Over the summer, Washington coach Ron Rivera led a presentation for up-and-coming assistants around the league on how to manage a staff in the NFL. Rivera said it was important to delegate authority, but ultimately, it was the head coach’s responsibility — as a leader — to “set the standard” for a team.
Five weeks into a season that has seen Jack Del Rio’s unit allow 155 points, Rivera is still delegating.
Rivera was adamant Monday that he was not contemplating “wholesale” defensive changes nor would he assume a bigger role, like taking over defensive play-calling, from coordinator Del Rio. Washington allowed more than 30 points for the third straight week in Sunday’s 33-22 loss to the New Orleans Saints, but Rivera said the loss boiled down essentially to two breakdowns defensively.
One was a 72-yard touchdown to Deonte Harris in the first quarter, the other a 49-yard Hail Mary just before halftime.
“To want to sit here and make wholesale (changes), that doesn’t make a lot of sense to me right now,” Rivera said.
Washington’s slow start defensively has led to heaps of criticism, particularly toward Del Rio — the coordinator whose unit ranks 31st in points allowed, 27th in total yards and 28th in passing yards against. Del Rio’s group has taken a massive step back from last season, when the team was a top-five unit in practically every category.
The idea that Rivera might become more involved on the defensive side of the ball isn’t completely unheard of. In Carolina, Rivera’s last stop, he took over play-calling duties down the stretch of the 2018 season from then-coordinator Eric Washington. Rivera didn’t make the change until December, but the Panthers were on a four-game losing streak with a unit that gave up the 12th most points.
Rivera, too, has a defensive background. A former linebacker, he got into coaching and served as the defensive coordinator for the Chicago Bears and San Diego Chargers before becoming a head coach.
But with the Burgundy and Gold, Rivera has trusted Del Rio to lead the defense. At his presentation in July, Rivera told the assistants on the video call that he checked in more often with offensive coordinator Scott Turner last season than Del Rio, given that Turner was a first-year coordinator compared to a two-time head coach in Del Rio.
“We’re trying to build and create, and if you’re constantly mixing and changing and moving and doing things, you never really find out,” Rivera said Monday. “If we had done anything drastically crazy last year, we did it after I felt that it was time to do it and that’s what we’re going to do here. I don’t see the issues the way [reporters] do. OK?
“I have the opportunity to watch the tape, to break the tape down, to look at what we’re doing and looking at how we’re doing it.”
And when Rivera watched the tape of Sunday’s loss, he said he saw progress. Washington held Saints quarterback Jameis Winston to a 50% completion percentage and the unit forced two turnovers, an interception and a fumble. But the team still gave up five touchdowns, four through the air.
In addition to pushing back against potential coaching changes, Rivera also seemed to resist the idea of making any major overhauls to the team’s personnel.
“So, (say) we’re going to start changing people. Well, who else am I going to go to?” Rivera said. “These are the guys that we’ve got to train and teach and go with. OK? You just can’t pull guys and bring guys in without consequences and doing certain things affect certain other parts of the team and what you’re trying to do.”
Through five games, Washington has heavily relied on three-safety looks, as well as five defensive linemen packages. Those formations, it appears, have come at a cost to rookie linebacker Jamin Davis’ playing time as the first-rounder only logged 13 snaps against the Saints.
Rivera said Davis’ usage — or lack thereof — was dictated by the game plan. And when Davis is on the field, results have been spotty. On Alvin Kamara’s 23-yard touchdown run Sunday, Davis made the wrong read and Kamara pounced through the open gap that was created by the rookie’s mistake.
Last season, Rivera used the phrase “cutoff point” when mulling whether to bench quarterback Dwayne Haskins. Asked Monday if he had a similar threshold for the defense, Rivera said those were decisions he would only make when necessary.
But he’s not ready to make them at the moment.
“What we’re going to do is we’re going to continue to work guys,” Rivera said. “The only way you’re going to get better is to work in practice, practice hard, practice as best as you can, then you go out and you play.”