Life was good for the Washington Football Team's pass rush after a Week 1 upset over the Philadelphia Eagles. With a league-leading eight sacks, the defense forced three turnovers on the way to a 27-17 win.
Since then, life has been more turbulent when it comes to pressuring quarterbacks.
For the most part, Washington's pass rush has performed as expected; the defense ranks fifth with 28 sacks, leads the NFL in adjusted sack rate and has recorded at least one sack in every game. But outside of three games -- all of which have been against NFC East opponents -- Washington has struggled to get its hands on quarterbacks consistently.
Against the Cincinnati Bengals, who have allowed the second-most sacks this season, the defense has a chance to fix that issue.
"For us, it's just to build on the start that we had to the season," defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said Nov. 5. "We're looking to continually improve. We established high standards. Our expectations are very high. We're going to keep pushing for that. ...We're seeking to be better, and we should be better as the year goes on."
To Del Rio's credit, the defense has improved markedly at rushing the passer in the past month. It brought down Dallas Cowboys quarterbacks Andy Dalton and Ben DiNucci six times in Week 7 -- the most since the season opener. It followed that up with five sacks in the Week 9 rematch against the New York Giants.
But there was a long stretch of constipated production from the pass rush. After the defense's Week 1 performance, it recorded eight sacks over the course of Weeks 2-6. Washington was applying pressure -- its 10.6% adjusted sack rate even tops the Pittsburgh Steelers, who lead the league with 36 sacks -- but it struggled to finish plays, as Washington 14th in ESPN's pass rush win rate.
They key to improving, Del Rio said prior to the Cowboys game, was to simply "just keep doing our thing." That strategy appears to have worked; 43% of the team's sacks have come in the past three games.
"The game is kind of ebbs and flows. There are points during the season where sacks will come in bunches, turnovers will come in bunches and stuff like that will come. Obviously, we'd like to have it each and every time out. We're going to keep working at it. I think the guys are giving great effort. I think we have a great understanding of the things we're trying to accomplish."
Washington has proven it can take advantage of struggling offensive lines, and the Bengals have experienced their share of issues at the position. The team is 28th in pass block win rate, losing its 1-on-1 pass blocking matchup in 2.5 seconds or less 50% of the time. As a result, quarterback Joe Burrow has been sacked 32 times and lost 231 yards, both of which are second-most in the league.
Washington has respect for Burrow, who ranks ninth in passing yards. Del Rio described the No. 1 overall pick as decisive, accurate, athletic and being able to escape pressure. In order to put the defense in better position for its pressure to find its mark, Del Rio said the biggest factor will be to put the Bengals in passing situations.
"I think [we're] making sure that we're defending the run. They do a really good job with their quick passing game. [Those are] some of the things they like to do, and we've got to make sure we're on top of that. We understand the challenges. Getting pressure on the quarterback is always important. Clearly, that'll be a priority for us."
Based on how the Bengals performed against the other team sack leaders, Washington should be in for another big day. They allowed eight sacks against the Eagles in Week 3, and last week the Steelers brought down Burrow four times on 12 pressures. What's more, Burrow has been pressured on 21.7% of his dropbacks, while Washington pressures quarterbacks on 34.3% of passing plays.
Del Rio said Thursday that he feels the defense is solid in terms of its sack numbers, so as the team prepares for the Bengals, he intends for the pass rush to "do what we do."
"It's about us playing good defense. Do we want [to] push? Yeah, we want [to] push. We want the quarterback going down, and hopefully we'll get that going this week. I like the way the group is working. We're just going to continue to go at it and take our shots, and [we're] looking forward to going against the Bengals on Sunday."