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DEFENSE

#4 Overall defense

Only three NFL defenses are giving up fewer yards per game than Washington: the 6-0 Steelers, the 4-2 Colts and the 5-2 Buccaneers. The Steelers and Bucs are leading their respective divisions; the Colts and Washington are each in second place in theirs.

#1 Passing defense

It turns out that Washington is first overall in the league in passing defense, as measured by yards per game surrendered, with opposing teams averaging just 185.9 yards per game through the air.

That can’t be right…can it?

There seems to be a perception that the Washington defense isn’t really that good — that there must be some smoke and mirrors involved there to create statistically good results in two areas by being really bad somewhere else.

Let’s consider some of the possibilities.

Run defense

The most obvious place to look is the run defense. Since teams are beating the Football Team, they don’t have to pass very much; all they have to do is run the ball.

Well, maybe. But the WFT defense is ranked 17th overall, giving up 123.3 yards per game to opponents. While 17th isn’t elite, it’s still pretty close to the league median, which is just under 120 yards per game. So, you can’t explain the strong passing and total defense by claiming a total lack of run defense.

Scoring defense

One problem with ranking defenses in the NFL is that it’s based on yards surrendered instead of points. We all know that yards given up don’t lose ball games — points given up are much more important.

Well, it turns out that Washington is in the top third of the league in scoring defense, surrendering an average of 23.6 points per game, which puts then at 11th in the NFL. Nine out of the ten teams ranked above them in scoring defense have winning records. The tenth, the Miami Dolphins, are 3-3.

So, while not quite elite, Washington’s scoring defense seems to be at least adequate to winning football.

Weak competition

Washington has played seven games so far. Three of those have come against NFC East opponents, who are known to be pretty weak. Maybe the good defensive stats have come from playing against weak offenses.

I’ve put together a table with the relative offensive rankings based on per-game numbers for Washington’s seven opponents.

There does seem to be some correlation here. If you average the rankings of a team’s opponents by this point in the season (that is, after 7 weeks), the expected average would hover close to 16.5.

As you can see, the total yards per game and points per game are very close to this number, indicating a fairly normal distribution of offensive strength among Washington’s seven opponents — some good, some bad.

The average ranking of 20.9 for passing offense per game indicates that Washington’s opponents are below average in passing, while the average rushing ranking of 11.3 indicates that those same opponents are above average in rushing the ball.

So, if the Washington defense was, say, 16th overall, 11th in pass defense, 21st in rush defense, and 17th in scoring defense, that would be very much in line with the strength of the seven offenses that they have faced.

The fact is, however, that this analysis points to the Washington defense being dramatically better in overall defense, significantly better against the pass and in preventing scoring, and slightly better than expected against the run. In other words, while there is some correlation with the strength of opposing offenses, the strong ranking of the WFT defensive unit is not explained away by the poor play of opposing offenses.

Even looking at opposing team records doesn’t argue that the defense has benefited from a weak schedule. The combined record of Washington’s opponents through Week 7 is 25-22-1, indicating slightly above average opponents. If you back out the games against Washington, the adjusted record is 20-20-1, which argues that the average quality of Washington’s seven opponents is…well…average.

Lies, damned lies, and statistics

The fact is, basic statistical analysis argues that the Washington defense is playing pretty well this season.

How about something more advanced?

DVOA

Well, Football Outsiders has some proprietary measures. Probably the best known is DVOA, which stands for Defense-adjusted Value Over Average.

DEFENSE DVOA is adjusted based on strength of opponent as well as considering all fumbles, kept or lost, as equal value. Opponent adjustments are currently at 70% strength, and increase each week until they hit 100% after Week 10.

Through Week 7, Football Outsiders ranks Washington 5th overall in Defensive DVOA.

This advanced metric is probably the one most commonly used during the season to track relative performance of offensive, defensive and special teams units. Currently, this advanced metric says pretty much what all of the basic measures above have said — the Washington defense is performing at a high level.

Let’s spotlight a few other defensive stats:

Stats in this section from Team Rankings.com

Sacks

Washington is averaging 3.1 sacks per game, good for 6th in the NFL. The Football Team’s sack percentage is 10.05%, second only to Pittsburgh, at 11.4%.

Takeaways

Washington is tied for 15th in takeaways per game, at 1.3. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they are in the top-10 in interceptions, tied for 8th overall at 1.1 INTs per game.

Interestingly, the WFT defense has done a good job forcing fumbles — tied for 9th overall at 1.3 forced fumbles per game. Unfortunately, they’ve recovered only one of those 9 forced fumbles.

First downs surrendered

The Washington defense is 4th in the league, giving up 18 first downs per game. Tampa Bay is ranked first overall at 17.1 and Seattle is dead last at 28.5.

Third down conversions per game & conversion percentage

This is a relative weakness for the WFT. The defense ranks 18th overall, at 5.4 conversions per game, but interestingly have given up an average of only 4.8 per game at home compared to 6.3 per game on the road.

In 2019, the Washington defense gave up 6.9 3rd down conversions per game.

The Football team is slightly better when you look at 3rd down conversion percentage; the burgundy & gold defense is ranked 14th overall at 40.43% — a significant improvement over the 2019 figure of 48.9%.

Opponents punts per play

For this metric, bigger is better.

Washington is tied for #3 in the league at 0.07. Pittsburgh and Philadelphia are tied for #1 overall at 0.08, while Seattle is last in the league at 0.03.

Overall, statistically

As hard as it is to imagine given the team’s record and some of what the eye test would tell us, the Washington defense is, at least statistically, in the top half of the league in almost every measure, and ranks in the top-ten, and even the top-5 in a number of traditional and advanced metrics. They even lead the league in passing defense as measured by passing yards per game.

I guess the question, then, is, how can the team have a 2-5 record if the defense is playing so well?

I won’t go into depth on that in this article, but there’s one big reason why:

The Washington offense is ranked 30th overall in scoring offense, ahead of only the two New York teams, the Giants and the Jets. Until the offense starts scoring more points, the Football Team is likely to continue losing games despite good performance from its defensive unit.

Highlighting some individual contributors

Montez Sweat

The defensive line

Kendall Fuller

Cole Holcomb

Chase Young

Ryan Kerrigan

Looking ahead to Giants/Lions/Bengals offenses

The three games that come after the Week 8 bye see the Football Team playing against 3 underperforming offenses in the New York Giants, Detroit Lions and Cincinnati Bengals. I have used a similar chart below to the one I used at the top of the article to consider the first seven opponents. Of course, New York appears on both charts with identical numbers.

What should be immediately obvious is that in all four of these metrics — total yards, passing yards, rushing yards and points scored — the three offenses appear vulnerable. The best rank on the chart is 13th overall in passing yards per game for Joe Burrow and the Bengals, followed by 15th overall in scoring by the Lions.

The real question probably isn’t whether the Washington defense can play well against these teams, but whether the Washington offense can be productive and score enough points to win.

The offense has scored more than 20 points only twice this season — 27 against the Eagles and 25 against the Cowboys — both victories.

If Scott Turner can get his young offense to produce, then it’s conceivable that the Washington Football team could be a .500 ball club with a 5-5 record going into the Week 12 matchup against the Cowboys, and could still be competing for the division crown in the Week 17 game in Philadelphia. With the offensive line beginning to gel, Terry McLaurin continuing to produce, Antonio Gibson hitting his stride, and Logan Thomas starting to show consistency as Kyle Allen provides more consistent execution from behind center, it seems increasingly possible that the Football Team could extend it’s current one-game winning streak against its next three opponents before traveling to Dallas for its Thanksgiving Day game.

Of course, there’s no guarantee, and I doubt whether those three teams plan to roll over and play dead.

The Giants have looked better and better, even as they have continued to pile up losses.

The Bengals have played a lot of good football against a lot of quality competition, losing 5 one-score games and tying another. They have a rookie quarterback, a second-year coach and a team that seems always on the cusp of a breakthrough.

The Lions, of course, are 3-3, having lost to some good teams (Bears, Packers, Saints) while beating some weaker ones (Jaguars and Falcons). Lions fans are as likely as WFT fans to be looking at Week 10 as a “get well” game and a probable win.

The Washington Football Team could easily come out of the coming stretch 2-8 or 3-7 and reeling as they head to Dallas for Turkey day.

Chances are that the outcome of those games will come down to whether or not the Washington offense can match the defensive performance, which statistics say is likely to be pretty good.

Poll

Predict Washington’s record going into the Thanksgiving Day game in Dallas

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    5-5

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    4-6

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    3-7

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    2-8

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Poll

Based on the first seven games of the season, who is Washington’s defensive player of the season to date?

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    Matt Ioannidis

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    Jonathan Allen

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    Daron Payne

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    Tim Settle

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    Montez Sweat

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    Chase Young

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    Ryan Kerrigan

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    Kendall Fuller

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    Ronald Darby

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    Deshazor Everett

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    Landon Collins

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    Cole Holcomb

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    Kevin Pierre-Louis

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    Jon Bostic

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    Shaun Dion Hamilton

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    Jimmy Moreland

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    Kamren Curl

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