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A Glimpse of How the Redskins 2020 Defense Can Look Under Jack Del Rio

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NFL: Washington Redskins-Head Coach Ron Rivera Press Conference Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

When Jack Del Rio was hired by Ron Rivera to run the defense here in Washington, shouts of joy could be heard echoing throughout the area. Prior to Rivera’s hiring, the Redskins endured a long string of incompetence at defensive coordinator under former head coach Jay Gruden, including Jim Haslett, Joe Barry, and the last three seasons under Greg Manusky.

Part of this incompetence was due to the team not having the correct pieces to run the 3-4 defense. The previous coordinators consistently miscast former college 4-3 defensive ends into 3-4 outside linebackers - often forcing them to drop into coverage against much more agile offensive skill players. For years, even dating back to the days of Mike Shanahan, the team lacked a true nose tackle to anchor the middle of the defensive line. That, however, didn’t stop the group from trying to force a square peg into a round hole.

The other part was due to general incompetence by the trio to conform to today’s NFL, and change their scheme to prevent offensive coordinators from exploiting obvious mismatches.

Hopefully, with a defensive-minded head coach and a coordinator like Del Rio, things will change.


Today’s NFL:

Fans are constantly asking who will play where in the Redskins new 4-3 look. We draft up depth charts and project starting lineups to see who fits where best, and who can help the team given the skill-sets we have on defense.

Facts are, starting lineups are only that in words. It is much more important to have the personnel to adjust to multiple offensive formations that creative coordinators will throw at you.

In today’s NFL, with offenses opening up their formations to create mismatches all over the field, versatility is key. It’s all about being able to play “Heavy” when you need to, and be able to get speed on the field when necessary. Having athletes that can transcend both situations is vital.

The defensive front has seen some re-shaping, although the principle aspects of stopping the run and getting after the quarterback will never change. The 350 pound two-down nose tackles are becoming like dinosaurs, instead being replaced with more versatile interior defenders who are not liabilities in passing situations. Mind you, these space-eaters still have a place in the game, but they are becoming less and less common. The EDGE players are seeing a different breed as well. In the 80’s and 90’s, a 4-3 defensive end would likely be north of 280 pounds(ala, your Reggie Whites’), now, these athletes are playing inside, in favor of a more high-cut, linear, edge-bending pass rush specialist on the outside - aka, your Khalil Mack’s and Nick Bosa’s - or a name many Redskins fans are familiar with in the 2020 draft...Chase Young!

In the past, defenses saw monsters like Ray Lewis roaming the middle. Today, we are seeing smaller, quicker more versatile off-the-ball linebackers who can fly sideline-to-sideline in run support, cover a tight end or slot receiver if necessary, and run with a back out the the backfield. These “space” players have replaced the bigger, run-stuffing linebackers - the Reggie Raglands’ if you will, in today’s modern NFL.

Free safeties and strong safeties certainly still have their place, but make no mistake, defensive coordinators, with all the disguised coverages they like to run, prefer interchangeable safeties who can operate as a single high, or come down into the box when asked. These once rare hybrid players are becoming more and more common in college football with all the 4-2-5 looks and inverted Tampa 2 defenses we are seeing. You’ll see this type of athlete in Chargers All-Pro safety Derwin James, and more and more will be entering the NFL in coming years as defenses continue to adapt to the spread offenses that are taking over college football.


Defining the Positions of a 4-3 Defense:

First off, let me start by saying there are many different types of 4-3 fronts, and most good coordinators will design one to fit around the talent they have, versus trying to fit a square peg into a round hole(the Redskins way the past decade). I assume Del Rio will be the former. After studying his tendencies during his time as a coordinator in Denver and as a head coach in Oakland(his two most recent jobs), this has been his mantra.

For as many different looks as you see, the 4-3 under looks seems to be a staple of a Del Rio coached defense. Below, you will see an example of this alignment against a single in-line TE look.

From left to right and front to back...

EDGE(left side) - Usually the more “stout” of your EDGE players.

DT(1-tech) - The nose tackle. Usually your bigger, space-eating DT.

DT(3-tech) - The quicker, penetrating DT

EDGE(right side) - Sometimes called the “LEO” - this is usually the team’s best pass rusher.

SAM(strong side LB) - Lines up to the TE side, or what is determined to be the strong side of the offensive formation. Must be stout at the point of attack. Can be asked to cover the TE, or may be used to rush the passer.

*SAM is usually the LB who is substituted for an extra DB in Nickel

MIKE(middle LB) - The leader of the defense. Must be able to play sideline-to-sideline and has to be able to scrape and get off blocks in run game, and drop into zone coverage in passing situations.

WILL(weak side LB) - Lines up to the weak side of the offensive formation, usually splitting the B and C gaps. The WILL is the team’s most athletic, versatile linebacker, who is often the team's best cover LB in either man match-up or zone looks(hook-to-curl, buzz flats).

CB(right side) - Since most QBs are right handed, the old rule was the team’s best CB would usually line up on the right side, but this is not always the case.

CB(left side) - see above

Slot CB(not pictured) - This is usually a defensive back who is subbed in for the SAM linebacker in obvious passing situations. Can play on #2 WR to that side.

SS - Will usually line up to the strong side of the offensive formation. Can play in the box(usually behind and to the outside of the SAM), or float back to a deep safety as part of a Cover 2 or 4 look.

FS - Traditionally, your cover safety, who must have the ability to play as a single-high, or man-over help defender.


Projecting the Redskins Players to a 4-3 Defense:

*Starter/Back-up

EDGE: Montez Sweat/Ryan Kerrigan

DT(1-Tech): Daron Payne/Tim Settle

DT(3-Tech): Jonathan Allen/Matt Ioannidis

*Nickel front could see Allen and Ioannidis as 3-Tech DT’s

EDGE(LEO): Chase Young(#2 selection in 2020 NFL Draft)/Nate Orchard

SAM: Ryan Anderson(in a Under look) OR Thomas Davis(doesn’t have coverage ability he once did)

MIKE: Jon Bostic OR Shaun Dion Hamilton/Cole Holcomb

WILL: Reuben Foster/Kevin Pierre-Louis

CB: Fabian Moreau/Jimmy Moreland

CB: Ronald Darby/Greg Stroman

Slot CB: Kendall Fuller/Jimmy Moreland

SS: Landon Collins/Deshazor Everett

FS: Sean Davis/Troy Apke


Talking Points:

  • Defensive tackle seems set with both high-caliber starters and quality depth. Although you see Matt Ioannidis listed as a reserve behind Jon Allen at 3-tech, I think they are interchangeable; also, you can and will see situations(especially in nickel)where both Allen and Ioannidis are both 3-techniques, and in base where Ioannidis is a 1-technique. This is a nice issue to have!

  • I went based off the assumption we will draft Chase Young at number two overall this year. If this happens, he will probably slot in at left defensive end, but I believe both he and Sweat could flip as needed. There is still a chance Anderson remains as a full-time EDGE instead of a SAM linebacker, so that is just a projection right now based off some of Del Rio’s past tendencies in that 4-3 Under look.

  • Off-the-ball linebacker is a bit muddled right now.

- Thomas Davis has been a WILL LB, but he struggled mightily in coverage last year with the Chargers. His best position here may be as a SAM, where he will have Landon Collins playing coverage behind him, or a situational WILL(although I do not trust his coverage skills on an island)/mentor.

- Bostic was a 3-4 MIKE last year, so you would think he’d transition to 4-3 MIKE this year under Del Rio. But, the better, more instinctual LB is Shaun Dion Hamilton, who also has superior coverage skills and higher upside. Holcomb may also fit in here, but will need to drastically improve his reads and zone coverage.

- If Reuben Foster is healthy(and that’s still a BIG if), he profiles perfectly to a 4-3 WILL. His speed, athleticism and instincts are superior to anyone on the current roster. This is also the position he played(and excelled at as a rookie) under Robert Saleh in San Francisco. Kevin Pierre-Louis, a tremendous athlete in his own right, profiles very well to WILL linebacker too. One would think Holcomb could be an excellent WILL backer, but his coverage skills are lacking. If he can improve in this area, he could be an option here.

  • Right now, outside corner leaves a lot to be desired. Moreau has the athletic traits, but he peeks WAY too often into the backfield, which makes him prone to bite on pump fakes instead of reading the receiver. The plus side on him is that he was much better on the outside in 2019 than he was in the slot. The addition of Ronald Darby helps tremendously, and allows Fuller to play his more natural slot position. Moreland needs to improve this spring, but I love his upside.

  • Free safety is a work in progress, but Sean Davis has the ability to play the position at a high level. Health is a bit of a question mark though, and the depth behind him is poor.

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