The Washington Commanders' defense is entering the fourth season in Jack Del Rio’s system, and there's no question which side of the ball is the team's biggest strength.
For two of the past three seasons, Washington's defense was considered to be among the best in the league with top five finishes in yards allowed per game. Last season, the unit was third behind the Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco 49ers and 12th in total sacks, despite not having Chase Young for almost the entire year.
The defense is expected to be a top unit once again, and the players have performed up to that standard so far in training camp. There's an air of confidence surrounding the defensive side of the field, but coach Ron Rivera ismost impressed with how the players have handled it.
"I think they're a little more mature," Rivera said after practice. "I think it's a group of guys that have been together for four years. There's a lot of confidence in what we're doing and how we're doing it. I think certain guys in key positions have matured, and I think with that, it's okay to be confident."
Confidence isn't necessarily a new thing for the young Commanders defense. Players like Montez Sweat were talking about breaking sack records back in 2021, when the team was fresh off being No. 2 in yards allowed during their first season in Del Rio's system. The problem was that the results didn't match that swagger, and while there were moments of improvement, the 22nd finish was a drastic change from the previous year.
Now, players are taking a different approach to the offseason and camp. They're staying longer after practice to get some extra work done together, without the coaches around, and their preparation has improved from 2021. Rivera started to notice the change about a year ago, and to him, it's a sign that the unit is starting to understand what it takes to stay consistent on the field.
"It's when you watch them do the little things, the little things that are important," Rivera said. "They talk about some of the calls and some of the techniques they can use. They work on catching the ball. These are things that are going above and beyond what we expect from them."
Those are the things Rivera wants to see from a defense that has a chance to be one of the best units in 2023. They know when to have fun, but they also know when to work.
"I appreciate their confidence," Rivera said. "As long as it's not coupled with immaturity, I feel pretty good about it."
Here are some more observations from Day 5.
-- It was another up-and-down day for the quarterbacks and the offense as a whole, but one of the best plays came from a connection between Sam Howell and Terry McLaurin during 11-on-11 drills. Howell scrambled to his left and delivered a pass to McLaurin, who made the toe-tapping catch in the end zone for the score. After the play was over, McLaurin said, "Good ball, boy" to Howell.
-- Chris Paul began rotating with Saahdiq Charles at left guard on Saturday, and that trend continues during the first practice of Week 2. It was only during the first few periods, but Rivera acknowledged that they are moving pieces around to let Paul work with other players on the offensive line. Rivera said the team will do the same with other players, but it will be something to watch throughout the rest of camp.
-- Quan Martin finds ways to be around the ball on just about every play, even if his assignment takes him in a different direction. While he was working with the second group on defense, Martin started near the left side of the field and to the right to cover the possibility of a run. Once he realized the run was going the other way, Martin sprinted back to near his original position and wrapped up the running back for what would have been a tackle.
-- Byron Pringle had an active day of practice working with the first and second group. On what was his best play, Pringle got open near the end zone and caught the pass from Jacoby Brissett for a touchdown. After the play was over, Pringle got some praise from McLaurin on how well he ran his route.
-- A couple of the Commanders' backup linebackers got some extra snaps today and made the most of their opportunities. Khaleke Hudson did a good job of covering Logan Thomas and forced a pass breakup near the end zone, and Milo Eifler blitzed down the middle of the offensive line for what would have been a sack.
-- Finally, McLaurin addressed the media after practice and spoke positively about how he and his offensive teammates have adjusted to Eric Bieniemy’s offense, saying that players haven't had many missed assignments.
"So far, I like the tempo in which we're going with and the attitude that we're approaching practice. That's a good foundation to start with."