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Live Life Deliberately

Changes are coming to the Commanders’ defense. Here’s what to expect.

The Washington Commanders’ defense started to snowball with about two minutes left in the first half of the game against the Dallas Cowboys. Moments after Washington’s offense trekked 75 yards for a score, the Cowboys did the same in only a handful of plays: a quick in-route, a deep crosser, a post route and a bulldozing run up the middle to punch the ball into the end zone.

The Cowboys’ lead expanded to 10 points and went up from there, leaving the Commanders to sift through the wreckage of another blowout loss. In 12 games this season, Washington’s defense has allowed 98 explosive plays. Its once-stout pass rush has diminished, and the scheme the team tweaked a year ago appears ill-fitting for its personnel.

So the next morning, Coach Ron Rivera fired defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio and defensive backs coach Brent Vieselmeyer and announced he would take over the play-calling. Then Rivera again began to tweak the system.

“I think shaking it up now gives us an opportunity to do some things differently and play some guys differently and see what’s going on and see if we can do things to make some things happen, in a positive sense,” Rivera said last Friday.

That day, Rivera spoke with every defensive assistant individually and then again collectively. He went through a list of items detailing what he thought the defense needed to do to improve and asked the coaches to focus primarily on those things. By the next morning, when the coaches reconvened, they put together a plan for the defense based on Rivera’s discussions with them.

That plan? Trimming the defense by eliminating some rules that have slowed some players down or forced them to overthink on the field.

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“They were all prepared. They had presentations ready to go, all based on what we had talked about,” Rivera said of his assistants. “ … As we started transitioning on Monday in preparation for Miami, we were really able to go into this, and everybody knew their role.

“I think some of the things that we need to look at … [include] creating those opportunities for the players to be successful, paring down some of the things that we’ve done from the past and just trying to get them to play fast,” Rivera added, mentioning that the team planned to eliminate “some of the tools, the checks that we’ve used in the past.”

Because of injuries and personnel changes, the Commanders are more reliant on younger and less experienced players. Safety Darrick Forrest, one of the team’s more instinctive defensive backs, has been sidelined with a shoulder injury since Week 5. Up front, Washington traded two of its best pass rushers, Montez Sweat and Chase Young, before the Oct. 31 deadline. Fellow end James Smith-Williams is dealing with a hamstring injury, and for a four-game stretch, starting linebacker Cody Barton was out with an ankle injury. He returned against Dallas.

Percy Butler, who has started in place of Forrest, played only 130 defensive snaps last season. Quan Martin, a second-round rookie defensive back, got his first start last Thursday because first-round cornerback Emmanuel Forbes Jr. was nursing an elbow injury. And rookie defensive ends KJ Henry and Andre Jones Jr., who are starting to see more time, have played only 85 and 79 defensive snaps, respectively.

Last season, the Commanders incorporated more zone-match principles, in which defenders take zone drops but defend anyone man-to-man who enters their zone. Such coverages allowed defenders to maintain their zone structures but incorporated rules to create tighter coverage and get more eyes on the quarterback. But zone-match principles require sound communication and tackling, which the Commanders have often lacked, leading to explosive plays.

Perhaps in response to the struggles on defense and to compensate for the personnel changes, the Commanders have used man coverage on 41.1 percent of their defensive plays the past four weeks, the second-highest rate in the NFL in that span, according to the website TruMedia. In the first eight weeks of the season, they were in man coverage on only 24.3 percent of their plays.

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So something has to change. In simplifying the defense, the Commanders hope to eliminate mistakes such as blown coverages, missed assignments and late breaks on throws.

“You’re just able to focus in on certain calls — things that you know that are going to be called, things that you know that we’re going to run,” cornerback Kendall Fuller said. “When you watch tape, you’re able to put yourself in those plays and prepare yourself to be where you need to be once you see certain plays, depending on how the offense wants to attack us and things like that.”

And to help the back end, the Commanders have to work on the front end.

After the trades of Young and Sweat, opposing offenses have paid more attention to defensive tackles Daron Payne and Jonathan Allen, using double teams. The Commanders have registered the lowest defensive pressure rate (24.3 percent) in the league since Week 9, and nine of their 10 sacks in that span were against the Giants, in a game they still lost.

“There’s been a little bit more obvious attention being paid to our defensive tackles … so we’ve got to try and create some situations where they end up getting singled up a little bit more, and hopefully that’ll help them,” Rivera said.

Creating better disguises up front, be it with pass-rushing stunts or “MUG” fronts, in which the defense threatens multiple blitzers but ends up dropping some into coverage, could be among the changes. But perhaps the greatest change will be on the sideline as Rivera assumes play-calling, a task he hasn’t had since 2019, when he coached the Carolina Panthers.

Getting back into the rhythm of play-calling and prep work each week has required Rivera to make adjustments, but he said he doesn’t expect it to be a significant shift. He has done this before.

In 2008, when he was the linebackers coach for the San Diego Chargers, Rivera was tabbed as the interim defensive coordinator. In 2018, while he was the Panthers’ coach, he assumed defensive play-calling duties for the last four games of the season, a task he carried through the next season.

“We’ll get used to it,” Rivera said. “ … We’ll just continue to try and keep things as normal as possible on the sidelines and just make sure the communication is there.

“One of the things I talked with the defensive coaches about is as soon as — as soon as — we transition off the field, we need to get together and talk about what needs to be adjusted and then what the ideas and thoughts are for the next series as well. I will rely on the guys upstairs that have helped me with some of the other things and try and gather as much information from there.”

To help ease the transition, the Commanders hired Jim Salgado, who served as Michigan State’s cornerbacks coach this season and spent the previous six seasons on the Buffalo Bills’ defensive staff, as an interim assistant. He will help interim defensive backs coach Cristian Garcia, and Richard Rodgers, the team’s senior defensive assistant/safeties coach and a longtime friend of Rivera’s, will help with game-planning.

On Monday, Rivera and his coaches wrapped up the planning for first and second downs and started prepping for red zone and third downs. On Tuesday, the coaches continued to prepare to face the Miami Dolphins, and Rivera spoke to players abut his reasoning for making the defensive adjustments.

“I told them it was on us now,” he said. “We’re going to do the things that we feel really good about. We want to make sure the things that we’re doing give you guys the best opportunity to be successful.”

The changes, he believes, are necessary, even if they require more work in the interim. When asked Wednesday if he enjoys play-calling, Rivera said, smiling: “When it works, yeah.”


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