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.
Jack Del Rio has a history of spearheading remarkable one-year turnarounds, but his challenge with the Washington Football Team was particularly challenging for several reasons. The defense, which finished sixth-worst in terms of yards allowed last season, had a bevy of young players, a crop of newcomers and an almost entirely new secondary, all of whom had to learn a new scheme during an unpresented offseason and preseason. Marked improvement was expected, but not dominance, at least not this season.
Fast forward 17 weeks, and Washington has an elite defense to thank for its first NFC East title and playoff appearance since 2015. It's also the biggest reason why the team has a chance to knock off Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the first round of the playoffs Saturday night.
Not buying it? Let these statistics provide a clearer picture.
When Del Rio arrived in Carolina in 2002, the Panthers went from last in the league to second in total defense. A decade later, the Denver Broncos went from 20th to second.
And eight years after that, Del Rio has sculpted another defensive masterpiece, this time in the form of Washington's second-ranked unit (304.6 yards allowed per game).
A large part of Washington's success has been its passing defense, which also ranks second behind the Los Angeles Rams at 191.8 yards allowed per game and has been even better the last quarter of the season (155.5-yard average). This is the first season Washington has had a top 3 passing defense since 2000.
Washington's biggest weakness has been its 14th-ranked run defense, but that has not hindered its ability to keep opposing offenses off the scoreboard.
Washington is allowing just 20.6 points per game -- the fourth-best mark in the league -- and has not allowed more than 20 points since Week 10 against the Detroit Lions.
"I think, for me, you're just always pushing and trying to get a level of play that maybe is even unrealistic to get to, but you're going to push for it anyway," Del Rio said. "I talk regularly about not trying to be perfect but giving perfect effort. What I'm looking for is a defense that flies around and that plays fast, that plays aggressive, that understands where they belong, that understands their assignments, that trusts each other, that plays with their hair on fire. When you're doing that, then it looks great."
Washington has flourished defensively because of its first-round-filled front. Chase Young is already a Pro Bowler and the favorite to win Defensive Rookie of the Year, while second-year edge rusher Montez Sweat leads the team in nearly every pass-rushing category. Defensive tackles Daron Payne and Jonathan Allen rarely bring down opposing quarterbacks but cause havoc nonetheless.
The result, with the help of several others, has been 47.0 sacks -- the most since 1991 and eighth-most in franchise history. But Saturday night will be a major test for the group, as the Buccaneers rank third in the league with just 22 sacks allowed.
"Definitely a big challenge," Young said of the wild-card matchup. "You know, it's Tom, one of the best to ever do it. They say the best to ever do it. So we have to focus up, we have to lock back in. The game comes back fast, we're playing Saturday. So it's go time, it's that time."
Even when the defense was at its worst -- it allowed at least 30 points per game in Weeks 2-5 -- it clamped down after halftime to give its offense a chance to mount a comeback. And in Washington's wins, the unit has been nearly flawless during the final two quarters.
It turns out Washington boasts the NFL's best second-half defense in nearly 15 years. It has allowed just 5.7 points per contest, by far the best in the league this season and the lowest since the 2006 Baltimore Ravens. And somehow, it has been even better at home, allowing just 30 points after halftime all season and just a touchdown and a field goal since Week 5.
"We establish high standards everywhere I've been as a D-coordinator," Del Rio said on Dec. 17. "I've kind of laid out a road map in terms of where we're going. Then we're just working toward going there. It takes a combination of players and coaches and working hard together. It's all of us. We're all in it together. I want to establish right away high expectations wherever we are and then fight like crazy to live up to them."
-- "I'm not going to apologize for winning": Head coach Ron Rivera does not care that the Philadelphia Eagles were missing starters on both sides of the ball or that they replaced starting quarterback Jalen Hurts in the fourth quarter of a three-point game. Washington won what it needed to, and now it will represent the NFC East in the playoffs. Everything else "honestly doesn't matter," a passionate Rivera said Monday.
"Nobody seemed to care two weeks ago when we didn't have some of our best players. Nobody cared last week when we didn't have them. So, why should we be concerned if a coach decides to do something he believes is best for his team? That's what I think people need to understand. This is just the way the game is played and the way a lot of things happen."
-- Beating the best: Rivera could have sat in front of his computer Monday morning and told the local media that Saturday night's playoff matchup was just another game. He jokingly did so when a reporter posed the question. Of course that is not the case, Rivera ended up admitting. This is a team who has not made the postseason since 2015 going up against perhaps the best playoff quarterback in league history.
"It's Tom Brady. Let's be realistic about who we're playing. The dude is having another phenomenal year again. He's been hot. Maybe we'll get lucky and catch him down. But right now, he's playing really good football. We'll see. I promise you though, we're going to show up on Saturday night."
-- Terry McLaurin guts it out: Terry McLaurin missed Week 16 with a high-ankle sprain and did not practice leading up to Washington's regular season finale. However, he did some work off to the side during Thursday's practice, which is when Rivera knew his No. 1 wideout would be available.
"I saw him run a 100-yard dash. For whatever reason. I knew he was playing. That's all it took."
Not only did he play, but he was crucial for a struggling Washington offense, hauling in a game-high seven receptions for 70 yards and a touchdown on the team's opening drive. By fighting through the discomfort, McLaurin became the second player in franchise history to record at least 2,000 receiving yards in his first two seasons.
"As the game goes on, you get a little sore, you get a little banged up," McLaurin said. "But that's football. I don't want to make this about my injury or make it seem like I did some heroic thing coming back, because at the end of the day you want to put yourself in the best situation to help your team. That's what I wanted to do this week, and I'm just glad to be on the other side healthy and with a win. A great start to 2021."
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