As Del Rio oversees the unit’s transition from a 3-4 base defense to a 4-3 scheme, he has the benefit of a defensive line that is — on paper, at least — one of the most talent-laden in the NFL. But he knows from 21 seasons of NFL coaching experience that potential on paper, if not matched by performances in games, is meaningless.
“Assembling talent doesn’t equate to production,” Del Rio said in a recent interview. “We’re in a production business. It’s about performance. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
With the addition of No. 2 overall pick Chase Young, Washington’s front features five first-round picks and three others selected in later rounds, nearly all of whom are under the age of 26 and have multiple years left on their contracts. Yet Del Rio maintains a more tempered outlook as the Washington Football Team tries to rebuild from a 3-13 finish to 2019.
“Other than Chase, they had all these guys last year, too,” he said. “So, to me, I’m more concerned with us getting to work and understanding what our responsibilities are, understanding where the plays need to be made.
“It does start up front, so that’s a good place to begin, and I am excited about the group. But a lot of people want to talk about the potential, and having done this as long as I have, I understand completely that it’s more about your performance and your production [and] less about your potential.”
Under coordinator Greg Manusky last year, Washington finished among the league’s top 10 in sacks (46), but ranked 27th in both total yards and points allowed, 28th in total first downs allowed, 31st in run defense and dead last in opponent third-down conversion percentage.
The sport has changed significantly over the years, even in the past two, during which Del Rio was out of coaching.
“The game is more about speed than it’s ever been,” he said. “Offenses are stretching you not only vertically but horizontally as well. And so they’re putting great athletes out in space, and you’re going to contend with multiple formations and shifts, and so all of that is part of the game now. [Whereas] many, many years ago when I broke in, it was much more base, kind of ‘21’ personnel, two backs and a tight end in base formations. Now it’s wide open.”
According to Sharp Football Stats, offenses used “11” personnel — with one back, a tight end and three wide receivers — for 60 percent of their plays last season. Del Rio is installing his version of the 4-3, but the significance of the change in base defense can be misleading, given how defenses play the majority of their snaps in subpackages.
Washington, however, has both the luxury and “not so comfortable” issue, as Del Rio put it, of having a deep and star-studded cast up front. Former Alabama duo Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne figure to start inside at the tackle positions, with Young lining up opposite Ryan Kerrigan or Montez Sweat at end. Defensive line coach Sam Mills III envisions a rotation of sorts, with Washington’s 2019 sack leader, Matt Ioannidis, and young tackle Tim Settle adding depth to the interior line. On the edge, Ryan Anderson and veteran Nate Orchard also could factor into the rtation.
“Some people see it as a problem. I see it as a great opportunity to keep fresh rushers on the field, to be honest with you,” Mills told reporters during a video conference call Monday. “ … If we’re playing good on defense, we should be on the field anywhere between 55 and 65 snaps, and you don’t want a guy to play all those snaps. There’s no need when we have able bodies to go along with him, so we can have a fresh rotation and everybody can get a piece.”
Mills, the son of the late New Orleans “Dome Patrol” linebacker, was on Washington Coach Ron Rivera’s staff for the entirety of his tenure in Carolina, coaching its line. Like Rivera and Del Rio, Mills has preached accountability and responsibility from players as they look to reset the team’s culture and on-field product.
“If we’re going to lead our defense — which, let’s be honest, this room is supposed to lead this defense — if we’re going to lead our defense, we have to be accountable to everyone,” Mills said. “Jack has built a great defense, and if we do our job, it’ll all take care of itself.”
The three coaches also have stressed fundamentals, so much so that Rivera hopes to create a tackling circuit in training camp to improve players’ technique. They have stressed playing fast, a byproduct of knowing the playbook in and out, and have called for an aggressive attack.
They also have stressed production over potential. Especially for their highly touted defensive line.
“Look, this team was 3-13 last year, it was 32nd in third-down defense, it was near the bottom in several categories,” Del Rio said. “So there’s a lot of room for improvement. For me, it’s always been more about production and performance in the NFL. Everybody has talent. I mean, you look across the league. Everybody’s got first-round picks. … It’s really not about that. It’s about coming together, understanding what your role is, embracing that, being accountable, playing fast defensively and finding a way to shed a block and make a tackle. Those are things that I believe in.”
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