ASHBURN, Va. -- The reason the Washington Football Team thinks its defense is close to playing well stems from a play against Atlanta in Week 4 that also highlights the unit's frustration.
As Washington (2-2) prepares to host the New Orleans Saints (2-2) on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, CBS), mistakes on these basic plays need to be fixed to prevent bigger plays. Until that happens this defense will always feel close, but with no cigar.
The play against Atlanta didn't lead to disaster, but set up an easy third-down conversion. On Atlanta's second play from scrimmage in Washington's 34-30 win, the Falcons emptied the backfield. That alone triggered the need for a quick reaction, knowing it would be a three-step drop by quarterback Matt Ryan.
On this play, however, linebacker Cole Holcomb hesitated before breaking to his area, which is where Ryan threw the ball for 4 yards. Had Holcomb broke on time, his man would have been covered. That would have forced Ryan to target his second read, an in-breaking route where safety Landon Collins was in position for an interception. And if Ryan had tried to go to his third read, he would have been sacked.
Instead: a quick completion on a drive that produced a field goal.
"We are so close," Washington coach Ron Rivera said.
There were other examples of worse plays and bigger issues. But for Rivera and the players, that play summed up some of their problems: Trusting what you see and relying on what you know.
Those plays add up and are a big reason Washington, after ranking in the top four in yards and points allowed last season, is now No. 30 in points, No. 29 in yards and No. 32 on third downs. The final category is a major problem as the unit has allowed a 59.7% conversion rate.
"Offenses aren't doing too much to confuse us, we've just got to go do it and play fast and be destructive," Collins said.
Saints quarterback Jameis Winston, holds the ball longer than every quarterback in the league except Baltimore's Lamar Jackson. Winston averages 3.12 seconds before he throws the ball, according to ESPN Stats & Information. But he's only been sacked seven times.
That could provide opportunities for the pass rush, but third-and-long has been a big problem for Washington. It ranks 31st, allowing a 44.8% conversion rate on third-and-7 or longer. Rivera wants better coordinated pass rushes and they had a handful against Atlanta, including one sack by end Montez Sweat after he took out two blockers on a stunt. But if the coverage breaks down it doesn't matter. And when Washington's coverage holds up, the rush hasn't been producing.
Washington's secondary includes two holdovers from 2020 -- though one of them, Collins, missed most of last season with an Achilles tear.
That has led to inconsistent coverage or breakdowns from players trying to cover up for someone else, then leaving a big gap that opposing quarterbacks find. Corner William Jackson III shined in man coverage with Cincinnati, and Washington has played more man this season, ranking 13th in the number of times it has been man in coverage compared to 30th last season.
But Jackson is still adapting to Washington's zone coverage. At times, his drops might be a couple yards deeper than the corner on the other side.
"He's still getting comfortable," Rivera said.
Said Jackson: "It's a lot of things I'm not familiar with that I haven't done. The coaches are doing a great job of trying to get me caught up to speed with how they like things. ... Every game I'm feeling more confident, so we'll get it together."
Another time it might be safety Bobby McCain racing up to cover a short route rather than staying deep. That resulted in a 42-yard touchdown pass to his vacated area against Atlanta. They want him to be more patient.
But Rivera said he likes the scheme and doesn't feel the need to simplify.
"There are some things that we can be better at," he said. "There are some things that we most certainly can go ahead and continue to refine and use. ... Unfortunately, getting in a couple of third-down situations and you take a step back and go, 'Man, how can we miss this?' Or 'Why didn't we do that?' So you just go back to the drawing board and keep working at it."
Players clearly are frustrated by the results, which which come on the heels of a summer and offseason full of praise about the defense's potential.
"The biggest thing is to not point the finger," said defensive tackle Jonathan Allen. "On every play you can see something each one of us has to do better. We will do it better."
Allen added one more telling statement.
"We've been talking about this for four weeks," he said. "There's really nothing left for me to say besides, we've just got to do better."
Said defensive end Chase Young: "We're flying around better, a lot better communication on the field. I'm glad we're sticking together. Everyone has their confidence. We're 2-2; we just keep grinding. Could be worse."