One of the best parts about watching sports is the unpredictability and variance that can happen from season to season. Some teams enter a year with low expectations only to completely outplay those expectations and enjoy a successful season that no one expected. (We’re looking at you, 2021 Bengals.) At the same time, other teams will begin the season with high hopes only to have them dashed by a big step back in their performance on the field. Unfortunately for the Washington Commanders, and particularly their pass-rush attack, they fell into the latter category in the 2021 season. To ensure better results and a renewed optimism for their future, the Commanders’ pass rush needs to have a bounce back year in 2022.
Part of why the 2021 season was so disappointing for Washington’s defense was that the season before it was so impressive. Though the team had a losing record, the 2020 iteration of their defense was certainly not the problem.
The Commanders finished that year with the fourth-best scoring defense in the NFL. They were second in opposing yards allowed with under 305 opponent yards per game, behind only the Rams’ 282 yards allowed per game. Those numbers were in large part because of their passing defense’s dominance in 2020; the Commanders were one of just three teams to allow fewer than 200 passing yards per game.
They had their pass-rushers to thank for that. Then-rookie Chase Young looked like all he was chalked up to be, putting together a dominant season with 7.5 sacks, four pass deflections, four forced fumbles and ten tackles for a loss en route to winning a Defensive Rookie of the Year award.
Rushing on the opposite end of the line was second-year standout Montez Sweat, who followed up his impressive rookie season with an impressive sophomore year. He tallied nine sacks, two forced fumbles, six pass deflections and even an interception with his new rookie pass-rushing partner.
In that same pass-rush rotation was veteran edge rusher and four-time Pro Bowler Ryan Kerrigan, who put together a very solid, 5.5-sack season of his own. With all three of those guys wreaking havoc on opposing offensive lines and quarterbacks, it isn’t hard to understand why their 2020 passing defense was so successful.
Such stellar performances from a defensive core as young as Washington’s obviously brought heightened expectations for their 2021 followup. Kerrigan may have gone to Philadelphia in free agency, but Sweat and Young were back and defensive tackle Matt Ioannidis was returning from a torn bicep for his first full season since an 8.5-sack showing in 2019.
The thing is, teams around the league started to make some adjustments.
The second-year edge rusher often relied on his explosiveness from the outside to beat offensive linemen around the outside instead of building up a repertoire of moves and counters. That meant that in 2021, Young would often take himself out of a play by rushing too far to the outside and missing the quarterback if and when he stepped up in the pocket. The second-year edge rusher found himself in a sophomore slump, not recording a sack until Week 5 and only tallying 1.5 sacks in the first 10 weeks before a knee injury ended his season.
With Young struggling on one side, Sweat had to step up on the other, and he started off the 2021 season with a solid first half. In eight games, he had recorded four sacks and a couple of forced fumbles, but like Young, he wouldn’t get the chance to play out the full season after fracturing his jaw in Week 8.
Elsewhere on the defensive line, defensive tackles Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne picked up the slack with nine and 4.5 sacks, respectively. It still wasn’t enough with the losses of Young and Sweat for a large portion of the season. Young’s stumble out of the gate and a poor showing from Ioannidis over a full season didn’t help either.
A year after building up tons of hype surrounding their defense, Washington finished in the bottom 25 percent of the NFL’s scoring defenses and allowed the fourth-most passing yards per game in 2021.
The 2022 Commanders will be starting the season with far less hype. Their defense took a substantial step back, and it remains to be seen how the Carson Wentz Experience™ will play out now that he’s with his third team in three years.
If the offense shows significant improvement with a new quarterback, then the only way to maximize their success would be a strong performance from the defense. That all starts with a big bounce back from their pass-rush attack. Now that both Young and Sweat will be back and healthy, there’s some level of expectation that that can happen. A return to form from their two-headed pass-rush attack will be crucial for contention in a tough NFC East division in 2022.
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