The Washington Football Team's defensive line was one of the most fearsome groups in the NFL last year, particularly in the second half of the season. It's well-known by now that the group fell short of those expectations to start the season.
While it's still far from perfect heading into Week 8, there have been signs to show that things are taking a positive turn.
After a blowout loss to the Buffalo Bills, which saw the defensive line produce a rare showing of zero sacks on Josh Allen, Washington sat at 16th with just six sacks. Since then, the group has helped Washington more than double its production to 15 sacks and jump four spots in the league rankings.
It's no coincidence that the defensive line has also steadily improved over the past month. That progress comes from the group playing more to its assignments, and it's a foundation for it to build on moving forward.
"You could really see them in sync in terms of the way they were rushing together," Ron Rivera said. "That was one of the things I really thought they've really stepped up and has been very good."
It's not as if Washington wasn't getting pressure on quarterbacks, because the numbers show that they did face duress when playing the team's defense. Justin Herbert was pressured 14.3%, but Daniel Jones felt pressure on 42.1% of dropbacks, and Allen wasn't far behind with 33.3%.
It worked against Jones, who was brought down four times, but Allen found ways to evade one defender after the next before gashing the defense downfield. That frustration partly stemmed from a lack of coordination from the pass rush. There were times when Rivera saw two players in the same area, which gave Allen a lane to work with on his way to tossing four touchdowns.
"They've got to work a little bit better together and just understand where each other's going to be," Rivera said during his Monday presser on Sept. 27. "Because again, you need to make sure you've got an inside guy and an outside guy."
The Washington Football Team gets to work in preparation for a Week 8 matchup with the Denver Broncos. (Photos by Emilee Fails and Karlee Sell/Washington Football Team)
It was just the third time in Rivera's tenure with Washington that the defense failed to produce a sack. The defensive line wasn't playing off each other, Chase Young said, and getting back in sync was a priority. It hasn't been the sudden turnaround that fans have hoped for, but there has been a noticeable increase in results.
It started with one sack against Matt Ryan in Week 4, and that turned into two on Jameis Winston. In the last two games, which featured matchups against Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers, Washington has produced three sacks each on the former MVPs. And plays like Bobby McCain’s interception, which came when Mahomes was trying to avoid pressure, show they can affect plays without getting quarterbacks on the ground.
"You've also seen the last two weeks for the most part, the rush and the coverage seemed to be in sync as well," Rivera said. "The understanding that third and medium to long is, hey, we've got time, we can pin our ears back."
In Week 7, Rodgers was forced to throw the ball multiple times because of this cohesion. Facing a third-and-12 in the second quarter, the Packers had to settle for a field goal attempt after the secondary locked down all of Rodgers options and the pass rush left no room for the quarterback to scramble.
Of course, as encouraging as those signs are, that doesn't change the fact that Washington's defense is at or near the bottom of several categories. Rodgers still threw for 275 yards and three touchdowns, while the Chiefs still managed to hang 31 points on the afternoon.
That doesn't mean that progress should be ignored, but it does mean it should be put into perspective. Because as Rivera said Wednesday, winning in addition to playing better is the ultimate goal.
"That's the big thing we have to always keep in mind," Rivera said. "But one thing that losing does, it shows you the truth. And so as you watch it and you look at it, you can feel good about some of the things that have happened when we build on those things, yes. Will we try to correct the ones that were incorrect? Absolutely."
Sunday's game against the Broncos, Rivera said, will be a challenge that gives the group. Denver has allowed the fourth-most sack this season, and Teddy Bridgewater has been taken down at least twice in every game. With one game left until the bye week, it's another measuring stick to see where the team is at.
"This will be a good challenge as far as where we are and If we have taken the strides that we have," Rivera said. "or at least appeared to the last couple of weeks."