“Unfortunately, when it came time to do a couple other things, we didn’t do them. We didn’t execute it properly. Could we have been in something different? Yeah, maybe. But to want to sit here and make wholesale [changes]? That doesn’t make a lot of sense to me right now — it really doesn’t.”
Washington gave up five plays of 20 or more yards, three of which were touchdowns. On wide receiver Deonte Harris’s 72-yard touchdown catch in the first quarter, the defense failed to line up before the ball was snapped. Safety Landon Collins had his head turned while communicating with cornerback Kendall Fuller, and before long Harris — who has 4.35-second speed in the 40-yard dash — ran past Collins up the middle for the score.
“We let a guy get behind us,” Rivera said postgame. “Can’t do that.”
In the second quarter, Saints running back Alvin Kamara slipped through the gap between the left guard and center, then escaped the grasp of safety Bobby McCain for a 23-yard touchdown.
Rivera’s explanation there: The defense missed a crease. “If you’re not where you need to be, they’re going to find you,” he said Monday.
And before halftime, the defense wasn’t prepared for a Hail Mary attempt, Collins said, and Saints wide receiver Marquez Callaway pulled in a 49-yard touchdown catch with relative ease.
After the game, Rivera repeated a refrain he has used often. He and his coaches need to make sure they’re putting players “in a position to succeed.” On Monday, after reviewing the game film, he was adamant that any major changes could have negative consequences and that he has no plans to get more involved in the defensive play-calling, which is handled by coordinator Jack Del Rio.
“I’m not going that way. Just understand that,” Rivera said. “I like what we did. I thought what we did last week gave us an opportunity.”
Washington’s pass rush, which struggled in its first four games, had its best showing of the season in Sunday’s loss, producing more consistent pressure. The porous third-down defense improved as well; the Saints converted 4 of 11 opportunities (36.4 percent).
Yet the persistent mistakes, which may be minor on their own, have led to significant problems, turning one of the NFL’s best defenses of 2020 into one of its worst this year.
But any discussion of change demands a follow-up question: If not this, then what?
“If 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. 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.”
One adjustment Washington has made is to play most snaps with just one or two linebackers on the field. Washington has frequently deployed five defensive linemen, and Collins and fellow safety Kam Curl often drop down into a traditional linebacker role. Linebacker Jon Bostic is on injured reserve with a pectoral muscle injury, and first-round draft pick Jamin Davis apparently is still getting up to speed in Del Rio’s system. On Sunday, he played just 13 snaps (23 percent).
“What we’re doing is by game plan,” Rivera said. “We just felt that what we had planned and what we could do and have success with, we went with. And, again, I thought there were some good things that we did. We put ourselves in a position to make some plays in some situations; it’s just unfortunate, like I said.”
Swapping out a player here or there may not lead to different results. Changing a play caller may not, either; Rivera is the only other coach on staff with defensive play-calling experience, and he made clear Monday that he doesn’t plan to take on that responsibility.
And if not him, then who?
“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. “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.”