In 2008, the Washington Football Team began the season 6-2 and finished the year 8-8. In 2011, Washington started 3-1 through the first four games and finished 5-11. In 2018, Washington spent over half the season as a leader, going 6-3 through the first nine games, only to collapse and finish 7-9.
It’s always too early to be certain in the NFL, and few teams know this better than Washington. The team has seen glimpses of promise over the past two decades, and clung to them, only to be disappointed when those glimpses evolved into outliers, rather than flashes of what was to come.
Despite all this cause for caution, Washington’s 1-0 start in 2020 does feel different, in a sense. Washington bested the Philadelphia Eagles, last year’s NFC East champions, and did so by demoralizing Doug Pederson’s squad into submission with a relentless onslaught of defensive pressure.
Washington came back from 17 points down and won against one of the division favorites by double-digits. The team showed a resilience that wasn’t always present in years past and made a strong impression on the league.
But looking to the past, everyone knows how dangerous it can be to get too excited too early. So, with the information we have, let’s discuss: Is the Washington Football Team for real?
Is the Washington Football Team for real in 2020?
Washington’s defensive front is most definitely for real
One element of the 2020 Washington Football Team that’s almost indisputable: The defensive front is everything it was expected to be early on.
Washington’s rushing unit logged eight total sacks against a hapless Eagles offensive line on Sunday. Ryan Kerrigan led the way with 2.0 sacks, while rookie Chase Young and interior lineman Matt Ioannidis came in close behind him with 1.5 sacks each. Beyond that, four additional players contributed to the total, swarming to create pressure on almost 40 percent of Philadelphia’s passing downs.
We always knew Washington’s front was talented; Young, Kerrigan, Sweat, Daron Payne, and Jonathan Allen are all former first-round picks, and Matt Ioannidis, a fifth-rounder, has developed over time into one of the league’s best interior pass rushers. But we needed to see the group in action before we could commit to the assumptions of production.
With Week 1 in the books, we know that Washington’s premier unit is, just as we expected, the defensive line. Yes, they played an Eagles blocking unit that was missing three starters, but they did what they were supposed to do against that group: They wreaked havoc.
Future matchups may not be so lopsided on defense
Washington’s defensive front no doubt deserves credit for the impact they provided against the Eagles in Week 1. Still, it’s unreasonable to expect every week to go as swimmingly as the first week did.
As mentioned above, Washington’s defensive line, while immensely talented, couldn’t have drawn a better hand on Sunday. Philadelphia had already lost projected starters Andre Dillard and Brandon Brooks ahead of the season, and just before the game, right tackle Lane Johnson was also ruled out. These injuries not only led to the Eagles line lacking quality, but also a lack of cohesiveness, which Washington’s defense feasted on.
Washington’s pass rush doesn’t have to get eight sacks a week to continue making an impact, but the fact of the matter is, the circumstances were very favorable for them to produce last weekend.
Even against other middling offensive lines, Washington’s defensive line may not have as much sweeping success because other units will likely be more cohesive than the patchwork group the Eagles employed on Sunday. And when Washington’s defensive line doesn’t dominate, what will become of the team’s unproven linebacker group and secondary? Mismatches may be exposed, and so too may Washington’s still-evolving defense.
Washington has questions to answer on offense as well
Defensive uncertainty aside, there’s also the issue of the offense that Washington must still address heading into Week 2. Washington’s offense produced at a meager rate against the Eagles. Even in the second half, when they put up 20 unanswered points, they often started with extremely favorable field position, courtesy of their defense.
Washington’s offense did enough to win against Philadelphia, and quarterback Dwayne Haskins showed some modest improvement through the final three quarters. But the offense was far from the ideal, self-sufficient model it was intended to be. Improvement is needed in the weeks to come.
With that said, there are some reasons to be optimistic, structurally, about Washington’s offense. Offensive coordinator Scott Turner clearly believes in the importance of pre-snap motion to create misdirection for the defense and gain vital information on what kind of defensive looks the offense is facing.
Turner used some kind of pre-snap motion on 62.9% of Washington’s offensive snaps in Week 1, a figure that was third in the NFL, albeit in a small sample. Additionally, Turner utilized some kind of motion at the snap on 26.9% of the offense’s snaps, also good for third in the league.
Washington’s offense was far from perfect from a game-script perspective. More specifically, they’ll need to cut down on runs in second-down-and-long situations. But Turner’s offense clearly caters to the analytical aspects of the game in some sense, and that should help put the team’s players in a position to produce later on.
Of course, personnel is also an issue for the offense. The receivers had trouble separating consistently on Sunday. The offensive line wasn’t particularly consistent, especially on the left side, and Haskins looked uncomfortable at times. Scheming can help mitigate some of these issues, but Washington’s offense will have to coalesce and find more synergy at some point, or they might not be able to be relied upon to win consistently.
The jury is still out, but Washington is perplexing
Washington took advantage of a favorable matchup in Week 1 and wound up winning decisively. For that, they deserve commendation. The long-awaited culture change appears to be coming to fruition under Ron Rivera, and the rest of the coaching staff has also shown the ability to make halftime adjustments and respond to adversity.
With that being said, Washington has been 1-0 before, and the final 15 games haven’t always gone according to plan. For now, Washington is riding high, but they’ll have to prove that they can come out on top, even when the circumstances aren’t tipped in their favor.
Can Washington do this? We don’t have an answer now. We know they have enough talent to compete, and we know that the coaching staff is implementing a system that might help them mitigate talent gaps against superior opponents. But can the defense be consistent, and can the offense become self-sufficient?
Those are the next items on the checklist. And for Washington, a team that’s suddenly in the competition conversation by their own resounding admission, there’s no time to waste.