On the turn of the new decade, the Washington Redskins named Ron Rivera their new head coach. The Redskins hope that this move will be the starting point for a decade of winning and success. Since the start of the century, the Redskins have struggled to find any form of consistent success. They had just one back-to-back winning season in the last decade, and owner Dan Snyder has cleaned house and is looking to move into a new era of competency and consistent improvement.
Snyder chose Rivera to be the man to right the ship, and many believe he is the perfect man to do so. His hard-working attitude, ability to lead, and his charisma that leads everyone to love him are all traits the Redskins didn’t have up top when a certain team president was running the show. Rivera will look to put his stamp on a once-proud organization, and he’s going to bring some backup. That backup will be former Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio. Del Rio is one of the most successful defensive coordinators since the turn of the century. What do these two former players bring to the nation’s capital, and how will the Redskins scheme change with Rivera in 2020?
Ron Rivera: History
Ronald Eugene Rivera was raised in a military family, and it’s evident in his coaching philosophy. Rivera attended high school in southern California where he became a highly recruited linebacker. Rivera chose to stay close to home and attend the University of California Berkeley. During his career, he was a consensus All-American and left the program as the Golden Bears’ all-time leader in sacks and tackles. His record for most tackles for loss in a single season still stands to this day. In the 1984 NFL Draft, the Chicago Bears selected Rivera with the 44th overall pick. Rivera was a rotational linebacker and special teamer for the legendary 1985 Bears Super Bowl team. That Chicago defense is widely regarded as one of the top defensive units in NFL history. Rivera would play nine seasons for the Bears, before deciding to retire and move on to the next chapter in his life.
The Assistant Coach and Defensive Coordinator
After his playing career, Rivera entered a brief stint away from football as a TV personality and insurance salesman. The lifestyle didn’t exactly fit Rivera, and he and his wife Stephanie knew he had to find a way back into football.
In 1996, Rivera joined the Bears as a defensive quality control coach, the first stepping stone of his coaching journey. After a year with the Bears, Rivera moved up and was named the linebackers coach for the Philadelphia Eagles, a job he held for four years. Rivera is heavily credited for the development of two-time Pro Bowler Jeremiah Trotter during his time in Philly.
After the 2003 season, Rivera made his way back to Chicago where he became the defensive coordinator for the Bears. Before Rivera took over, the Bears ranked 31st in turnovers, 22nd in points allowed, and 15th in yards allowed. By his second season as defensive coordinator, the Bears ranked 6th in turnovers, 1st in points allowed, and 2nd in yards allowed. Rivera had transformed the Bears defense in a mere two years. After his third season, Rivera’s contract with Chicago had expired, and the two parties failed to reach an agreement.
After moving on from Chicago, Rivera was hired as the Chargers linebacker coach in 2007 and was promoted to defensive coordinator after one season. Similar to his time in Chicago, Rivera found great success in San Diego. In 2010, the Rivera-led Chargers defense led the league in yards allowed and pass defense, landed second in yards per play, and finished top ten in points allowed. Following this success, and his growing reputation as a leader and coach players loved, it was clear Rivera would be leading a team somewhere soon.
The Head Coach: Early Years
After his dominant career as a defensive coordinator, the Carolina Panthers took notice and named Rivera their fourth head coach in team history. He would be only the fifth head coach of Latino descent in NFL history.
Rivera had a number of challenges to face as a first-time head coach. He would be taking over a team that had a bottom-ten defense, and an even worse offense, all while being tasked with turning #1 overall pick Cam Newton into the franchise QB the Panthers drafted him to be. Rivera had selected his colleague from San Diego Rob Chudzinski to be his offensive coordinator. Rivera also hired Sean McDermott to be his defensive coordinator. McDermott is now the head coach of the Buffalo Bills, a team enjoying a playoff bid this season. With these two hires, Rivera filled out his coaching staff and got straight to work.
After finishing the 2010 season with just two wins, there was an immediate improvement by the Rivera-led Panthers in 2011. The team went 6-10 and rookie QB Cam Newton won Offensive Rookie of the Year, becoming the first rookie QB in NFL history to throw for over 4,000 yards. He was named to the Pro Bowl as well. Rivera had impressed in his first season, and the future looked bright.
In the draft, the Panthers would use their first-round pick on Boston College product Luke Kuechly, the consensus top linebacker. Now Rivera had a star to develop in the interior of his defense. Despite this, Rivera and the Panthers would go 7-9 in 2012. Many viewed the season as a sophomore slump for Cam Newton and the team.
After the season, there was some controversy around Rivera’s ability to coach in close games, and some wondered if he’d be fired. He was retained, but it was obvious the ice was thin. Rivera’s team played safe football, headlined by a Week 2 decision in the 2013 season to kick a field goal against the Buffalo Bills, while facing a 4th and 1, holding on to a three-point lead. This would turn a one-score game into a… one-score game.
Rivera chose to do this twice in the fourth quarter. The Bills would go on to win the game, and the ice beneath Rivera was starting to crack. Rivera’s record in games decided by one point dropped to 2-14. Something had to be done.
Head Coach: The Birth of Riverboat Ron
After an 0-2 start to 2013, the Panthers faced the also-struggling New York Giants. The Panthers won that game 38-0, and over the next five weeks, the Panthers went 4-1. Throughout the rest of the season, Rivera would lead the Panthers on a then-franchise record eight-game win streak, and finish with a 12-4 record. In only three seasons, Rivera had taken the Panthers from 2-14 to 12-4 with a playoff bid. They would lose in the divisional round to the San Francisco 49ers.
After a 12-4 campaign, expectations were high for the Panthers. The 2014 season was a bit of disappointment as the team went 7-8-1 but still won the NFC South. It was the first time in division history that a team won the title back-to-back. Even though the regular season was worse than expected, the Panthers went on to win their first playoff game in nearly a decade. It also marked the first playoff win under Ron Rivera, and it was a much-needed experience for what was to come in the next season.
In 2015, the Panthers had one of the best regular seasons in NFL history. Behind a top ten defense, the Panthers stuffed opponents with their physicality, but it was their offense that was the powerhouse of their team. Cam Newton was unstoppable and was named NFL MVP because of it. Rivera had not only changed the Panthers culture and turned them into one of the league’s elite teams, but he had fulfilled his promise to transform Cam Newton into one of the league’s top playmakers.
That same season, the Panthers would win their way through the NFC playoffs and face the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 50. Unfortunately for the Panthers, the Broncos were in the midst of the most impressive postseason defensive run NFL history, with a vaunting pass rush led by Von Miller, and a lockdown secondary dubbed the “No Fly Zone”. There was nothing any team could do against this defense, and the Panthers lost 10-24.
The year immediately after their Super Bowl appearance, the Panthers had a very obvious Super Bowl hangover. They finished the season 6-10 after Newton dealt with some injuries throughout the season and failed to get in any kind of rhythm, looking nothing like the MVP from the year before. In 2017, the Panthers made the playoffs again, only to fall in the Wild Card round to the Saints 26-31.
In 2018, the Panthers got off to a very hot start, starting the year 6-2. However, after eight weeks, Cam Newton re-aggravated a shoulder injury. Newton attempted to play through the injury the rest of the season, but his play showed an obvious dip, and he was forced to sit the final two games. Despite all the adversity, and lack of sound QB play in the second half of the year, the Panthers still managed a 7-9 finish.
Newton struggled to progress in the offseason, and his injury would cause him to last only two games in 2019. The team was forced to start undrafted quarterback Kyle Allen. Despite this, Rivera led the Panthers to a very respectable 5-7 record. However, a Week 13 loss to the Redskins would ironically lose Rivera his job as the Panthers head coach. After moving on Rivera, the Panthers finished the season 0-4, losing each game on average by 22.5 points.
New RivERA in Washington
After spending the last four weeks away from football, Rivera agreed to a five-year contract to become the newest coach of the Washington Redskins. The deal became official on the first day of the new decade, and the marriage hopes to be filled with success. Rivera had his official contract signed on January 2nd, and also named Jack Del Rio his defensive coordinator. Who the offensive coordinator will be is still unknown, however, it must be someone who can help mold Dwayne Haskins Jr. into the franchise QB Rivera believes he can be.
Jack Del Rio
Jack Del Rio has served as an NFL coach for over 20 years. Similar to Rivera, he also played in the NFL from 1985-1995, where he was named to the NFL All-Rookie team and was a Pro Bowler. As a coach, he got a job with the Saints before becoming the linebackers coach for the 2001 Baltimore Ravens, a defense widely regarded as one of the three best in NFL history, and he worked directly with Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis.
After just two years as a linebackers coach, Del Rio received an offer to be the defensive coordinator of the Carolina Panthers. Prior to Del Rio, the Panthers had the worst defense in the NFL. They ranked last in yards allowed and 4th-worst in points allowed. In a single season, Del Rio mounted a complete 180, and the Panthers defense ranked 2nd in the NFL. This immediate and drastic improvement netted Del Rio the job as the Jacksonville Jaguars head coach in 2003, a job he held until 2011. His Jaguars teams were notorious for being tough to play, and the defense finished top 12 five times in his tenure.
When he left Jacksonville, Del Rio was not unemployed for long, as his services as a defensive mastermind were heavily sought after. In 2012, he was hired as the Broncos defensive coordinator. The team desperately needed him as they had finished bottom-twelve in yards allowed and bottom-ten in points allowed the season before.
By 2014, the Broncos had one of the league’s top defenses, and it led to Del Rio being named the head coach of the Oakland Raiders. In 2014, the Raiders had the worst scoring defense in the NFL, giving up a ridiculous 28 points per game. It took Del Rio two years to drop the number to 24, and he led them to a 12-4 record and their first playoff appearance in nearly 15 years. The following season, the Raiders showed more defensive improvement but fell to a 6-10 record. This would lead to the firing of Del Rio, to the displeasure of many Raiders players and fans. After a two-year hiatus from coaching, Del Rio is back and will look to transform the Redskins defense into a top ten unit it has the talent to be.
Switch to the 4-3
For the entirety of the past decade, the Washington Redskins have utilized the 3-4 defensive scheme. If you don’t know how a defensive scheme works, it’s listed in the name. The first number listed is the number of down linemen, and the second number is the number of linebackers. Therefore, a 3-4 defense uses three linemen and four linebackers, and the 4-3 uses 4 defensive linemen and 3 linebackers. The same process can go to 5-2, 4-4, etc. The switch to the 4-3 is not as drastic as some believe, but what it does is give the defensive line more opportunities to make plays. According to head coach Ron Rivera, the defensive line will be tasked with playing the run on the way to the quarterback. This is excellent news as the strength of the Redskins defense is their uber-talented defensive line.
Interior Defensive Line
The biggest concern about the switch is actually the concern that talented players may not get to play to their fullest due to being in a rotation. The Redskins have three impact interior defensive lineman: Jonathan Allen, Daron Payne, and Matt Ioannidis. Allen and Payne were both first-round picks and have played hard-nosed football thus far in their careers. Meanwhile, Ioannidis was a fifth-round pick who has developed into one of the most efficient interior pass rushers in the NFL.
In the 4-3, only two of these guys can be on the field at once. This is good and bad. The good is that now the Redskins have a phenomenal rotation and will always have a pair of fresh legs ready. Each player is also strong in certain situations. Daron Payne is the best run defender and should always be on the field on obvious running downs. Matt Ioannidis is the best pass rusher, and over the past three seasons, has actually been one of the top interior pass rushers in beating double teams, pass rusher win rate, and pressure rates. He must be on the field on obvious passing downs.
Then there’s Jonathan Allen, the most talented of the trio. Allen is a better pass rusher than Payne and a better run defender than Ioannidis. Allen should play the most snaps of the three, as he provides the most value on both run and pass rush reps. This interior defensive line is the most impressive and most talented that Del Rio has ever worked with.
In the 3-4, the edge rushers are outside linebackers. They are the key of that defensive scheme and are typically 10-20 pounds lighter than a traditional defensive end. The 3-4 has a tendency to drop its outside linebackers into coverage, and guys like Montez Sweat lose value because they’re not getting to rush the passer. In the 4-3, you see less of this.
The two defensive ends with their hand in the dirt will rush the passer nearly 100% of the time in 4-3 alignments, with rare cases being blitz disguises or QB contain. However, the 4-3 is not immune to dropping certain players into coverage. On obvious run downs, Del Rio could choose a heavy set, using all three interior linemen on the line of scrimmage, and picking one of the defensive ends to play the “SAM,” or strong-side linebacker. If the play ends up being a play-action or just a pass, then the SAM would have to fall into coverage. It would be rare, but possible. Montez Sweat, Ryan Kerrigan, and Ryan Anderson are all strong enough run defenders that the switch to a 4-3 shouldn’t impact them much at all.
Maybe the weakest part of the Redskins defense, the linebackers will be the biggest challenge when adjusting to the new scheme. In the 3-4, there are only two off-ball linebackers, meaning you don’t need multiple quality bodies. In the 4-3, you need at least three players who can both play the run and be proficient in coverage. It’s not an exact science, but the three linebacker positions can be broken down into three names: SAM, MIKE, and WILL.
The SAM is the strong-side linebacker, and typically the best run defender. The MIKE is the middle linebacker, the quarterback of the defense, and must be strong in both run defense and pass coverage. The WILL is the weak-side linebacker and is typically the most proficient in coverage.
The Redskins have a mixed bag of linebackers currently. The best player of the bunch, Reuben Foster, lost his season last year to an ACL tear. When Foster had his head on straight and was playing his best ball in San Francisco, he was one of the game’s top young linebackers. He was a force both against the run and was using his excellent athleticism in pass coverage. If Foster can return to that form, the Redskins defense could be one of the best in the NFL.
When Foster went down last year, the Redskins signed Jon Bostic to hold down his spot. He did a serviceable job but was nothing to write home about, and he’s not under contract for next season. Redskins fans have an infatuation with rookie linebacker Cole Holcomb, but Holcomb was a liability in coverage all season. He’s best suited to play the SAM, as he was the best run defender of this group this season.
Then there’s Shaun Dion Hamilton and Josh Harvey-Clemons. Both are strong athletes and the two best coverage linebackers on the team. I believe Hamilton can play both MIKE and WILL, while Clemons is really only fit to be play the WILL spot. The Redskins have talent at the position, but it will really come down to whether or not Foster can return to his peak. However, Jack Del Rio and Ron Rivera have coached guys like Ray Lewis and Luke Kuechly, so if there was ever a coaching staff to get the most out of Foster and the other linebackers, it’s these two.
Rivera and Del Rio aren’t the flashiest of defensive masterminds. They like to employ basic coverages and rely on a strong defensive line to create pressure. This is exactly what the Redskins need, as Greg Manusky was known for calling unusual and occasional downright ridiculous coverages that didn’t fit his personnel. Under Del Rio and Rivera, expect the Redskins to run a lot of Cover 3. Cover 3 is a basic coverage that has three players covering the back third, while four players cover underneath routes. To explain it as simple as possible, here’s a picture of a Cover 3 play that you can call in Madden.
This is out of the nickel formation. Nickel switches out a linebacker for a defensive back to give you better coverage, typically against three wide receiver sets. As the three wide receiver set becomes the most common formation in the NFL, the NFL uses the nickel formation more than any other defensive alignment. Expect the Redskins to line up in this formation for about 60% of all their snaps. As you can see in the picture, the two outside cornerbacks and the safety (typically the free safety) are covering the back thirds (blue), while the two linebackers, nickel cornerback, and other safety are covering underneath zones, (purple, yellow, and blue).
Ron Rivera has also expressed an affinity for the Tampa 2 defense. Tampa 2 is very similar to Cover 3, but instead of the outside cornerbacks dropping into deep coverage, the two safeties drop into a deep third coverage, while the MIKE backer also drops into a deep third. The rest of the defense drops into underneath routes. Redskins cornerback Josh Norman excelled in this defense under Ron Rivera in his time at Carolina. This gives the outside cornerbacks a chance to read the quarterback and make plays using their instincts.
The Redskins have hired the man they expect to change their culture and their way of life. Rivera is a two-time Coach of the Year and has both played and coached on the biggest stage in the NFL. The Redskins have needed a culture shock for some time now, and Rivera is the perfect man to do it. Last season, the Redskins defense was supposed to be the driving force behind the team. However, due to horrendous defensive scheming and play calling, it was just another letdown. With a new head coach and defensive coordinator, this unit now has the talent and the coaching to be a top-ten unit. It may take some time to master the new system, but once the team gets it down, this unit should be one of the best in the NFL.