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Four frustrating games in, Washington's defense focused on fixing mistakes

Jamin Davis and Cole Holcomb combine for a tackle during the Washington Football Team's game against the Atlanta Falcons. (Emilee Fails/Washington Football Team)
Jamin Davis and Cole Holcomb combine for a tackle during the Washington Football Team's game against the Atlanta Falcons. (Emilee Fails/Washington Football Team)

When it comes to meetings, no NFL team will ever be accused of skimping. From the start of April's OTAs to season's end, players congregate in groups massive and minute and absorb a relentless onslaught of instruction, sometimes sneaking in small catnaps when the lights are low.

Last Sunday in Atlanta, Washington defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio conducted an impromptu meeting in front of 68,333 fans at Mercedes Benz Stadium, and it woke up his players -- at least for a little while. Shortly after Matt Ryan's 42-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Cordarrelle Patterson had given the Atlanta Falcons a 10-0 lead with 11:07 remaining in the second quarter, Del Rio gathered the team's defenders on the sideline and tried to snap them out of a perplexing funk that has plagued them throughout the 2021 season.

"We were sitting on the sideline all straight-faced, just totally down on ourselves," outside linebacker Cole Holcomb said. "We were kind of getting to that point where we were playing not to mess up. Del Rio was like, 'Hey man -- don't be so f---- tense. Go out there and have fun with it. Stuff's gonna happen, but you can't let it trickle down and keep affecting you. You've gotta just roll with it.'"

The message seemed to resonate. After Taylor Heinicke’s 33-yard pass to Terry McLaurin trimmed the deficit to 10-7, the defense forced a Falcons three-and-out. Yet after Washington responded with a go-ahead touchdown drive, Atlanta's previously anemic offense (it ranked 28th entering the game) reached the end zone on its next three possessions.

Talk about a buzzkill: Even in the wake of a dramatic 34-30 victory that featured two Washington TDs in the final four minutes, the defensive unit's shaky start continues to torment players and coaches alike.

"It feels like -- no, it most certainly is the case that -- we did take a step back," conceded Washington coach Ron Rivera. "The big disappointment, more than anything else, is that we really haven't played to our ability. That's what is so frustrating. This is all part of the angst of what we have to go through, and we have to find a way to fight through it to get where we want to go."

For all of the What's Wrong With the Defense? hand-wringing that has dominated the first month of Rivera's second season, this may not qualify as a full-blown crisis. Heading into Sunday's game at FedExField against the New Orleans Saints, Washington (2-2) is just a game behind the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC East, with thrilling triumphs over the Giants and Falcons attesting to the team's collective resilience.

Yet thus far, the unit that asserted itself mightily during last season's stirring stretch drive has been a shell of its former self. Last year, Washington finished with the league's No. 2 ranked defense. Four games into the 2021 campaign, it ranks 29th. Only two teams have allowed more points than Washington, which is dead last in third-down defense. And after forcing a pair of turnovers in the season-opening defeat to the Los Angeles Chargers, Washington has gone three consecutive games without a takeaway.

The perceived strength of the team is now full of questions. And while Rivera is convinced that the defensive issues are fixable, he's realistic about the current state of affairs.

"This is not one of those things that will just suddenly transform," Rivera said. "We have to understand that it's not going to happen overnight."

Given that three of the next five quarterbacks Washington will face are Patrick Mahomes, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady, it makes sense to push for an accelerated timeline. For what it's worth, Rivera is convinced that discipline and attention to detail can solve most of the defensive issues, and he insists that there is precedent for such a turnaround.

"It didn't happen right away last year, either," Rivera said. "Go back and look at some of the stuff that was happening in the first half of the season. I even called out a position group, and the entire defense, because I was so frustrated."

After a defeat to the Giants last November dropped Washington to 2-6, Rivera told NBC Sports Washington's J.P. Finlay, "In all honesty, I'm concerned at the play of the linebackers." A week later, following a defeat to the Detroit Lions, he voiced his frustration with the defense as a whole. Soon thereafter, opposing offenses felt the wrath of Washington's revived defensive unit, which took over several games en route to an unlikely NFC East title.

Year 2 in the Rivera/Del Rio system was supposed to have started more smoothly, but some of the communications issues -- especially on the back end -- may be attributable to the injection of new faces. Three defensive backs who've received significant playing time (safety Bobby McCain and corners William Jackson and Benjamin St-Juste) weren't on the team in 2020, and starting corner Kendall Fuller has assumed the nickel back role for the first time. There has clearly been an adjustment period for all concerned, and Del Rio has responded by simplifying his gameplans.

It isn't just the revamped secondary that's struggling with assignments. There's also a new middle linebacker in first-round rookie Jamin Davis, and with veteran Jon Bostic having suffered a pectoral injury against the Falcons that will likely end his season, David Mayo and Khaleke Hudson will now be pressed into more playing for Washington. Meanwhile, Holcomb -- who shared defensive signal-caller duties with four other teammates in 2020 -- is experiencing growing pains while assuming that role on a fulltime basis.

"There are a lot of people who rely on you, and there's a balance I've got to achieve," Holcomb said. "I've got to try to get everybody lined up and on the same page, but I can't let it get me out of position."

Then there is the team's vaunted front four, which features a quartet of first-round draft picks, including 2020 defensive rookie of the year Chase Young. Somewhat shockingly, Young has yet to register a sack in 2021. His fellow edge rusher, Montez Sweat, has three quarterback takedowns but hasn't gotten in touch with his inner game-wrecker. Coaches believe Young and Sweat, like many Washington defenders, are putting undue pressure on themselves to produce prolific moments.

"We're a pretty tight-knit defense, so we all want to help our brother out if we can," Holcomb said. "So there is a feeling of, 'I'm gonna try to do a little bit more,' instead of just doing our jobs. If we can hem up our details and get our coverage right, then the sacks will come."

If it sounds overly complicated, Holcomb insists that it doesn't have to be. Last Monday at the team's training facility, Rivera pulled Holcomb aside and reviewed a play from the Falcons' first series: A four-yard pass from Ryan to Patterson on second-and-5.

"They went empty and spread us out, and I didn't move over enough," Holcomb said. "If I take two more steps to my right (before the snap), like I'm supposed to, it takes away the throw (to Patterson), and (Ryan) holds the ball an extra second… and 'Tez (Sweat), who is one step away from sacking the guy, probably takes him down… and instead of third-and-1 it's third-and-15, and we probably get off the field.

"It didn't seem like a big play, but it's those little details that can make all the difference. And when Ron showed it to me, he said, 'Hey – this is how close we are.'"

Nearly a quarter of a way into a season steeped in so much promise, the Washington defense seems pretty far from elite. The challenge, for now, is simply to become sounder and more consistent.

"We need to get these details down -- that's the bottom line," Holcomb said. "And when we do, I'm convinced the floodgates will open. It's gonna be good."

In the meantime, Del Rio's players can't help feeling a bit tense, even when their defensive coordinator tries to snap them out of it in front of tens of thousands of onlookers.