Head coach Ron Rivera watched from the sideline as the Washington Football Team's defense readied itself for Los Angeles Rams quarterback Jared Goff to snap the ball. With the Rams facing a 2nd-and-16 after Jimmy Moreland brought down Malcolm Brown for a six-yard loss one play earlier, it was an opportunity to put one of the league's most efficient offenses in a third-and-long scenario and get off the field on its opening drive.
Any hopes of that drizzled away with the rain that drenched FedExField on Sunday afternoon, though. Goff completed a nine-yard pass to Tyler Higbee, and then Gerald Everett broke free on a screen behind a wall of Rams' offensive linemen for a 23-yard gain. Three plays later, running back Darrell Henderson Jr. was in the end zone to give the Rams a 7-0 lead.
Those moments of inconsistency were what frustrated Rivera in Washington's 30-10 loss to Rams, which dropped the team to 1-4. There were times when the defense put itself in advantageous situations, only for the Rams to move the chains on the following play. It's an issue Rivera wants to fix as Washington gets ready for three straight division games.
"To me it's when you have something, when you have a job to do, do your job," Rivera told reporters Monday. "Understand what your job is. That seems to be a little bit of a problem right now, that some guys don't understand how to play with leverage."
By leverage, Rivera means his players need to know where their help is. If their teammate is giving them help in coverage, they should defend their man from outside to inside and vice versa. The Rams' production indicated that did not happen Sunday, as they had 11 plays that resulted in gains of at least 10 yards.
Rivera said there were times Sunday when players were not where they need to be; that was the case on the Rams' second score of the day, which was the result of a 56-yard catch-and-run from Robert Woods. Kendall Fuller jammed Woods and widened his route like he was supposed to, Rivera said, but Landon Collins took a bad angle on the play.
Those moments are frustrating to Rivera, because he has seen his players do as they are taught before.
"I see that's something that the coaches are working on, something that the players are practicing, but we've got to take what we're being taught...and transfer that from the practice field to the game field and go out and execute."
It would seem the players agree with Rivera's assessment. When asked about the defense's performance after the game, Fuller said everyone on the unit needs to be "locked in."
"When you start playing zone coverage, everybody's got to be on the same page. If one person sees it this way and plays it that way and the next person doesn't see it that way, you're going to give up plays. Just coming together, watching film together, and seeing it the way others see it to just limit explosive plays."
Communication has not been the issue, Fuller said. So far, he feels like he and his teammates are communicating well between plays. Instead, he believes the problems rest in execution.
"We just have to execute every play, every quarter. We go through good stretches, and then have some stretches that are not so good."
Washington will need to find a way of fixing its inconsistencies soon, because it will play three straight games against NFC East opponents in the New York Giants and the Dallas Cowboys. The Giants rank 30th in total offense, but quarterback Daniel Jones has thrown for at least 220 yards in three games thus far. The Cowboys, on the other hand, have the league's best offense, which averages 488 yards per game.
Rivera wants his players to execute, but he also wants to look at what plays the coaches are calling to make sure they are giving the players an opportunity to be successful.
"We have to look at it, too, and say: 'Maybe we can't do those things. Maybe we need to do something different,'" he said. "That's all part of the evaluation that we will go through. We'll self-scout. We'll look at those things and say: 'You know what, maybe we're better off with those things.'"
Still, there is some evidence the defense has a foundation to turn things around. Prior to Sunday's game, the unit was fourth in Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA), according to Football Outsiders, and third in pass defense.
And there are opportunities for Washington to improve, especially on third-downs. The Giants, who Washington will play twice in four weeks, are 22nd in the NFL with third-down conversion rate of 41%, which is the lowest of any offense the defense has played so far.
Rivera said multiple times last week the next slate of games offer a chance to make a push towards winning the division. Washington will need its defense to play better if it wants to keep its hopes for a postseason appearance alive.
"It's not going to be easy," he said. "These three games are games that I think we have to take the approach that we can win. We have to play them one at a time and see what happens."