The defense that stumbled in 2021 must now step up in Washington


Many of Washington's defensive stats in 2021 — 25th in points against, 29th in passing yards allowed, 32nd in passing touchdowns allowed and 31st in third-down percentage — would lead one to assume that the franchise initiated a total housecleaning on that side of the ball. The Commanders, however, opted to simply rearrange a bit of their furniture.

This past offseason, the organization cut ties with defensive line depth in Matt Ioannidis and Tim Settle and also moved on from Landon Collins. In terms of acquisitions, Efe Obada was signed to back up the starters up front, while Phidarian Mathis, Percy Butler and Christian Holmes were drafted in the second, fifth and seventh rounds, respectively. 

While the subtractions may ultimately outweigh the additions, the overall feeling is that nothing super-significant changed personnel-wise on that half of the roster. The coaching staff, meanwhile, has remained fully intact, too.

Jack Del Rio, the coordinator in charge of the defense, explained the reasoning for the lack of monumental moves to his unit earlier this month.

"We like the core that we have," Del Rio said in a non-controversial part of his otherwise controversial presser at OTAs. "We think we have a good core when we're healthy. So staying healthy, obviously, is key for everybody."

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The core that Del Rio is referring to does have names that stand out. Jonathan Allen reached a new level of performance in 2021 (a breakout that culminated in a Pro Bowl berth), while Chase Young, Montez Sweat, Daron Payne, William Jackson III, Kendall Fuller and Kam Curl all have shown they can more than hold their own on an NFL field.

So, Del Rio and Ron Rivera's trust in those players is at least reasonable, as is the hope for a few of those contributors to be more available in 2022. Young and Sweat combined to miss 15 contests last year, third-round choice Benjamin St-Juste was sidelined for eight matchups and Jackson III had to sit out on four occasions. Clearly, fewer absences from them would be quite beneficial.

Jamin Davis hasn't even been mentioned yet, by the way. Injuries weren't the issue for him as a rookie; instead, he was mostly invisible because he had problems transitioning to the pros after a rapid college rise at Kentucky. A tangible impact from him is expected now that he's more experienced.

But still, in watching Washington go through its OTAs and minicamp portion of the calendar, the team's decision to basically run it back with a bunch that was so maddening in 2021 was difficult to get past.

With the acknowledgment that arriving at any serious conclusions early in the summer is, to be blunt, a dumb exercise, the initial signs are nonetheless pointing to a defense that appears to be as thin as ever.

No, Ioannidis and Settle weren't elite on the inside, but the interior defensive line is probably in worse shape despite the selection of Alabama's Mathis.

The edges, meanwhile, gained the presence of Obaba but also will rely on the lightly-used James-Smith Williams and Casey Toohill and some combination of the unproven Shaka Toney, William Bradley-King, Bunmi Rotimi and Daniel Wise. Young, who's rehabbing a torn ACL, and Sweat better be ready to get after opposing quarterbacks a ton.

Behind the line, Davis' development will be crucial — but he was sharing starter's reps with journeyman David Mayo during the latest stretch of practices, mind you — as will be Cole Holcomb's full-time transition to the middle. The other linebackers, like Mayo, Khaleke Hudson, and the handful of undrafted longshots, are... insipid. 

As for the secondary, Fuller and Jackson III represent solid pieces on the outside, and Curl and McCain are a reliable tandem on the back end. If St-Juste can get right in his second go-round with the club, then he'd introduce a unique skill set to the cornerback room. Yet, once again, the backups — which feature lightly-paid veterans and raw youngsters — would cause panic among fans if they are required to suit up for meaningful snaps.

Here's how to quickly sum up all of that analysis: For the Commanders to experience a best-case outcome on defense, they'll need the 2021 group to regain its footing in a multitude of areas, and if that Plan A fails to unfold, Plans B and C are awfully shaky.

Now, this isn't to suggest that a dramatic turnaround is 100% unfathomable. When Washington ripped off a four-game winning streak a season ago, the defense thrived against Tom Brady, Russell Wilson and Derek Carr. That successful span was indicative of what's possible when the current crew is in sync.

"As the season went on, we got stronger because guys were just understanding — understanding the defense, understanding where they were supposed to be, coaches included," McCain told reporters recently. "Everybody's a part of this."

Let's say Young resembles his Defensive Rookie of the Year self, Sweat is a terror across from him, Jackson III is more comfortable in Del Rio's scheme and the Carson Wentz-led offense chips in with more points. Toss those scenarios on top of the continuity that ought to exist with most of the defensive nucleus returning and a sudden climb up the rankings and standings can transpire. 

That's a lot to bank on, though, and by not inserting many different options via free agency or the draft, the Commanders have set themselves up for enormous scrutiny if more struggles arise.

"It was definitely humbling," Jonathan Allen said of 2021's events.

And further humbling, unfortunately, is definitely feasible come the fall.

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