RICHMOND – Perry Riley Jr. knows it’s still early. “We haven’t played anyone yet,” he cautions with a smile. But the fifth-year inside linebacker believes that both he and Washington’s defense as a whole will take significant leaps forward this season.
Riley aims to lead the defense in tackles for a second consecutive season; He recorded 115 last year. But he also aspires to become a more complete linebacker. That, thanks to the addition of inside linebackers coach Kirk Olivadotti, is possible.
During the offseason, Riley worked with Olivadotti, on honing his technique both in run defense and in pass coverage. He sees improvements in his game.
“A lot of technical stuff, a lot of hand work, getting off blocks and guards,” Riley said, listing the areas of growth. “My first years in the league, we didn’t do any of that. Not to say anything bad about my coaches before, but we didn’t do a lot of those things. We did more drops and run gaps. But now, I’m seeing on film that I’m punching my hands, I’m getting off blocks. If a dude is coming toward me, I’m not getting stuck. I’m getting off him – able to shuck and shed and get to the ball. I like the steps I’m taking and progressing as a linebacker.”
Riley this season will draw more pass-coverage assignments with Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan now free to rush the passer more. Olivadotti’s work remains ongoing with the linebacker in this department. But Riley has improved.
During a one-on-one drill on Friday, Riley struggled initially while matched up in pass coverage with a fullback. Twice he got called for illegal contact as he held the pass catchers after five yards. Olivadotti pulled Riley to the side and showed him where to modify his technique. On the next time up, Riley intercepted the pass.
Riley must assume an even larger playmaking and leadership role now that London Fletcher has retired. Keenan Robinson takes Fletcher’s place. The 2012 fourth-round pick boasts potential, but is unproven after missing five games to injury as a rookie and all 16 to another injury last season.
Coaches have praised the progress Robinson has showed and believe that he and Riley can anchor the unit. Riley shares the optimism.
“I feel like we’re making the transition well,” he said. “Keenan is doing a great job. He already knew the defense so he’s a step ahead of a new free agent or a rookie. I don’t need to teach him. So, it’s moreso him just getting used to the reps and the O-line because he hasn’t done it in two years because he was injured. But that’s what training camp and the preseason is for.”
Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett has changed the philosophy of the defense to that of a more attacking unit. The new mind-set, plus the addition of free safety Ryan Clark, which coupled with Brandon Meriweather gives Washington an experienced tandem on the back end. The changes will make a difference, Riley says.
“Calls-wise, it hasn’t changed. We make the same calls. But they’ve tweaked some the things that we run, and I think it’s definitely for the better,” Riley said. “Things are looking great. We’re flying around and people are feeling like it’s second nature now. I feel good about this defense now. We’ve got two great safeties back there, backing up the other nine, so we all feel confident to make open-field tackles. We’re looking good. It’s early. We haven’t played anyone yet – just our offense – but our offense is good competition, so for now, we’re looking good.
“We can be the best defense in the league,” Riley continued. “I say that with confidence. I’m not saying that just to say that. We have real talented guys. Last year we didn’t play up to our capabilities. The film we put out there wasn’t us. We didn’t come to play every Sunday. That was a wakeup call for us. You can tell in practice, we’re practicing with more intensity. We’re flying, we’re tackling, we’re fighting. We’re not going to take that. We’re not going to be no pushovers of the league this year.”
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