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Week 7 Q&A: Why is Washington struggling?

Andrew York of Hogs Haven gives us an inside look at the Washington Football Team.

Kansas City Chiefs v Washington Football Team Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images

The Packers will roll out their throwback uniforms for a throwback matchup with one of their oldest acquaintances this weekend: the Washington Football Team. The Packers’ relationship with Washington stretches into the misty parts of the team’s history, and they’ve frequently been a formidable rival.

Not so much this time around, though. Amidst organizational turmoil, Washington has stumbled to a 2-4 start this season, and they seem to pose little threat to the Packers save for their formidable defensive line. Should the Packers handle Washington’s front, the game could be quite easily there for the taking.

But is Washington capable of more? To find out we turned to Andrew York of Hogs Haven for an insider perspective.

Acme Packing Company: Washington made the playoffs last year largely on the strength of their defense, but that side of the ball seems like a bit of a disappointment so far this year. To what do you attribute the reversal of fortune?

Andrew York: A “bit of a disappointment” is an understatement. The answer to this question is hotly debated among fans and I don’t think there’s only one reason why. But I’m asked a question like this every week, and what I always have to fall back on is the following: if one or two players are playing poorly, those players are the problem. But if almost all of your players are underperforming, then coaching is likely the problem. The latter seems to be the case here, though I can’t say exactly if it’s Ron Rivera’s scheme, DC Jack Del Rio’s practices, or the position coaches who are failing them.

Most of the problems seem to be simple coverage busts, poor zone positioning, and failure to communicate assignments properly; basic things that even young players on other teams are able to do at this point in the season. Although I mentioned that almost every player is underperforming expectations, they are not underperforming equally. The DL has actually been okay, much better than their simple stats indicate. According to ESPN analytics, the DL has a pass rush win rate of 47% (8th best in the NFL) and a run stop win rate of 33% (also 8th best in the NFL). That’s pretty good and not nearly as bad as the rest of the defense. The problem is that the coverage is so poor that opposing QBs can throw the ball to an open receiver before the pass rush has a chance to get home. If we can fix the breakdowns in coverage, I think the DL will look much better. The group that is underperforming the most are the safeties (particularly Landon Collins and Bobby McCain). That’s unfortunate, because safeties are pretty important to a defense and ours have been giving up a lot of long completions and TDs.

APC: Even if things aren’t going well for the unit as a whole, somebody’s got to be having a great season on defense. Who’s standing out for the WFT this year?

AY: As mentioned before, the DL are playing well and in particular, the interior DL (Jonathan Allen, Daron Payne, Matt Ioannidis) have been playing very well. From the article I linked earlier, Chase Young has the 8th best run stop win rate among all edge defenders and Daron Payne has the 7th best pass rush win rate among all interior DL. If the rest of the defense could play up to their level, they would probably look elite statistically. In addition, LB Cole Holcomb has been playing well, using his speed to get to the edge to shut down runs and playing reasonably well in coverage (he matched up with Travis Kelce well last week whenever Kelce was his responsibility).

APC: While the defense hasn’t been outstanding, the offense hasn’t really held up its end of the bargain, either. How would you characterize the state of the offense? Do you attribute everything to Ryan Fitzpatrick’s injury, or is there more to it than that?

AY: It’s tough to say regarding Ryan Fitzpatrick, because he only played 1.5 quarters of a regular-season game for us. He looked terrible in those 1.5 quarters and the offense seemed to pick up with Taylor Heinicke at QB, but that’s a small sample size to judge what the team would look like if Fitz were to return. At this point though, I think a lot of fans would welcome Fitzpatrick’s return just to try to shake things up a bit on offense and better understand where the problems lie.

I think most of the offensive struggles have to lie with our QB situation regardless. Whether the QB is Heinicke or Fitzpatrick, both were considered NFL backups by most teams up until this point. Very few teams look good with a backup QB under center. In the case of Heinicke, I see pass catchers getting open, but he either doesn’t see them or can’t deliver catchable balls in too many cases. That being said, I think he’s performing admirably as a backup. He still has a gritty playstyle that can sometimes keep us in games, he sees the field well, he gives his all to make plays, and he has the athleticism to make plays with his legs. But he’s limited by a weak arm, inaccuracy when throwing downfield, and a bit too much willingness to take chances in order to make “the big play.”

APC: You may not realize it, but there’s a bit of consternation in Green Bay over WFT wide receiver Terry McLaurin, who was selected one pick after the Packers took failed tight end Jace Sternberger. I don’t expect you to make us feel better here, but what’s your take on “Scary Terry” so far this year?

Terry is just about everything you could want in a player and a person. He’s one of the few bright spots on this team and I feel bad that his stats don’t reflect how good he is as a player due to the poor QB play he’s endured during his entire tenure in Washington. He had 919 receiving yards his rookie year, 1118 yards last year, and is on pace for 1213 yards this year, and that is shocking considering he has only had backup-quality QB play that entire time. I was fortunate enough to interview him a few weeks ago, and he’s just as great to speak to live as I hoped. Wide receiver seems to be a position dominated by diva personalities, but Terry is as much the opposite of “diva” as they come. He’s humble, hard-working, thoughtful, but still incredibly competitive and a gamer on the field. He even said at a recent press conference that he still attends the special teams meetings (though our coaches would never risk him there) and has told our special teams coordinator Nate Kaczor that he’s happy to play special teams (where he excelled in college as a gunner) if they need him.

APC: Who’s going to win on Sunday and why?

AY: The Packers are going to win because they are a good team and Washington is not, plain and simple. The Packers have a good QB, good talent around the roster, and seem to have good coaching. Washington has good talent around the roster, but the QB play is holding back our offense and the coaching seems to be holding back our defense. It is possible for Washington to win if the defense finally plays up to the level of its talent and the offense takes a step forward under Heinicke, but I won’t be holding my breath waiting for it.