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Commanders defense placing emphasis on starting fast in 2023

ASHBURN, Va. — The mission statement was first uttered in the spring and it carried through into the summer. The Washington Commanders’ defensive players know what they must do, something they haven’t done the past two years. And it has cost them each season.

So this season boils down to two words for them: start fast.

“Starting fast, starting the season fast, and then starting every game fast,” Washington safety Kamren Curl said.

Just in case the point wasn’t made: “That’s gonna be a rallying cry for us for this season,” Washington defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said. “There’s a level of focus that we have, [that] kind of kicked in after experiencing some things early and then growing. Now it’s time to start fast.”

Washington’s defense started slow each of the past two seasons; subsequently, so did the team. This season? If they don’t start fast, it could lead to another year that ends poorly. And it could lead to numerous changes in the organization. No pressure.

The offense has a new coordinator in Eric Bieniemy, new starters at four line positions, and an inexperienced quarterback in Sam Howell. They know it will take time for the offense to mesh.

That means the defense can’t wait for a second-half surge like the past two seasons. After eight games in 2022, the Commanders ranked 13th in yards per game allowed and 15th in points per game. But, from Week 9 on, they were sixth in points and second in yards per game.

“Expectations are to be a top-5 defense again,” Curl said.

The Commanders’ defense has plenty of reasons why it should not only start better but maintain a high level of play.

They have plenty of talent, particularly along the line with tackles Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne — one of the best tandems in the league. Both made the Pro Bowl last year and are among ESPN’s top 100 for 2023. They combined for 19 sacks and 34 tackles for a loss in 2022.

All four starting linemen return, and Chase Young will be one year further removed from the torn ACL and ruptured patellar tendon in his right knee.

This will be the fourth year in Del Rio’s system, and nine of the 11 projected starters have been with the team for the previous three seasons.

“You don’t have to spend a lot of time with a lot of the basics,” Allen said. “We know the plays, we know what we’re supposed to do now and we can really pay attention on how we have to do it. As opposed to going into the first year, we’re all learning something new.”

Only first-round pick corner Emmanuel Forbes and free agent signee linebacker Cody Barton are new starters.

Also, it’s the second year for Washington’s zone match coverage system, something the players adapted to quite well over the second half of the season. In truth, the improvement began when it benched veteran corner William Jackson III after four games. He struggled in their coverage scheme.

But it wasn’t just about Jackson. Curl missed the first two games and his return helped steady the secondary. The result: After allowing 21 pass plays of 20 yards or more in the first four weeks — 24th in the NFL — they allowed just 21 such plays the rest of the season, ranking fourth in that period.

The sluggish defensive starts on a team with a struggling offense led to poor starts overall. Washington was 2-6 in 2021 and 1-4 last year before rallying each time.

However, there was a missing ingredient the past two years: takeaways. Washington forced 18 turnovers last year, ahead of only six teams. The Commanders were minus-5 in turnover margin. Only two of the 16 teams that finished with a negative margin made the playoffs: Kansas City and Miami.

“We need to generate more turnovers,” Del Rio said. “Another turnover here or there in several of the ball games could make the difference between four or five wins or not. And add four wins to what we had last year, we’d be in pretty good shape.”

Enter Forbes, the NCAA’s Division I leader in career interceptions returned for a touchdown with six. He picked off 14 passes while at Mississippi State. Washington drafted him 19th overall for this reason. This summer, he has shown a knack for being around the ball using his length and recovery speed.

During a two-day practice session with Baltimore, the Ravens tested his aggressiveness with double moves to mixed success.

“He’s very twitchy, very fast, but he’s very smart,” Del Rio said. “It’s a great combination for us. He’s going to be a good player for us right now.”

Another corner, Benjamin St-Juste, has looked good outside and in the slot. Coaches say he’s playing more confidently than in his first two seasons, and he has made more big plays during practices.

He spent the offseason rewatching every OTA practice as well as all his game footage from the first two seasons. He then watched other top corners for around a half hour at a time, focusing on their techniques and seeing if it would fit his game.

The increased wisdom, they hope, will result in more takeaways. Earlier this summer, he noticed a change while facing Washington’s offense.

“I know where I need to be so I don’t have to run and try to make up for some plays because I’m late,” he said. “I’m usually like two, three steps ahead of what the offense is doing so I can just chill in that spot, wait for the ball and make a pick.”

Washington’s secondary also features versatile defenders. The Commanders like using three-safety sets in nickel packages with Curl as a hybrid linebacker/safety and at times could use four if they wanted. They could use three corners and three safety sets depending on the matchup.

But the versatility enables them to disguise coverages better.

“If we can get the quarterback to pat the ball a couple times, we’ve got some guys up front that’ll be bearing down on them,” Del Rio said. “If you’re able to make the quarterback second-guess what he’s seeing and give those guys up front a chance to close that cushion, that’s a good thing for us.”

If all that happens, then the defense could have the start it wants — and the team’s record could follow.

“We definitely have a lot of potential,” corner Kendall Fuller said, “but it’s all about what you go out and do on Sundays.”

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