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Jack Del Rio eager to avoid Twitter talk, preaches humility on defense

Commanders defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio has overseen a unit that swung from among the league's best in 2020 to among its worst in 2021. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

In two years, the Washington Commanders’ defense went from the top of the NFL’s ranks in most categories to near the bottom, prompting defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio to come to camp last month with a new message.

He urged humility. He urged players to just do their jobs.

“It’s always something that I stress,” Del Rio said. “We’re not going to be fearful of anybody that we go against. But at the same time, we want to make sure we’re really respectful and just prepare and understand the need to strain every day. And that’s what it comes down to.”

Del Rio’s defense has undergone significant change since he took the coordinator job in Washington in 2020. The secondary has been overhauled twice and tweaked again this offseason. The linebacking corps has been remade — and rearranged — and the defensive line has lost key veterans and recently underwent a coaching change. Del Rio has even altered the scheme to adapt to personnel.

In the early going of camp and the preseason opener (a 23-21 loss to the Carolina Panthers), the defense has shown flashes of improvement but also reminders of its struggles. The notable changes are in the way players communicate, the way they play in sync, the way they maybe have shown a bit of that humility.

“The biggest thing is we had a really productive offseason,” Del Rio said. “It was really important to make sure that our guys were here. They were working. They were together. The communication is really strong right now. It’s such a huge part of what we do, being on the same page and being able to play fast.”

Ron Rivera, Jack Del Rio know something about great pass rushers. Enter Chase Young.

After a season together, the defensive backs, led by veteran corners Kendall Fuller and William Jackson and safeties Kam Curl and Bobby McCain, have taken strides in their on-field communication. The chatter before each snap is just as loud as after. In between, players swarm to the ball, deflect passes and play tight coverage with a confident grasp of the defense.

In the preseason game, however, issues on third downs — which plagued the team last season — reappeared early. The Commanders allowed the Panthers to convert their first three third downs and 11 total in 18 tries (61.1 percent). In fact, seven of Carolina’s 10 longest plays of the day came on third down.

“My reaction is not to overreact, but I didn’t like it,” Del Rio said. “Sometimes things go like that. But for us, it’s about getting to work and understanding why. … We want to be a defense that starts fast, and letting them get three first downs on third downs is not starting fast. It’s something we’ve identified as a must-do, and we’ll keep tabs on that as we go.”

Yet Del Rio did seem pleased with the linebackers, noting Jamin Davis’s marked improvement at outside linebacker. Davis is playing with more certainty and confidence and “understands where he belongs,” Del Rio said. The coordinator also lauded Cole Holcomb’s mentorship of the younger players.

Del Rio also seemed pleased with the depth of the defensive line and with the reserves who have stepped up in Chase Young’s absence; James Smith-Williams, for one, can play inside on the line, but he has moved outside full time, and Del Rio described him as “rugged.”

Although Washington’s starting defensive line will be the same as last season’s when Young returns, the group has undergone significant change in recent years, having lost Ryan Kerrigan, Matt Ioannidis and Tim Settle. In addition, coach Sam Mills III was fired during camp and replaced by his former assistant, Jeff Zgonina.

When asked about the firing, Del Rio deferred to Rivera.

“I have nothing to add,” Del Rio said. “Jeff’s doing a good job, and the guys are responding well to him. So [Rivera] has a good sense of what he wants to do, and our job as staff members is to make it come to life and make it productive.”

Del Rio did add that Zgonina has 17 years of playing experience and a “connection” with players, which Del Rio believes is important for building trust.

The question still is whether the defense, with the new and young pieces it added, can bounce back from a difficult season on and off the field. Many players landed on the covid-19 list late last season, some dealt with family losses, and the seeming lack of communication on the field spurred fights off the field. See: Dallas, Thanksgiving, 2021.

Jack Del Rio can choose his words. The Commanders can choose their coaches.

And though the offseason is always a time of optimism in the NFL, the Commanders have continued to draw headlines for off-field incidents. Del Rio was at the heart of one such incident this year, when Rivera fined him $100,000 for comparing the protests that followed George Floyd’s murder to the Jan. 6 insurrection, which Del Rio called a “dust-up” on Twitter. He later deleted his Twitter account — a “personal choice,” he said Wednesday — and for the past two months, he had not addressed his fine.

He didn’t address it Wednesday, either.

“Happy to be in camp right now,” he said when asked about the offseason controversy. “The team is doing a great job working on preparing for the season. Everything that I like to talk about should have to do with football and playing good defense.”

He added: “It’s about production in our business, and that’s what we’re stressing.”

And his messaging, about humility and production, has seemed to rub off.

“Coming to work, being humble and understanding that we haven’t done much,” McCain said of the defense’s emphases. “Last year we didn’t do much. We didn’t make it to the playoffs, and [the playoffs are] the goal.”