Defense first? Washington offense recent surge undone by defensive struggles

JP Finlay
·4 min read

Defense? Washington offense recent surge undone by defensive struggles originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

Going into the 2020 season most questions for Washington centered on the offensive side of the ball.

The defense had five first-rounders on a much celebrated defensive front along with playmakers like Landon Collins and Kendall Fuller on the back end. The offense had, well, Terry McLaurin. 

And early on in the year, the offense sputtered.

In the first four games of the season Washington averaged 301 yards-per-game. Without a Week 4 second-half outburst in the pass game, that average likely would have been around 280 yards-per-game, abysmal for a modern NFL offense. For comparison, the 0-9 Jets are the only team in the league averaging fewer than 300 yards-per-game. 

In the last four games, however, things have started to click, at least from a yardage standpoint. 

Washington's offense has averaged 400 yards-per-game. That's a huge jump, and the bulk of it is in the pass game. In the past two games - both losses - Washington has averaged 370 yards passing. 

There's a lot to unpack here. 

Most importantly, even with the jump in offensive yardage, points haven't followed. Washington's averaged 22.75 points in the last four games, not great but about a 15 percent jump from the season average of 20 points-per-game. 

Without points, wins haven't followed either. 

Washington went 1-3 in the first four games while averaging 300 yards of offense, and Washington has gone 1-3 in the last four games while averaging 400 yards of offense.

That doesn't tell the full story either. 

Weirdly the team had eight turnovers in both four-game spurts, so that's not the answer. 

It's also important to note that for the sake of this discussion the Week 5 game against the Rams was taken out of the data. That game featured a steady downpour and the offensive performance was so terrible it would skew the metrics significantly. In that game, Washington gained just 108 yards of total offense. It was a near impossibly bad display of offense. 

The obvious change to the offense was the decision to bench Dwayne Haskins after four weeks and turn the quarterback position over to Kyle Allen, and after he was injured, Alex Smith. And it's vital to point out that the awful Rams performance had Smith and Allen at quarterback. 

But in the last four weeks, two with Allen and mostly two with Smith, the offense has moved the ball well. They haven't scored well, but the yardage is there. 

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Offensive yardage is not the best predictor of team success and points scored, but it's close. The Cardinals lead the NFL with more than 425 yards-per-game, though they're only seventh in scoring. Most importantly, Arizona is 6-3 and tied for the lead in the NFC West. 

Smith's performance in Detroit on Sunday was by far the best display by a Washington passer this season.

The 36-year-old veteran threw for 390 yards with no turnovers and he connected with eight different pass catchers. The Lions defense is known to be vulnerable, but typically on the ground, and Smith moved the ball throughout the game. 

Washington's inability to score in the first half was almost laughable. A promising first drive ended with a bad reverse in the red zone followed by a bad sack that knocked the team out of field goal range. Later in the first half kicker Dustin Hopkins missed another field goal attempt and just before halftime, McLaurin fumbled. 

Still, the yardage was there. 

Washington was undone by a defense that allowed three passing touchdowns in the first half, all of which were at least 15 yards. 

In a Week 9 loss to the Giants, the Washington defense got beat on the ground and through the air. The Giants piled up more than 100 yards rushing in just the first half and the defense was incapable of forcing any turnovers. 

What is the takeaway then?

It's hard to know definitively. 

In the last four games the Washington offense is outproducing expectations, while the defense is certainly far below preseason predictions. Statistically, there are metrics that highlight the Washington defense, like a Top 10 performance in yardage allowed and the best passing yardage defense in the NFL. 

Watching the games, however, it's clear the defense needs to improve. The offense isn't going to continue to post 400 yards-per-game, but the improved efficiency seems real. The defense needs to match that, and maybe Washington could win some games.