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Opponent Scout: Washington’s defensive front is talented and unique

An underwhelming Washington defense still presents problems up front with their personnel and alignment.

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NFL: Los Angeles Chargers at Washington Football Team Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

In this weekly opponent scout series, I'll break down the Kansas City Chiefs' upcoming opponent by examining their strengths, weaknesses and tendencies — and how those things affect their matchup with the Chiefs.

Trying to bounce back from their third loss of the season, the Chiefs will face the Washington Football Team on the road in Week 6.


Overview

Washington has a 2-3 record, with wins against the New York Giants and Atlanta Falcons. Last week, they lost at home to the New Orleans Saints 33-22.

Washington is averaging 24.6 points per game, the 12th-most in the NFL. They rank 15th in offensive yards per play, 22nd in passing yards per attempt, and have the sixth-highest percentage of possessions ending in a turnover. They have the second-worst conversion percentage on third-down attempts. Washington ranks 13th in offensive DVOA.

On defense, they allow 31 points per game, the second-worst rate in the league; they've also allowed the sixth-most total yards. Their unit has surrendered the second-most passing touchdowns and third-most first-down conversions by completion in the NFL; they allow the second-highest third-down conversion percentage. The defense ranks 28th in DVOA.

Offense

Even with starting quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick going down with an injury in Week 1, Washington's offense has still been able to put up points when needed; they've enjoyed moderate success in both passing and running — and that starts with the offensive line.

The five-man unit has frequently owned the line of scrimmage this year. They will call gap-scheme runs, where guards and tackles are pulling either into open space outside or in a specific gap in the box. These plays put stress on linebackers to get to that gap and take on the lead blocker quickly, while also forcing safeties and cornerbacks to be in a helping position if the linebackers do get blocked effectively.

They've also excelled in pass protection. They own the third-lowest percentage of dropbacks that turn into sacks in the NFL. It has helped quarterback Taylor Heinicke gain confidence as a starting quarterback, especially while attempting passes down the field.

That confidence has lead to big plays for Washington, but it can also lead to high-risk throws. Per Pro Football Focus, he has 10 turnover-worthy plays this season — including four thrown on passes 20 or more yards downfield; that's tied for the highest amount in the league.

He also has confidence in his receivers — and rightfully so. The pass-catching group is led by one of the NFL's best young wide receivers: Terry McLaurin. He's complemented by rookie Dyami Brown, Adam Humphries, and tight end Logan Thomas; Thomas is currently on IR, but former Chiefs tight end Ricky Seals-Jones has been an admirable substitute in his place.

To take advantage of the offensive line's success, Washington has a duo of backs with different skills. Starter Antonio Gibson is a bigger body that's harder to tackle but also has exceptional speed and quickness for his size; he was a wide receiver in college. On third downs or in their two-minute drill, they will lean on J.D. McKissic to be a true receiving back that can make defenders miss in space and turn a check down into a big play.

Defense

Washington's success on defense starts with their front. Even as the unit has underperformed this season, it's still a very talented group that features defensive ends Chase Young and Montez Sweat, along with defensive tackles Jonathan Allen, Da'Ron Payne, and Matt Ioannidis.

This season, the unit has frequently lined up in a traditional 3-4 front; a nose tackle, two defensive ends lined up over or just inside the offensive tackles, and two edge-defending players outside the tackles.

They'll constantly run stunts or twists to create pressure opportunities from the five-man front and the more common alignment with four linemen. It's also a tough alignment to run block against — especially if the offense isn't used to seeing it; instead of the defenders playing one gap, they are taught to play the blocker and take up either gap on either side of the offensive lineman.

They've blitzed at one of the highest rates in the NFL this season, but it's hard to see them doing that against the Chiefs. They will likely ramp up their pass-rush packages that involve only their down linemen.

On the back end, Washington has been susceptible to big pass plays. They've allowed the second-highest depth of target rate in the league (10.0). Basically, the average pass that's thrown against them travels 10 yards downfield, regardless of if it's completed or not.

Their secondary saw turnover in the offseason, losing starters cornerback Ronald Darby and slot defender Jimmy Moreland. It might have a more negative impact than they believed it would; instead of Moreland handling the slot, it is now Fuller's primary responsibility, which forces third-round rookie Benjamin St-Juste to play outside. He has allowed a 115.3 passer rating and two touchdowns so far this season.

The bottom line

Washington will likely present the most voluminous rushing attack the Chiefs' defense has seen since the Baltimore Ravens. They have the linemen and running back to succeed — but when it is time to throw, the Chiefs' secondary must tighten up their coverage. Heinicke has no problem giving his receivers a chance down the field; he'll either give the defense a few chances at turnovers or will hold onto the ball long enough for the pass rush to get to him.

On offense, the Chiefs will have to plan for a unique defensive front filled with talented players. Their offensive line — which has already struggled in pass protection — will have an even more challenging test, dealing with five-man fronts that can really mess with protection responsibilities with stunts. The Chiefs will need their pass catchers to get open quickly and take advantage of a struggling Washington back end.