Despite entering the season with high expectations, the Washington Redskins defense struggled mightily over the first five games. They gave up more than 400 yards of total offense and allowed 30.2 points per game, both of which were near the bottom of the NFL. When opponents entered the red zone, they scored two-thirds of the time.
But since then, these statistics have improved significantly. The Redskins are keeping opponents out of the end zone and getting off the field on third down. Yardage-wise, their best performance of the year came in Buffalo on Nov. 3, when they limited the Bills to 268 yards of total offense.
"Overall, I think we have a lot of young guys on the team. I think there was only three or four veterans with over four years [of experience], so just meshing together as a team as well," defensive coordinator Greg Manusky said Thursday when asked about the unit's improved play. "We had a couple injuries throughout the season, but overall I think just coming together and understanding the concepts that we're going to present each and every week. They're trying to grow, and they keep on growing with it."
The talented group, which has seven starters age 25 or younger, will look to take another step forward Sunday against the New York Jets, who have the pieces to succeed but have been one of the worst offenses in the NFL this season.
"Don't sleep on them," rookie middle linebacker Cole Holcomb said Friday. "They've got a lot of talent at their skill positions with Le'Veon [Bell], their wide receiving core of [Jamison] Crowder, [Demaryius] Thomas, all those guys. Real good skill group."
Holcomb is not exaggerating when discussing the potential of the Jets' offense. Bell, while having a quiet 2019 campaign, has been one of the NFL's best all-round running backs since entering the NFL in 2013. Thomas is still a reliable receiving threat at age 31, while Crowder is one of the league's premier slot receivers. Just look at what he did over four seasons with the Redskins when he averaged about 55 receptions and 657 yards before joining the Jets in free agency.
Quarterback Sam Darnold, the third overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, is running the show and is the future of the franchise in the Big Apple. But over the first year-and-a-half of his career, things have not gone as smoothly as anticipated.
He played in 13 games his rookie campaign, throwing 17 touchdowns and 15 interceptions, and has not been much better so far 2019. Through six games -- Darnold missed three contests due to mononucleosis -- he completed 63.2% of his passes and threw more interceptions (nine) than touchdowns (seven). According to Football Outsiders, Darnold has a Total QBR of 42.0, which is 27th out of 33 quarterbacks with at least 150 passes thrown.
With Darnold underachieving and Bell averaging just 3.1 yards per rushing attempt, the Jets (2-7) have been one of the worst offenses in the NFL across the board. They're currently dead last in total offense and passing offense and are third-to-last in scoring offense (14.4 points per game). Plus, they've allowed 31 sacks and are converting just 24% of their third downs.
"Inconsistency," Holcomb said when asked about the Jets' ineptitude. "You can have a lot of talent like that, but you just have to play consistently."
Despite these yearlong woes, the Jets are coming off a season-high 34 points in a one-possession win over the New York Giants last weekend. Darnold threw for a touchdown and ran for a score in the victory, and it's that versatility that concerns Redskins interim head coach Bill Callahan, who said Darnold is "going to be an outstanding player in the years to come."
"He's an impressive guy, a talent, smart," Callahan continued about Darnold. "The decision-making is really well-done, but his ability to scramble and extend plays. He has all the traits: moving ability, escape ability, quick drops, quick throws, fast release."
However, his success is also largely dependent on surrounding players, such as Bell, Crowder and proven deep threat Robby Anderson. If the Redskins' can shut down these options, Holcomb believes they'll have the best chance of leaving FedExField with a win.
"[Darnold is] having moments where he looks really good, and he has his moments where he's not looking so good," Holcomb said. "So, it's basically just keep the ball out of their skill players' hands and make [Darnold] beat us."