediately upgrade at the position either. Getting St. Juste some more playing time under his belt and Jackson some more time in the system could solve some problems, but that still leaves Fuller in the slot. Also, that would not necessarily solve Washington's linebackers being terribly one-dimensional in coverage, which might be a whole other Film Room discussion.
The whole operation is a mess right now. There is still plenty of ball left to play, but Washington's woes in the secondary are looking more and more like something to be solved in the offseason rather than fixed anytime soon.