The Washington Football Team has created a very clear identity in their first year with Ron Rivera at the helm, and it’s one based solely around their defense. There were already some great pieces on this defense, but getting Chase Young with the second overall pick in the draft helped this unit take a step towards being elite.
Don’t believe me? Check out where their defense ranks. Sixth in total defense DVOA, fourth in pass defense DVOA, 13th in run defense DVOA, ninth in points allowed, fifth in yards allowed, first in passing yards allowed, 17th in rushing yards allowed, sixth in pressure rate, sixth in pass rush win rate, third in sacks, 14th in run stop win rate, and 23rd in takeaways.
In other words, the only thing this defense doesn’t do at a high level is stop the run and take the ball away. Even then, their run defense is above average, as they’re allowing just 4.3 yards per rush. But the run has definitely been their weakness this year; all seven of their losses have come when their opponent accumulates over 100 rushing yards, whereas their three wins have come in games where the defense has been able to limit the ground game.
That’s not to suggest that the ground game inherently matters, but is more of a reflection of how good this defense can be. They’ve held seven of their ten opponents below 210 passing yards, so when they can also limit the running game it equals out to a hamstrung offense. In other words, their pass defense is so good that when they can stop the run too, they become dominant.
A big reason for their pass defense being as good as it is has to do with the pass rush. Quarterbacks rarely have any time to dissect the coverages, thanks in large part to the edge rushing trio of Young, Ryan Kerrigan, and Montez Sweat. Kerrigan has 5.5 sacks, just a hair behind the team leader, Sweat, with six. Surprisingly, big nose tackle Tim Settle - who’s been playing on just a third of defensive snaps this year - is third on the team in sacks with four, just ahead of Young, who has 3.5. That doesn’t mean Young has been bad; quite the opposite, as the rookie is eighth in pass rush win rate among edge rushers.
Young has just gotten so much attention from offensive linemen that he’s often unable to create a sack, which has helped create opportunities for Kerrigan and Sweat. Similarly, defensive tackle Jonathan Allen only has two sacks - which ties him with safeties Landon Collins and Kamren Curl, as well as linebacker Jon Bostic - but ranks eighth in pass rush win rate among interior defensive linemen. That’s likely played a large role in Settle racking up sacks as well.
But it all comes back to the run defense for Washington. Fellow defensive tackle Da’Ron Payne clocks in at 10th in the NFL in run stop win rate for interior linemen, and he’s been effective in stuffing several runs at the line of scrimmage. However, opposing teams have noticed that and have schemed around him, easily exploiting the over-aggressive pursuits of the other defensive linemen and taking advantage of this average linebacker corps, featuring Bostic, Kevin Pierre-Louis, and Cole Holcomb.
In the Cowboys’ case, they’re coming off arguably their best rushing game of the year. Ezekiel Elliott had his first 100-yard rushing performance of the year, Tony Pollard had 60 rushing yards on just five carries, and the offensive line was opening up holes to run through with regularity. A big part of that had to do with Zack Martin moving to right tackle, which helped out Connor McGovern at right guard. It’s also worth noting that both Martin and Connor Williams are top ten in the NFL in run block win rate for guards.
With the Cowboys starting to figure out their running game, and with Andy Dalton having regained his confidence after throwing three touchdowns to beat the Vikings on Sunday, they may actually be well-prepared to face this Washington defense. Well, the most prepared you can be for a defense of this caliber. If they can effectively attack this defense’s weaknesses - namely running the ball with success - it’ll open up a lot of avenues for success for this Cowboys offense.