The 2020 season is here, and we have you covered as the Washington Football Team progresses through its inaugural campaign under head coach Ron Rivera. Stay up to date with "WFT Daily," which comes out every weekday evening.
Edge rushers are typically judged on how often they bring down opposing quarterbacks, and Washington Football Team defensive end Montez Sweat has done plenty of that in his second NFL season. With 6.0 sacks, he currently leads a team that is among the best (T-3rd) in the league in that category.
Only one of those has come over the past four games, but in terms of Sweat's overall performance, hardly anyone has been better during that stretch, according to Pro Football Focus. Sweat earned an overall grade of 89.5 or higher in three of those four games, and his average in these contests (92.5) was second among all defenders.
As Washington has started turning close losses into victories, its most productive defensive lineman has gone from disruptive to dominant.
"It's just all about experience," Sweat said after the Steelers' game. "Recognizing how the offense wants to attack us and knowing how to attack them."
Sweat's transformation began against the Detroit Lions on Nov 15. His only contribution to the box score was one tackle, but he set career highs in terms of his overall grade (90.0) and his pass-rush grade (86.3).
Those marks were short-lived, but only because Sweat exploded onto the national scene against the Dallas Cowboys on Thanksgiving. Everyone remembers Sweat's acrobatic, tip-to-himself interception and subsequent return for a touchdown, but he caused fits for the Cowboys' offensive line all game long. His excellence earned him an overage grade of 92.1 and a pass-rush grade of 91.7, both of which were the highest for a Washington defensive lineman this season.
Sweat and his teammates could not get to Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger on Monday night, but they did the next best thing by getting their hands up. Four of the team's eight pass deflections came from the defensive front and three came from Sweat, the last of which resulted in the game-sealing interception from linebacker Jon Bostic. Sweat earned an overall grade of 89.5 for the game and posted a career-high run defense grade of 87.6.
"They've got a lot of pedigree in that front four or five that they rotate in, a lot of first-rounders," Roethlisberger said. "Those guys are studs for a reason. They got after us today. Congratulations to them."
Ask any of the coaches about Sweat's breakout campaign, and they'll point to the 6-foot-6, 262-pound athlete getting more comfortable as a full-time defensive end. No longer is he dropping back in coverage as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense. In the 4-3, Sweat's responsibilities better suit his explosive skillset.
Sweat is "focusing on setting the edge for us, being disruptive in the run game and then rushing the quarterback," defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said Nov. 12. "He's getting more reps at it. He's doing a great job for us. I think having more time devoted to that and spending less time dropping in coverage."
"When you watch Montez, you see maturity, you see growth," defensive line coach Sam Mills III said on the same day. "He's really doing some wonderful things for us. In the run game, he plays really stout in there for us. I think he's getting used to our different techniques. When they go to throw the ball, he just has a natural ability to rush. Everything about him is just speeding everything up...using his talents and just maximizing everything. I'm really pleased with him."
Head coach Ron Rivera said the Carolina Panthers were between Sweat and Brian Burns when deciding what to do with the 16th selection in the 2019 NFL Draft. Their playing styles were so similar, Rivera said, but because Burns was quicker, that's who they went with. Washington traded back into the first round to select Sweat 10 picks later.
Rivera said Sweat has "absolutely" shown growth and maturity since coming out of Mississippi State, and he also noted how Sweat has benefited from reigning No. 2 pick Chase Young playing opposite him. "Those two are peas in a pod," Rivera said. "They work together, they hang out together, they talk about football together."
Along with Jonathan Allen, Daron Payne, Ryan Kerrigan and Tim Settle, this duo has helped Washington evolve into a top 10 defense in nearly every major statistical category. They'll only continue to improve with their promising young pass-rushers leading the way.
"Their production speaks for itself," Allen said of Sweat and Young. "I think they've been playing phenomenal. I think the sky's the limit, and I think they're just playing good football."
-- "The total package": Quarterback Alex Smith knows what it is like to play his position at the highest level. Over his 16-year NFL career, he's made the Pro Bowl three times.
The only other member of Washington's offense to earn this distinction is guard Brandon Scherff, who has done so in three of the past four seasons. Scherff has allowed just two quarterback hits and two sacks in 351 passing blocking snaps so far this year, according to PFF. (You can vote Scherff to the 2021 Pro Bowl, HERE.)
"Brandon's the total package," Smith said. "From a talent standpoint, I think that he's the best player in that position in the league, one of the best teammates I've ever had. It means so much to him. He's so invested into this team. You can feel his energy in the huddle. You certainly miss it when he's gone. It's significant. He's that type of player, not just from, like I said, a talent standpoint, but certainly his leadership, his energy, and the attitude he brings to the huddle every day."
-- Terry McLaurin finds solace in quiet game: Smith completed 67% of his passes for 296 yards in Pittsburgh, but it was not because of Terry McLaurin. The scintillating second-year wideout posted season-lows in receptions (two) and yards (14) as the Steelers forced other players on Washington's offense to beat them.
With McLaurin garnering most of the attention, three unheralded pass-catchers had career nights to propel Washington to a 23-17 upset. Running back J.D. McKissic, tight end Logan Thomas and Cam Sims combined for 24 catches, 260 yards and a touchdown, which is why McLaurin was content with having one of the least productive games of his career.
"It doesn't really deter me away having a game like that because you have some of those tough days at the office," McLaurin said Friday. "But when you have guys like we have who can pick up the slack and contribute even more so than some people anticipate, that's when you're going to have even more success because so many people are touching the ball and having an impact."
-- Who's in and who's out: Rookie running back Antonio Gibson (toe) has been ruled out for this week, meaning the rushing attack will look different against the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday.
Washington is also dealing with several injuries along the offensive line, including to starters Morgan Moses (groin) and Scherff (calf). Moses, Scherff, tackle David Sharpe (knee) and defensive end Ryan Anderson (knee) are all questionable after practicing in a limited capacity Friday.
As for the 49ers, this will be just the second game since Week 3 that they have all of their running backs available.
"You have challenges every week, right, and they're different challenges," Del Rio said. "Last week, Ben [Roethlisberger] threw the ball 55 times. I don't see the 49ers being that kind of operation. They're going to come and try and pound you, and they run the ball as well as anybody in the league. ...For us, it's about working hard on your preparation and then going out and playing hard for 60 minutes."
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