ASHBURN — Jack Del Rio had a request for Ron Rivera when the two men were going over Washington’s defense from last season. The defensive coordinator wanted Rivera, who has say over personnel as head coach, to give him “more options, more tools” so he could deploy different types of coverages.
After all, in 2020, Washington dialed up zone coverage 62.9% of the time, according to ESPN. And while that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing — the defense improved greatly overall — Rivera and Co. determined they relied on zone a little too much last year.
“You don’t just want to sit there and play man every play, or zone every play,” Rivera said. “You want to be able to have that flexibility to flip in and out. You want to be able to disguise.”
Rivera recalled the conversation Wednesday to help explain why Washington signed William Jackson III to a three-year, $42 million deal in March, despite the fact that the cornerback excelled in a man-heavy Cincinnati Bengals defense and has since said learning Washington’s defense is “100% different” than what he’s used to.
At a glance, Jackson’s fit with Washington recalls shades of the team’s pursuit of Josh Norman from a few years back —a high-priced relationship that ultimately failed because the team either didn’t utilize Norman in the right scheme or Norman couldn’t adapt to what Washington asked of him, depending on your viewpoint. Ironically, it was Norman coming from Rivera’s zone scheme in Carolina to Washington.
But that comparison may be an oversimplification. Rivera said Washington won’t turn Jackson strictly into a zone corner and instead take advantage of his strengths in man-to-man. Washington, in another sign it wants to cut back on zone coverage, also drafted cornerback Benjamin St-Juste, giving them another tall corner on the outside to match up one-on-one with opposing receivers. Last year, according to Sports Info Solutions, Washington played man-to-man just 27% of the time.
The reality, however, is that Jackson and Washington will likely reach a middle ground: Jackson will have to adapt to the team’s preferences, while the defensive staff tries to tailor his strengths into the concepts that made the defense effective a year ago.
Jackson seems on board with the ask.
“I just wanted to do different things,” Jackson said. “I didn’t want to be one-dimensional. I wanted to play zone, I wanted to play man. I just wanted to mix it up and showcase my skills and make more plays. So that’s why I chose here, especially with the D line.”
Washington’s defensive line is another reason why the team’s coaching staff wants to deploy more man coverage, Rivera said. With terrors like Chase Young and Montez Sweat on the edge and forces in Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne in the interior, Washington can often afford to just rush the four linemen and allow the secondary to drop back to cover. By playing more man-to-man, the coaching staff feels like the secondary can buy more time for the line to create pressure on the opposing quarterback.
In an ideal world, Rivera said he wants to be so multifaceted that Washington runs man coverage 33% of the time, zone coverage 33% of the time and a package of pressure plays (blitzes) for the remaining third. The coach knows that won’t be the case: He learned from former Bears defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan that “if they can’t block it, keep going” and will lean into concepts that have success.
But the point remains: Being balanced can be a “huge tool” for a coach, Rivera said.
Jackson helps Washington embrace that. According to Football Outsiders, the team struggled to cover No. 1 receivers last season. Despite ranking third overall in defensive DVOA, a metric that measures efficiency, the team ranked 27th against the opposing team’s top receiver.
Jackson can effectively cover: He was used as the Bengals’ “shadow corner” — defined as players who match up with the other team’s top receivers, no matter where on the field — in five games last year, according to Pro Football Focus. In those contests, he was targeted 19 times and only gave up six receptions.
Washington went after Jackson following Ronald Darby’s departure to the Denver Broncos in free agency. But the signing was far from a consolation prize: Jackson was regarded as the top cornerback on the market this year.
“When a guy like William Jackson is sitting there and we’re going, ‘God, this is a guy we got to target, let’s do that,’” Rivera said. “And so that’s what we did.”