What the Commanders defense will look like without Chase Young and Montez Sweat
Breaking down the schematic changes that are likely to come as a result of trading away Young and Sweat
The NFL trade deadline has passed and the Washington Commanders made two big decisions to trade away both Chase Young and Montez Sweat. The return for Sweat was too good for them to turn down, sending him to the Chicago Bears for a 2024 second-round pick that could well end up in the top five picks of that round. The return for Young, however, was slightly underwhelming, with the San Francisco 49ers trading a late third-round pick for the final few months of Young’s rookie contract.
It wasn’t surprising to see them trade one of their two starting defensive ends, it certainly felt like that was the way things were trending. But to trade both was a bit of a surprise given Ron Rivera needs to produce a winning team this season in order to convince the new ownership he should keep his job at the end of the year. The merits of each trade are a topic for a different discussion though. The Commanders now have to try and put together a plan of how they can replace what they’ve lost in Young and Sweat.
Casey Toohill and James Smith-Williams are likely the next two defensive ends on the depth chart, so they will presumably start. The team also has Efe Obada and rookies Andre Jones and KJ Henry to mix into the rotation too. I suspect the team will also be bringing in some free agents to try out and perhaps add to the practice squad over the next week or two as well. But despite not having bad depth, none of those players listed offer the same amount of pass rush ability as Young and Sweat, so to simply just elevate Toohill and Smith-Williams while running the same style of defense won’t work.
Fortunately, we’ve seen a glimpse of how the Commanders might adjust to this situation a few years ago. Young and Sweat both missed time injured and Toohill and Smith-Williams took over. The defensive scheme was adjusted significantly and the team actually saw an uptick in performance because of it. That’s not to say it will fix all the defensive issues again, but it will likely look different to what we have seen so far this year. Here’s what to expect from the Commanders defense going forward.
Without Young and Sweat on the edge, the Commanders will no longer be able to just rely on just the front four defensive lineman to generate their pass rush. Instead they will have to find other ways of doing so, which for a lot of teams means blitzing. I’m sure the Commanders will use some more blitzes, but I think the thing we’re most likely to see is simulated pressures.
Simulated pressures, or sim pressures, are “safer” versions of blitzes. They’re designed to attack protection schemes rather than just trusting four defensive lineman to win their individual matchups. The defense still only rushes four defenders, but the four defenders won’t be the four that the offense would expect. A basic example would be to rush a linebacker or a slot corner off one side of the line, and then replace that player in coverage by dropping the defensive end off the other side to maintain the same numbers in coverage.
This is something the Commanders did frequently in previous seasons with Casey Toohill in particular because of his history in college as a linebacker that is comfortable dropping into coverage. Here’s an example:
This example of a sim pressure comes from last season against the Jaguars. The Commanders use a basic nickel front with four down lineman and two linebackers behind them. Typically they would just rush the front four and have the linebackers drop into coverage. However, on this play the Commanders have Casey Toohill drop into coverage from his defensive end position while linebacker Jamin Davis rushes from the other side.
Most protection schemes are set so that the offensive line is able to pick up the four down defensive lineman and perhaps one other rusher, so they will assume a defensive end is usually going to rush and account for him in the protection scheme. This provides the defense with a chance to switch things up. By having a defensive end drop out into coverage, and replacing him with a linebacker rushing from the other side, suddenly the protection scheme can break down. The offense can be left overloaded to one side despite having enough lineman available to block every rushing defender.
As the ball is snapped on this play, you can see how the Jaguars are in a partial slide protection with the center to the left tackle all sliding left. However, the defensive end to that side ends up dropping into coverage, which leaves three offensive lineman to block one defensive lineman. Daron Payne stunts across the face of the right guard to that left side of the line, which forces the center to help. But that still leaves four offensive lineman blocking two defensive lineman, which means Montez Sweat is left with a one-on-one matchup against the right tackle and Jamin Davis has a clear lane up the middle.
The running back is forced to step up and block Davis, which is a matchup that the Commanders like for multiple reasons. Firstly, the back is much smaller than Davis, so Davis should be able to overpower him and win the rush. Secondly, it means the running back is forced to stay in and protect, so can’t work out and run a route. That takes away one of the Jaguars eligible receivers, meaning that the Commanders now have seven defenders in coverage to try and cover a maximum of four receivers. The pressure from Davis forces the quarterback off the spot and makes him late for his throw, which ultimately ends up incomplete.
Now you can’t do this on every play or opposing offenses will catch on and start ignoring the threat of Toohill as a rusher, but with Toohill in the line up, it can be mixed in frequently enough that it forces the offense to spend more time building protection plans each week and having to be prepared to account for different rushers coming from other spots, instead of just having the Commanders front four rushing each play.
The other benefit of this is that the defense gets the effect of a blitz potentially overloading one side of the protection scheme while still being able to run most of it’s normal coverages.
This is a sim pressure the Commanders used earlier this season against the Eagles. This time, James Smith-Williams is the one to drop out into coverage while linebacker Jamin Davis joins the rush inside. Behind the sim pressure, the Commanders run a version of Tampa-2 coverage, sometimes known as Sky or Invert. They disguise the coverage pre-snap by having just one safety deep in the middle of the field, but that safety sprints out to a deep half off the snap while cornerback Benjamin St-Juste sinks back deep to play the other half. Smith-Williams sinks back from his defensive end spot to play one of the hook-curl zones underneath.
With all the different moving parts, from the sim pressure to the disguised coverage, the quarterback opts to simply check the ball down to the flat and only picks up a minimal gain.
I suspect we’ll be seeing a lot of different sim pressures from the Commanders going forward as it’s probably a more reliable way for them to generate pressure with four rushers and still have seven in coverage for whatever form of coverage they want to run behind it. They couldn’t do this often with Young and Sweat because nobody wants those two dropping back into coverage, everyone wants them doing what they do best and rushing the passer. With Toohill and Smith-Williams though, you have two players that aren’t quite as effective rushing, but willing to sink back into coverage.
Keeping with a similar theme of having Toohill or Smith-Williams drop into coverage more than Young or Sweat, this opens up the potential for the Commanders to use more of their five defensive lineman package, or Cinco package as they call it. Now the Cinco package is essentially just a 3-4 front but in the 3-4 system, those edge defenders are outside linebackers with the ability to drop into coverage.
In Washington, those edge rushers have been Young and Sweat, which as we’ve established, are guys you want going forwards and rushing the passer, not dropping into coverage. So whenever the Commanders have used their Cinco package this season, it’s essentially been committing to at least a five-man rush to avoid having Young or Sweat in coverage. But now with Toohill and Smith-Williams on the edge, they can use that Cinco package without having to commit to rushing five every time. In fact, we saw this a few times earlier this season when Young missed the opening game of the season.
Here against the Cardinals back in week one, we can see the Commanders using that Cinco package with five defensive lineman, two linebackers and four defensive backs. It’s essentially just a 3-4 front. The Cardinals go to an empty formation which spreads the defense out and forces Jamin Davis to align over the slot, but because the Commanders have Toohill on the field, they can show this front and still rush four, enabling them to play zone coverage with seven defenders.
On this occasion, the Commanders drop back into a basic quarters coverage with Toohill sinking back into what’s known as a quarters flat zone. The coverage protects from any shots down the field and forces a checkdown underneath, which Toohill and Cody Barton quickly rally down to make the tackle.
Like with the simulated pressures, it’s not just one type of zone coverage that can be run because of the flexibility of the likes of Casey Toohill. Having that edge rusher that is comfortable dropping into coverage balances the numbers and allows them to play essentially any form of zone coverage they want to.