Baltimore Sun

Defense allowing lots of home runs. A bigger concern might be doubles.

- By Sam Fortier

The Washington Football Team’s biggest defensive breakdowns might not be its biggest problem. While the New Orleans Saints’ two longest scores certainly hurt Sunday — the 49-yard Hail Mary before halftime and the 72-yard bomb in the first quarter — they were also not unusual. Last year, Washington’s defense was one of the NFL’s best despite an inability to prevent home runs, allowing 16 plays of 40 or more yards, third most in the league.

The difference this year has been an inability to prevent doubles. Think of a double as a big play — a rush of 10 or more yards or a pass of 20 or more — that is shorter than 40 yards. Last year, Washington gave up 63 doubles, the league’s lowest total. This season, it has already conceded 26, which is right around league average but a big step back from last season’s performanc­e.

Sunday seemed like a perfect opportunit­y for Washington to reverse the trend. Coming in, New Orleans’ offense ranked last in the league with only 14 big plays in four games. Against Washington, New Orleans recorded eight big plays — including six doubles to go with the aforementi­oned home run touchdowns — to extend drives and ultimately secure a 33-22 win.

When asked why it has been so difficult for Washington to limit these intermedia­te chunk plays this season, coach Ron Rivera didn’t have an elaborate explanatio­n. “We just miss opportunit­ies,” he said. The causes of the big plays have varied. Sometimes the defense is unprepared, such as on the Hail Mary; other times it doesn’t communicat­e fast enough, such as on the 72-yarder, when, safety Landon Collins said, New Orleans quick-snapped while he was out of position. Washington plays an aggressive style of defense, one Rivera said can collapse if even one player is out of position, and last year it limited missed tackles and blown coverages well enough to mostly limit doubles, despite its penchant for giving up home runs.

“People just need to keep playing hard and [keep] playing assignment football,” defensive tackle Daron Payne said. “Stick to your assignment, do the things that you’re asked, and everything will fix [itself ].”

Doubles have been an issue for Washington since the season’s first possession. The Los Angeles Chargers ran for two en route to an easy opening touchdown, added two more on their marathon possession to set the tone of the second half and squeezed in a last one to convert third and seven on the final, clock-killing drive late in the fourth quarter. The New York Giants had three more crucial doubles — one for a lead-seizing touchdown, two for lead-cushioning field goals — the following week. In a Week 3 blowout, the Buffalo Bills seemed to get one whenever they needed it.

Beyond the obvious concern with allowing big plays — even ones that don’t go for 40-plus yards — is that they are tied closely to an offense’s ability to score. In one study of the importance of big plays, Ben Elsner of the 33rd Team, a football website, found that only 10% of drives without a big play since 2010 have ended in a score. If an offense manages to hit a big play, the odds it scores triple, and if it hits two, its chances shoot over 50%.

Even when it didn’t score, New Orleans’ doubles hurt Washington. Quarterbac­k Jameis Winston twice scrambled for 10 or more yards before that drive ended with a Blake Gillikin punt inside Washington’s 2-yard line. And when it was time to close out the game, the Saints, as the Chargers did before them, found a hole.

New Orleans had first and 10 from its 36-yard line with 5:36 remaining. Washington only trailed 27-22, so if it got the ball back, it would allow quarterbac­k Taylor Heinicke to attempt another comeback. It couldn’t. The Saints used play-action to freeze linebacker Cole Holcomb, and tight end Adam Trautman got behind him for a 32-yard gain into Washington territory.

Washington will undoubtedl­y seek to address its problem of giving up critical home run plays such as the Hail Mary and the 72-yard bomb that helped cause Sunday’s loss. But if it isn’t able to cut down on the number of doubles it has allowed through five games, it’s difficult to expect different results.

 ?? DANIEL KUCIN JR./AP ?? Saints wide receiver Kenny Stills celebrates during Sunday’s game against Washington in Landover.
DANIEL KUCIN JR./AP Saints wide receiver Kenny Stills celebrates during Sunday’s game against Washington in Landover.

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