The Washington Football Team is the third club in league history to win a division title with a losing record, finishing atop the NFC East at 7-9. The first two teams on that list, the 2010 Seattle Seahawks (7-9) and the 2014 Carolina Panthers (7-8-1) both promptly won their opening playoff game.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who are headed to Washington's FedExField on Saturday night for a Wild Card game, don't need that sobering bit of history to know they face a very serious challenge as they try to win on the road and stay alive in their first postseason since 2007.
The Football Team quite simply has one of the best defenses in the NFL. Washington lost five of its first six games and gave up 30-plus points in four of them. Then a defense powered by a young front line found its footing in mid-October and has since held all but two opponents to 20 or fewer points. Second-overall pick Chase Young, quite possibly the NFL Defensive Rookie of the year and already a team captain, has 7.5 sacks and four forced fumbles and has publicly stated that he wants a shot at Tom Brady in the playoffs.
Young is joined on Washington's starting defensive line by three other first-round picks in the last four years: defensive end Montez Sweat and defensive tackles Daron Payne and Jonathan Allen. The Football Team's ability to produce pressure with a four-man rush is a key reason that Washington stands second in yards and points allowed and second in pass defense, among a multitude of other high defensive rankings.
Kendall Fuller and Ronald Darby give the Football Team a reliable pair of corners and Fuller leads the team with four interceptions and 11 passes defensed. Darby hasn't picked off a pass this year but he is fifth in the league with 16 pass break-ups. Washington is allowing just 191.8 net passing yards per game in 2020, a rather impressive figure in an increasingly pass-happy league.
Washington's offensive results haven't been impressive but it is 5-1 with Alex Smith starting at quarterback and Smith is who the Buccaneers will face on Saturday. The first-overall pick way back in 2005, the same year that the Green Bay Packers famously took Aaron Rodgers at number 24, knows how to win; Smith has a career record of 99-67-1 in the regular season, and while he's just 2-5 in the postseason he does have a 14-2 TD-INT ratio and a 97.4 passer rating in those games.
The Football Team's offense finished the season 25th in scoring and 30th in yards and ranked in the mid to late 20s in most categories, including sacks allowed per pass play. Washington only averaged 4.83 yards per play, second-worst in the NFL. However, that offense only had the trio of wide receiver Terry McLaurin, running back Antonio Gibson and tight end Logan Thomas playing in a game started by Alex Smith five times.
McLaurin has proved his surprising rookie season was no fluke, giving Washington a 1,000-yard receiver for the first time since 2016. More on him below. Gibson also cracked 1,000 yards from scrimmage and scored 11 touchdowns. The Buccaneers now how dynamic of a player Washington got in the third round with Gibson, who was listed in the draft as a wide receiver. According to Head Coach Bruce Arians, when the Buccaneers were on the clock with the 45th pick they were choosing between Minnesota safety Antoine Winfield, Jr. and Memphis's Gibson. Washington got Gibson 21 picks later. Arians did draft Thomas while with the Cardinals in 2014, though Thomas was a quarterback at the time. More on that below, as well. Thomas has had a breakout season, giving Smith a reliable option underneath.
On special teams, punter Tress Way has had an excellent season but the return and cover units have been a mixed bag for Washington. Kicker Dustin Hopkins has been reliable from inside 40 yards (12-13) but a little shakier from 40 and beyond (20-25).
Chase Young is getting what he wants: a shot at Brady. But the Buccaneers are also getting what they wanted back in March when they made one of the boldest free agent moves ever in landing The G.O.A.T. to lead them back to the playoffs. The most accomplished postseason quarterback of all time against a young and aggressive defense that wants to keep him from adding to his NFL glory…it's a thrilling way to start the playoffs. Here are some specific challenges and opportunities the Buccaneers will face when they take on Washington Sunday night:
FOOTBALL TEAM DIFFERENCE-MAKERS
Alex Smith has certainly made a difference in the win column when he's been on the field for the Football Team, and his incredible comeback story surely serves as an inspiration for his teammates, as well. The Washington offensive line has allowed 50 sacks but guard Brandon Scherff has played very well since returning from an early-season knee injury and will be headed to his fourth Pro Bowl in the last five years. In his second year with the team, linebacker Jon Bostic led the defense in 2020 with 118 tackles and also had 3.0 sacks and an interception. Montez Sweat leads the team with nine sacks and the team has two backup edge rushers (Ryan Kerrigan and Tim Settle) who have five-plus sacks. In addition to those players, here are four Washington standouts who could make things difficult for the Buccaneers on Sunday:
1. DE Chase Young. Young was the second-overall pick in the 2020 draft and likely would have been the consensus top choice if there wasn't a franchise quarterback like Joe Burrow available. The former Ohio State star hasn't disappointed and is at the top of most lists predicting the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. Young burst onto the NFL scene with 2.5 sacks in his first two games but then hit a bit of a midseason lull in the sack department. Unfortunately for the Buccaneers, he's heating up again as the playoffs arrive. Young has a sack in three of the Football Team's last four games and four of the last six. According to Next Gen Stats, he also has multiple quarterback pressures in seven of his last eight outings. Washington already made him a team captain as a rookie and his NFL peers already made him a Pro Bowl selection, joining Minnesota wideout Justin Jefferson as the only rookies to make it this year. 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 OSU, 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. The Football Team does flip Young and Sweat at times but Young has more often rushed over the left tackle this season, which makes him a tall task for Donovan Smith on Saturday night.
2. RB Antonio Gibson. As noted above, the Buccaneers considered drafting Gibson in the second round, and while they are extremely pleased with the player they chose instead, safety Antoine Winfield, Jr., they likely would have been happy with Gibson's results as well. Washington certainly is. The rookie back just recently returned from a toe injury that cost him two games but has looked as good as ever in the last two games with 136 rushing yards. Gibson shares the backfield with J.D. McKissic and Peyton Barber but is the team's leading rusher with 795 yards, 11 touchdowns and an average of 4.7 yards per carry. Moreover, the Washington offense is much more difficult to predict when Gibson is on the field; according to Next Gen Stats, the Football Team throws the ball 73% of the team when McKissic is in and runs the ball 69% of the time when Barber is in. With Gibson, the run-pass ratio is 50/50, and it makes sense because he was an extremely versatile player at Memphis. He was actually listed as a wide receiver in college but he made big plays on the ground as well and has the size for running back at 6-0, 228. Despite his size, Gibson ran a 4.39 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine and he's definitely a big-play threat in the open field. He had 21 runs of 10 or more yards during the regular season, including five that went for 20 or more, and he also caught passes for 40 and 21 yards among his 36 receptions.
3. DT Jonathan Allen. If the Buccaneers' protection schemes pay too much attention to slowing down Young and Sweat, they may find themselves dealing with a lot of pressure from Allen up the middle. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Allen pressured the passer on 11.9% of his pass rushes this season, the third-best rate among interior linemen with at least 200 rushes this season. Next Gen totals have shown Allen's ability to get to passer improve in each of his three seasons since his 2017 rookie season and his mark this year is a career high. On pass rushes this season in which he has lined up on the interior line, Allen has crossed the line of scrimmage in an average of 0.95 seconds, the sixth-quickest in the league among interior linemen. All that pressure has only produced two sacks but he is second on the team to Sweat with 14 quarterback hits. What makes Allen even more of a key figure in that star-studded front, however, is that he might be the team's best run defender. Washington's defense as a whole has had a highs and lows against the run this year – five games allowing between 144 and 181 yards but four allowing between 21 and 70 – but Allen has been strong in the ground game all season. He's fourth on the team overall with 63 tackles but 55 of those have come in the running game, the most by any of the team's linemen and second only to linebacker Jon Bostic's 60.
4. WR Terry McLaurin. A third-round pick in 2019, Ohio State's McLaurin was the 12th receiver off the board, after the likes of N'Keal Harry, JJ Arcega-Whiteside, Parris Campbell, Andy Isabella and Jalen Hurd. McLaurin quickly established himself as one of the better receivers in that class (along with the likes of D.K. Metcalf, A.J. Brown and Marquise Brown) with 58 catches for 919 yards and seven touchdowns as a rookie. McLaurin topped that in his second season with 87 catches for 1,118 yards and four touchdowns. 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. His 468 yards after the catch this season ranked sixth in the NFL. McLaurin also picked up 188 yards after the first defender made contact with him this season, third in the league behind fellow young stars Justin Jefferson and A.J. Brown. According to Next Gen Stats, McLaurin ranked third in the NFL in 2020 the amount of yards after the catch he compiled over his expected YAC, which measures things such as separation from the nearest defender and where the ball was caught. He was second among all wide receivers in that category, with Saints running back Alvin Kamara in the top spot.
Washington's defense produced excellent 2020 numbers in most categories. In addition to those already noted above, the Football Team ranked fifth in interception percentage, fourth in sacks per pass play and third in first downs allowed per game. The Washington offense doesn't have as many positive league rankings but it has been strong at the end of games, helping the Football Team outscore its opponents 130-61 in the fourth quarter. In addition, with Gibson leading the way Washington has been able to score on the ground, ranking 13th in the league with 18 rushing touchdowns. Here are some more specific areas in which the Football Team has excelled in 2020:
· Washington's defense has allowed the fourth fewest points in the league in 2020 but the Buccaneers better specifically hope that they don't have to mount a second-half comeback on Saturday night. The Football Team has allowed an average of fewer than one touchdown – 5.7 points – in the second halves of its games this year, and that figure drops to 3.0 per game when playing at FedExField.
· The Football Team's passing attack has only put up the 25th most yards per game and the 30th highest yards per play figure, but it does feature a RB-WR-TE trio that no other team can match in terms of its pass-catching productivity. WR Terry McLaurin led the team with 87 catches in 2020 but right behind were RB J.D. McKissic (80) and TE Logan Thomas (72). That makes Washington the only team in the league that had three players with 70-plus receptions in 2020.
· The Football Team defense has been quite good at defending short passes. On 149 short passes out to the right side of the field in 2020, Washington allowed a league-low average of 4.40 yards per play. The opposing completion percentage of 67.1% is also the fourth-lowest mark in the league. Washington's defense ranks fourth and eighth in those categories, respectively, in short passes over the middle, as well.
· Washington punted 73 times during the 2020 regular season, second most in the NFL. That in itself is obviously not a great thing, but punter Tress Way has at least helped the Football Team flip field position in most cases. Way's net average of 44.3 yards per punt ranks fourth in the NFL and he has an excellent ratio of 23 punts downed inside the 20 to three touchbacks.
Despite having one of the league's best scoring defenses, Washington has only outscored its opponents by six points in 2020. The defense has little to critique but placekicker Dustin Hopkins has missed six kicks from beyond 40 yards and the Football Team's kickoff coverage unit ranks 27th. In addition:
· The Football Team may have a fierce pass rush but unfortunately it's offense has actually allowed more sacks than it's defense has generated. Washington quarterbacks were sacked 50 times in 2020, tied for the second most in the NFL, including 22 against Alex Smith in just eight games and six starts. The Football Team's sacks allowed per pass play rate of 8.32% is seventh-worst in the NFL.
· Washington won the NFC East with a 7-9 record but it only secured one victory over a team that finished with a winning record, that being a 23-17 upset of the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 13. The combined 42 wins by the teams the Football Team beat in 2020 are the fewest of any team in either conference's playoff field.
· The Football Teams' reconstructed backfield did not produce robust results in 2020, though Gibson looks like a potential star in the making. He averaged 4.7 yards per carry but as a team Washington recorded just 4.0 yards per tote, which was the fifth-worst average in the league.
· The Football Team's defensive front deserves all the praise detailed above, but at times this season it might have been a bit too aggressive. Washington's defense was flagged for being offside 14 times, 11 of which were accepted, which was the fifth most by any team in the league. The Football Team drew another seven neutral-zone infraction flags, ninth-most in the NFL.
NEW FACES IN 2020
The 2020 draft brought in several key players for the Football Team, including rookie team captain Chase Young and leading rusher Antonio Gibson, who we've already noted above. Washington also got a new starting left guard in free agency by signing former Falcon Wes Schweitzer, and former Bears linebacker Kevin Pierre-Louis – somewhat of a journey man over the last five seasons – settled in at one of the starting linebacker spots until a recent injury. Here are some other new Washington players who have made an impact in 2020:
1. TE Logan Thomas. Bucs Coach Bruce Arians is very familiar with Thomas, as he drafted the former Virginia Tech quarterback in the fourth round in 2014 while leading the Arizona Cardinals. Thomas never quite made it as an NFL quarterback and the Cardinals released him in 2015. After a few more shots with the Dolphins and Giants, the 6-6, 250-pound athlete agreed to move to tight end in 2016 and then landed in Buffalo in 2017. Over three years with the Bills and Lions, Thomas caught 28 passes and scored one touchdown but Washington had seen enough to sign him as a potential replacement for Jordan Reed. It worked. Thomas has been targeted a whopping 110 times in 2020 and is third on the team with 72 catches for 670 yards. His six TD catches lead the team.
2. S Kamren Curl. The Arkansas safety lasted until the seventh round of the 2020 draft and some thought he would convert to cornerback in the NFL. But he has proved to be a much-needed, well, safety blanket for a Washington team that lost safety Landon Collins at midseason (see below). Curl has made the absence sting a lot less than expected and he ranks second on the team with 88 tackles. He has also picked off a pass in three of Washington's last four games.
3. RB J.D. McKissic. Washington completely overhauled its backfield in 2020. With the releases of Adrian Peterson and Derrius Guice, among other moves in the summer, there isn't a single back who took a handoff in 2019 on this year's roster. In addition to drafting Gibson and signing former Buccaneer Peyton Barber, the team also picked up McKissic, the former Lion. McKissic has 365 rushing yards but has been much more active as a receiver, with 80 catches to rank second on the team.
1. LB Kevin Pierre-Louis. Louis, who played the last four seasons in Chicago, New York, Kansas City and Seattle, started 11 of the Football Team's first 13 games and is fifth on the team with 56 tackles. However, he has missed the last three games due to an ankle injury. He did practice in a limited fashion prior to last week's game.
2. S Landon Collins. The three-time Pro Bowler for the Giants was one of Washington's most important additions in 2019 and he started the first seven games of 2020, recording 41 tackles, two sacks, an interception and a forced fumble. However, Collins suffered a torn Achilles tendon in Week Seven against Dallas and was lost for the remainder of the season.
3. QB Kyle Allen. Alex Smith has led the Football Team to five wins in his six starts and would likely get the call to start on Saturday even if Allen was also available. However, the Washington depth chart is inexperienced behind Smith if he were to become unavailable, with Taylor Heinicke (one career start) and Steven Montez (no regular-season action yet) as the only other options. Allen won't be coming back; he sustained a dislocated ankle and had surgery in November.