Jack Del Rio strode to the front row of the packed auditorium inside Redskins Park on Thursday and started shaking hands. He had brief interactions with Hall of Famer Darrell Green and current running backs Derrius Guice and Adrian Peterson. He found a seat to the right of Hannah Allen, the wife of defensive lineman Jonathan Allen, who sat to her left and chatted with his new defensive coordinator.
The future of the Washington Redskins is poised to be built with defense, which was epitomized by two-time NFL coach of the year Ron Rivera’s official introduction while his first hire, Del Rio, and a defensive captain were seated just a few feet away. The rest of the Redskins’ front office and coaching staff remains in flux, but Rivera locked up Del Rio to be his top defensive assistant a day after reaching his own agreement.
“The one thing you have to have on your staff is a guy that’s been there,” Rivera said. “There’s an old saying: Don’t draw me a map unless you’ve been there. Well, Jack’s been there. Jack and I had this conversation earlier today. I told him, if you see something’s wrong or you see something that we need to think about, please tell me because that’s the only way I’m going to know.”
Rivera becomes the first Redskins head coach with a defensive background since Marty Schottenheimer was hired before the 2001 season. The defense was supposed to be the strength of the team in 2019 after significant draft capital was spent on that side of the ball in recent years. Washington used first-round picks on Allen, Daron Payne and Montez Sweat in each of the past three drafts, and both linebacker Ryan Anderson and cornerback Fabian Moreau were early-round selections. Meanwhile, Quinton Dunbar developed into one of top cornerbacks in the league this past season, and Josh Norman, the NFL’s second-highest-paid corner, is still on the roster.
The unit drastically underperformed, however, finishing the season ranked 27th in both points and yards allowed per game. Rivera, who won a championship as a player with the 1985 Chicago Bears and has been a defensive coordinator and a head coach on teams that went to the Super Bowl, brings a winning defensive pedigree. Del Rio served as defensive coordinator of the 2013 Denver Broncos, who also advanced to the Super Bowl, and has coached 28 players to 56 Pro Bowl selections in his career as a coordinator and a head coach.
“It definitely makes life easier for Ron out of the gate,” ESPN NFL analyst Field Yates said. “Jack and Ron, obviously, have a history together. Jack has been in this league a long time as a head coach, a defensive coordinator, a player. He’s a football lifer.”
Yates pointed to Jacksonville Jaguars teams helmed by Del Rio that had elite defenses, three of which were ranked among the league’s top seven between 2003 and 2006. Those units were led up front by defensive tackles John Henderson and Marcus Stroud. The Redskins’ strongest position group is their defensive line, where Allen and Payne are joined by Matt Ioannidis and Tim Settle. Rivera also noted that he sees outside linebackers on the Redskins’ roster who can move to defensive end, most likely referring to Sweat and Ryan Kerrigan.
Yates and Fox NFL analyst Charles Davis believe the specifics of a base defense, which Rivera and Del Rio plan to switch from a 3-4 to a 4-3, can be overrated considering teams are frequently in sub-packages to counter offenses playing with three or more wide receivers. Defensive lines, however, benefit from 4-3 concepts.
“Anytime you go from a 3-4 to a 4-3, it allows the defensive line to have more opportunities to make plays in the backfield,” Allen said.
Rivera added: “What we want to do is get these guys playing downhill through their gap. We’re going to play the run on our way to the quarterback.”
Ten of the Redskins’ primary 11 defensive starters are under contract in 2020, though salary cap decisions regarding Kerrigan and Norman could be coming. Linebacker Jon Bostic will be a free agent, but Reuben Foster is expected to return after recovering from knee surgery.
Rivera, who, like Allen, comes from a military background, said discipline will be the single principle from which everything starts. That was mostly missing in 2019, when blown coverages because of poor communication and players out of position were prevalent.
Green, a mainstay of Redskins defenses for 20 years, didn’t think adding a defensive-minded head coach was particularly significant, but he supported Rivera’s overall message. He was more impressed by the leadership brought by the new defensive duo, as was Davis.
“For a team that’s trying to get on its feet, to have that kind of professionalism walk through the door and present itself every day, it’s a big deal,” Davis said. “Think about these young pups who are running around on defense. I think this plays right into what Jonathan Allen’s looking for. [I] think this plays right into what Daron Payne’s looking for, because that’s what they experienced at Alabama. … All those guys who know what that’s about, this is perfect. And you have a couple guys who need that.”
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