The Washington Football Team won the NFC East in 2020 with a 7-9 record. This year, the division-leading Dallas Cowboys already have eight wins, so that isn't going to happen again. At 2-6, Washington is highly unlikely to make a run at a division repeat and is as close to the bottom of the conference standings as the final Wild Card spot. In Ron Rivera's second season at the helm, the Football Team surely still has playoff aspirations but has very little margin for error as the second half of its season begins.
Still, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have very recent memories of how dangerous Washington can be, and it's losing record so far has come against a tough run of opponents including the Packers, Chiefs, Bills, Saints and Chargers. Washington also had a bye last week, just like the Buccaneers, and may be able to get some wounded players, particularly along a battered offensive line, back into action in Week 10. Week One starting quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick isn't expected to return just yet but it was current starter Taylor Heinicke who nearly dragged the Football Team to an upset victory over Tampa Bay in last year's Wild Card matchup at FedEx Field.
Heinicke has opened the last seven games for the Football Team, throwing 11 touchdown passes against nine interceptions and compiling an 84.3 passer rating. He continues to make an impact with his legs, as he did in last year's playoff game, rushing for 232 yards and a touchdown on 36 carries, all of which rank second on the team to Antonio Gibson. Heinicke's interception rate of 3.3% is tied for fourth-worst in the NFL among qualifying starters and Washington's passing attack ranks 20th overall. His favorite target by a wide margin is young star receiver Terry McLaurin, a 2019 third-round pick who ranks 20th in the NFL with 573 receiving yards. McLaurin's 76 targets overall are the 10th most of any NFL player; no other Washington wideout has more than 29.
Gibson, meanwhile, has 586 yards from scrimmage, including a 73-yard touchdown catch and three more scores on the ground. His yards per carry have dropped to 4.0 in 2021 after he averaged 4.7 in his very promising 2020 rookie season. Heinicke has thrown the ball far more often to running back J.D. McKissic, who is second on the team in targets (42), receptions (33) and receiving yards (332). Tight end Logan Thomas, a converted quarterback, had an enormous 72-catch breakout seasons in 2020 but has missed the last four weeks with a hamstring injury. The Washington office could get Thomas off injured reserve and back in the mix this Sunday.
Washington's offensive line got an offseason makeover (more on that below) but has had to use a variety of lineup combinations this year due to injuries. Of the five Week One starters, right tackle Sam Cosmi has missed three games and right guard Brandon Scherff has missed four, while center Chase Roullier is likely now out for the season due to a Week Eight injury. Washington's rushing attack still ranks 12th in the NFL and the team's sacks allowed per pass play rate is 10th.
The more surprising part about Washington's season has been the results on defense. Led by a defensive line that starts four recent first-round picks, including 2020 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Chase Young, the Football Team finished in the top five in a long list of defensive categories last year, including yards allowed (second), points allowed (fifth), sacks per pass play (fifth), interception rate (fourth), passing yards allowed (second) and red zone touchdown percentage allowed (fourth). This year, Washington is 29th in points and yards allowed and doesn't rank in the top 10 in any significant defensive category. The team's third-down conversion rate allowed of 56.5% is dead last in the NFL.
Even so, the Football Team defense is not one to be taken lightly, particularly by Tampa Bay's offensive line, which must contend with not only young but star defensive tackle Jonathan Allen (a team-high 6.0 sacks) and fellow interior-line standout Daron Payne. Even with 2019 first-round pick Montez Sweat currently sidelined by a fractured jaw, Washington's front is a challenge for any group of blockers. The Football Team also used a first-round pick on athletic off-ball linebacker Jamin Davis this past spring and strengthened its secondary with the signing of cornerback William Jackson.
The Buccaneers had to claw their way out of FedExField with a victory in last year's playoffs as part of their eight-game run to end the season. As they come out of their bye week in 2021 they hope to get another winning streak started. Here's a closer look at some of the challenges and opportunities the Bucs will face when they come out of their bye week and return to action on Sunday:
FOOTBALL TEAM DIFFERENCE-MAKERS
Washington has one of the most loaded defensive lines in the NFL thanks to a series of recent first-round picks, though it will now be without defensive end Montez Sweat for about a month. Two of the other four front-line starters are included below; the fourth, defensive tackle Daron Payne, is a very strong player in his own right, particularly against the run. Safety Landon Collins hasn't quite been the difference-maker the Football Team was hoping for at safety but he's being utilized as something of a hybrid linebacker now. Rookie Jamin Davis is starting to get more playing time and 2019 fifth-round linebacker Cole Holcomb has turned into a tackling machine in the middle. That same draft produced another mid-round home run for the receiver corps, which we'll look at more closely below. Here are four Washington standouts who will be among the toughest challenges for Tampa Bay on Sunday:
1. DT Jonathan Allen. Allen was the first of the Football Team's four straight first-round defensive linemen, coming off the board 17th overall in 2017. He was followed by Payne in 2018, Sweat in 2019 and Chase Young, who is also on this list. The result in 2020 was the league's fourth-best pass rush in terms of sacks per pass play, plus overall rankings of second in yards allowed and fourth in points allowed. Unexpectedly, Washington's defense has been significantly less destructive so far in 2021, though that's no fault of Allen's. The fifth-year pro leads the team with 6.0 sacks and is also tops in quarterback hits (19) and tackles for loss (eight). Allen is tied for 10th in the league in sacks and is tied for first among interior linemen. Last year, he ranked third among NFL interior linemen with a pressure rate of 11.9% on his pass-rush snaps, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, thanks to one of the quickest inside get-offs in the league. This year he has upped that to 14.0% and has been credited with 30 pressures by NGS. Allen is also one of the Football Team's best run-stoppers, and the team actually ranks 10th in that category, and seventh in yards allowed per carry. Last year, Allen's constant pressure on the quarterback only resulted in 2.0 sacks but this season he is turning more of those pressures and hits into complete QB takedowns. Obviously, the need for opposing lines to stop Allen from collapsing the pocket creates more one-on-one rush opportunities for his teammates at the ends of the line.
2. WR Terry McLaurin. McLaurin is one of the most productive receivers to come out of the 2019 draft, along with the likes of A.J. Brown, DK Metcalf and Deebo Samuel. In fact, McLaurin ranks second only to Brown in that class in receiving yards per game, at 70.5, even though he was selected in the third round after such receivers as N'Keal Harry, JJ Arcega-Whiteside, Parris Campbell, Andy Isabella and Jalen Hurd. McLaurin was productive from the get-go, with 58 catches for 919 yards and seven touchdowns as a rookie and then 87 catches for 1,118 yards and four touchdowns last year. The 6-0, 205-pound wideout runs sharp routes with deceptive breaks and is good at beating press coverage. In addition, he's a problem once he has the ball in his hands. He ranked sixth in the NFL last year with 468 yards after the catch, and that YAC was 154 more than his "expected YAC," the fourth-highest total in that category last year. According to Next Gen Stats, McLaurin is particularly effective on in-breaking routes, on which he had 638 yards in 2020, second most in the NFL. He continues to find success without the Football Team finding another highly productive wideout to pair him with. McLaurin accounted for almost exactly 29% of his team's passing yards in each of his first two seasons, and he's right on that mark again through eight contests in 2021.
3. DE Chase Young. The second-overall pick in the 2020 draft, Young made sure the Football Team didn't regret that decision by earning a Pro Bowl selection his debut campaign and then winning the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year award. His 7.5 sacks last year were not the strongest depiction of how dominant he was, particularly down the stretch when he had multiple QB pressures in seven of Washington's last eight games. When Young was on the field last year, the Football Team pressured opposing passers on 30.3% of their dropbacks; when he was off the field that rate fell to 24.6%. Though still just 22 years old, Young is clearly one of Washington's team leaders; in fact, the team made that official by naming him a captain in his rookie season. Young is the prototypical edge-rushing star with an incredible mix of size (6-5, 264), speed and strength and he was practically unstoppable at Ohio State, with 30.5 sacks in just 34 games. What has made him an instant star is that he pairs those tools with a well-developed set of pass-rush moves, strong technique and an ability to quickly diagnose the offense's intentions. Last season, Young more often rushed off the right end of Washington's defensive front but this season he has seen a lot more snaps on the other end, which will make him a challenge for another star from the 2020 draft, Buccaneers right tackle Tristan Wirfs. Young has just 1.5 sacks so far this year, along with five QB hits, and his pressure rate is down from last year. All that means is he is probably primed to heat up significantly in the second half.
4. G Brandon Scherff. Washington is hopeful about getting their Pro Bowl right guard back on the field in Week 10 after he has missed the last four games with a knee injury. Scherff returned to practice in the week leading up to the Football Team's Week Eight contest in Denver, though he was still named inactive on that Sunday. That step in the right direction in practice and the extra week of rest in Washington's bye week are good reasons to believe Scherff will be back in action this Sunday, and that will make a Washington O-Line that has been hit hard by injuries quite a bit more stout. Scherff has already been named to four Pro Bowls in six full seasons, including 2019 and 2020, and last year he was also a first-team Associated Press All-Pro. Scherff was the fifth-overall pick in the 2015 draft and many assumed that, with that sort of investment, Washington would try to play him at left tackle. Instead, the team kept him at his natural position and has ended up with one of the best guards in the NFL. Scherff's only real struggle has been staying healthy, as he hasn't played a full season since 2016. That didn't stop Washington from putting the franchise tag on him this past offseason. The 6-5, 315-pound Scherff has incredible lower-body strength, which allows him to anchor and hold his ground in pass protection and move defenders off their spots in the run game. He is also very good at getting additional blocks on the second level and taking defenders out while on the move on outside runs.
Washington's rushing attack is 10th in the NFL in yards per carry, at 4.57, though that has something to do with the scrambling ability of their quarterback, Taylor Heinicke. Despite injuries to several starting offensive lineman, the Football Team has done a pretty good job of keeping Heinicke clean, ranking 10th in sacks allowed per pass play (5.36%). That group may also get starters Brandon Scherff and Sam Cosmi back from injury this week. The Football Team's defense has struggled much more than anticipated but has managed to hold opposing backs to 4.0 yards per carry, seventh-best in the NFL. Offseason addition DeAndre Carter has performed well in the return game, with Washington ranking seventh in punt return average (10.0) and fourth in kickoff return average (25.6). Here are some more specific ways in which the Football Team has performed well during the first half of the 2021 season:
- With or without Heinicke's scrambling, the Football Team has been very successful running the ball on first down. Washington has had 101 first-down rushing plays and 60 of them have gained four or more yards, which is defined as a "successful" play. That 59.4% success rate on first-down carries is the top mark in the NFL. Interestingly, however, Washington is only the 23rd most likely team to run on first down.
- Sticking with that theme, the Football Team's rush defense has also been quite good on first downs. Only 36 of the 112 rushing attempts (32.1%) against Washington on first down have gone for four or more yards, the second-lowest mark against any NFL defense this year. As such, opposing offenses are averaging 8.28 yards to go on second down, the fifth-longest figure in the league.
- While Washington's defense hasn't provided the expected results overall, it has been stingy when opposing offenses get close to the goal line. The Football Team has faced 14 goal-to-go situations this season and has given up eight touchdowns on those possessions, for a TD rate of 57.1% that is the third lowest allowed by any defense in the NFL. Washington has even turned three of those drives into blanks for the opponent, including two takeaways.
- Ron Rivera's crew has done a good job of playing clean football. The 47 penalties accepted against Washington this season are the seventh lowest in the NFL. Washington has only drawn two unnecessary roughness calls so far, the third-lowest total in the league.
Washington's biggest struggles come on third downs, where they rank 27th offensively (34.7%) and 32nd defensively (56.5%). The Football Team defense is also giving up 23.0 first downs per game, fourth-worst in the league, while the offense is last in goal-to-go touchdown efficiency and second-to-last in red zone touchdown rate. In addition:
- As noted, Washington's defense has had trouble getting off the field on third downs. By far the biggest problem for the Football Team has been stopping medium-length third downs, defined as those needing four to six yards to be converted. Washington opponents have remarkably converted on 76.0% of such attempts, easily the highest rate against any NFL defense. The team in 31st place, Jacksonville, has allowed a conversion rate of 58.6% and the NFL average is 41.9%.
- The Football Team's passing attack ranks 20th overall in yards per game but tends to bog down as it gets into scoring territory. On passing plays snapped inside the opponent's 30-yard line, Washington has a passer rating of 74.7, the worst in the NFL. The league average is 103.1. Heinicke has thrown three interceptions in this part of the field, tied for the most in the NFL.
- The Washington defense has been stung by big plays, particularly through the air. The Football Team has allowed 132 plays of 10 or more yards, the third most in the in NFL. Their 109 passing plays of 10 or more yards allowed is also third worst, and their 14 touchdowns allowed on those 109 big plays is the second most.
- Washington is on its second kicker this season, with Chris Blewitt replacing Dustin Hopkins in Week Seven. Overall, the Football Team ranks 26th in field goal percentage (73.7%), with Blewitt missing three of his five tries so far. It's the longer kicks that have troubled Washington, as Blewitt and Hopkins have combined to miss five of 14 tries from 40 yards or further. The team made another change at the position this week, replacing Blewitt with former Panther Joey Slye.
NEW FACES IN 2021
Washington brought in quite a few new faces in Ron Rivera's second year at the helm, including a trio of receivers in Curtis Samuel, Adam Humphries and DeAndre Carter (and a fourth, Dyami Brown, in the third round of the draft. Obviously, former Dolphin (and Buccaneer) quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick was supposed to be the new starter but he quickly landed on injured reserve. (More on that below.) The Football Team recently switched kickers from Dustin Hopkins to Chris Blewitt. Also, as noted below, the draft brought in two new starters, the offensive line got a makeover and the defense found a new asset in the secondary.
1. CB William Jackson. Seeking to tighten up the secondary behind the team's otherworldly defensive line, the Football Team made Jackson, the former Bengal first-rounder, one of their top free agency priorities. Jackson started 48 games over four seasons in Cincinnati, recording three interceptions and 41 passes defensed. He's played in and started six games so far in Washington and has 18 tackles, one pick and five passes defensed.
2. G Ereck Flowers/T Charles Leno/T Sam Cosmi. Washington rebuilt 60% of its offensive line in the offense, using a variety of acquisition methods, all within a span of about three weeks in the spring. First, just two days before the draft, the Football team swapped seventh-round picks with Miami to bring back Flowers, who had made a successful transition to guard in Washington in 2019. Three days later, the team spent a mid-second round pick on Cosmi, the University of Texas tackle. Then, when the Bears released Leno in early May the Football Team brought the eighth-year tackle in. Though injuries have hit the Washington O-Line hard this season, the preferred plan is to have Leno at left tackle, Flowers at left guard and Cosmi at right tackle.
3. LB Jamin Davis. Washington used the 19th-overall pick in the 2021 draft to address the middle of their defense with Kentucky's Davis, a big and athletic linebacker with a somewhat small amount of experience (11 college starts). Davis has only started three games so far, but that includes the last two as the Washington defense continues to adjust to the loss of linebacker Jon Bostic a month ago. Davis has played 55% of the Football Team's defensive snaps so far, but that includes marks of 98% and 79% in the last two games. He has contributed 34 tackles and one quarterback hit.
1. DE Montez Sweat. Sweat, one of Washington's cavalcade of stars on the defensive front, suffered a non-displaced jaw injury in Week Eight against Denver and is expected to miss at least four weeks. Even with Washington's bye week, that's not enough time to get him back on the field against Tampa Bay. Sweat is second on the Washington defense in both sacks (4.0) and quarterback hits (12).
2. C Chase Roullier. Week Eight was a rough one for the Football Team's injury report. Already playing without Cosmi and Scherff, Washington's offensive line lost one of its most steady performers, center Roullier, to an ankle injury that is likely going to end his season. Washington may get Cosmi and Scherff back after the bye but now must replace the anchor who had started each of the first eight games.
3. QB Ryan Fitzpatrick. When Fitzpatrick suffered a hip injury in the season opener – his debut for Washington, his ninth NFL team – it looked like a post-bye week return was a reasonable hope for the team. However, Fitzpatrick's recovery has been a bit slower than first anticipated and he may not make it back into the lineup to face his seventh NFL team in Week 10. That would be a bit unfortunate in terms of rounding out his long career, as the Buccaneers are the only team in the league against which he's never played a game.