If Washington makes a few subtle adjustments, and if each player focuses on his job and no one else’s, Rivera said, Washington could take a significant step forward — perhaps onto the Bills’ level.
“Are we that far off? No, I don’t think we are. I really don’t,” he said. “I know a lot of people have expectations because of that talent. But as this talent is being worked and molded into a unit, into a team, we’re going to suffer some of these games. We’re going to go through this.”
During the news conference, a reporter began to ask whether fans should lower their expectations for the defense because it gained its reputation largely by defeating inexperienced quarterbacks late last year. Down the stretch, as Washington went 5-2, it beat only one passer with more than five career wins (Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger). Rivera shook his head right away. He pointed out that some believed his team, at 7-9, shouldn’t have made the playoffs because the NFC East was bad.
“Yet who played the world champs the best last year?” he said of Washington’s 31-23 loss to Tampa Bay in January’s first round. “[The quality of competition] doesn’t matter. What matters is how you play on Sundays, and right now we didn’t play very well on Sunday.”
The tonal shift from right after the game was significant. Rivera looked dispirited then and expressed fear his team wasn’t learning. He seemed more optimistic Monday about not only his players’ improvement but the potential return of wide receiver Curtis Samuel (groin), who Rivera said would practice Wednesday, opening a 21-day window for Washington to activate him or put him on season-ending injured reserve.
Rivera seemed unconcerned when asked about the team’s mind-set and practice habits. He said the issue he was struggling with most was an inability to execute schemes as they’re designed. He acknowledged he made mistakes Sunday, including the lost challenge on a first-quarter ball spot, but noted that if the flashes he saw on offense and defense became consistent, the team could leap forward as soon as next week at the Atlanta Falcons.
There is, at least next Sunday, precedent for Rivera’s buoyancy. In 159 career games, he has lost by three or more touchdowns 13 times before this, and his teams almost always rebound well. They don’t necessarily win — Rivera is 5-7 the following week; one of those lopsided losses ended the season — but they are competitive. Only one of the losses was by more than six points, and it came in 2011, when he was a first-year coach with a rookie quarterback.
Of all the changes Washington must make, Rivera highlighted starting faster, improving the coordination among pass rushers and not pressing when trailing. He specified that Young and quarterback Taylor Heinicke must keep their cool and that he would like Heinicke “to do things in more of a game-manager way” instead of hunting the big play.
“Sometimes, that is really just taking what’s given to you,” Rivera said. “Go ahead and throw the check-down, go ahead and throw the drag or the slant as opposed to, ‘Okay, I’m going to wait for the dig to get it to that middle window.’ ”
Rivera said his coordinators needed to improve their play-calling and personnel grouping choices, but he supported defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio. Despite the unit’s lack of pressure Sunday, Rivera agreed with rarely blitzing on third down. He wants the front four, Washington’s most expensive assets in terms of draft capital, to win their matchups and help the secondary. He noted defensive tackle Daron Payne generated inside pressure a few times but the defensive end wasn’t coordinated with him and washed outside, allowing Bills quarterback Josh Allen to step up in the pocket.
Ultimately, Rivera said, lopsided losses happen in the NFL. He emphasized that his team will be defined by how it bounces back. He hopes the defeat will help reinforce his message that players must operate within the scheme.
“It creates the opportunities that they want,” he said. “It’s hard to feel right now, hard to see. But, again, it’s one of those things, to me, that’s going to happen. It’s just a matter of time.”