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QB play aside, Washington Commanders fans see Defense as the most critical factor in 2022 success

Poll results!

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Earlier this week, Hogs Haven asked its readers the following question:

Aside from the play of quarterback Carson Wentz, which of the following will have the biggest impact on the Commanders success in the 2022 season?

  • overall defensive performance
  • blocking of the offensive line
  • production of offensive skill players
  • coaching
  • strength of schedule
  • injuries and recovery from injuries

The answer, by a wide margin, was “overall defensive performance”. That said, the comments section in the article where the question was posed made it clear that the answer was not a cut & dried as the poll results might indicate.

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While “coaching” received just 6% of the vote, several commenters made it clear that it’s nearly impossible to separate the two; in other words, the defensive performance will depend very much on the coaching. Specifically, a number of fans are concerned about defensive coordinator, Jack Del Rio.


When Ron Rivera arrived in Washington in 2020 and almost immediately announced Jack Del Rio as his defensive coordinator, the general response was very positive. Most fans saw Del Rio as a huge step up from the DCs that had been in DC in recent years: Greg Manusky, Joe Barry, Jim Haslett.

But after two consecutive years in which the defense spent the first half of each season looking lost and confused before finding a groove around mid-season, fans are getting restless with JDR. The current feeling seems to be that the defensive coordinator isn’t getting his guys prepared for the start of the season, and that he often has players out of position or not playing to their strengths.

The most frequently cited example has been that of Landon Collins. Many people have commented on the fact that in 2020, the defense started to gel when Collins injured his Achilles and was lost for the season. Similarly, because Collins wanted to be seen as a pure safety, he resisted being used as a linebacker or ‘buffalo nickel’ for the first half of the ‘21 season. When Del Rio finally forced the issue and started playing Collins almost exclusively at the second level of the defense, the overall unit performance improved.

Similarly, the signing of cornerback William Jackson III last offseason seemed to indicate that the 2021 defense would play less zone coverage and more press-man, since WJ3 had built his reputation as a man-to-man cover corner. Drafting Benjamin St-Juste, a long speedy corner who seemed ideally suited to play press coverage was just more evidence. Instead, the coaches of the WFT spent 2021 teaching William Jackson zone cover skills, making it a bit of a mystery why signed him to replace Ronald Darby, since Darby was a skilled zone defender who had done well in 2020. During OTAs and minicamp in May and June this year, Jackson told the media that he’s now feeling more comfortable and confident in the scheme and his responsibilities. Let’s hope that’s the case.

Another criticism last year was that the coaching staff tried to force 1st round draft pick, Jamin Davis — a natural weakside linebacker — to play the MIKE position and call the defense as a rookie, a decision that seemed to slow down his play and reduce his effectiveness.

Time after time, the coaches seemed slow to recognize the best way to use the defensive personnel, and to make adjustments when it was clear that things weren’t working well.

Defensive depth

Concerns with the 2022 defense are not all about the coaches, however; they also flow from the roster. For all the drama associated with Landon Collins, he actually played quite well in the latter half of the ‘21 season when he embraced his hybrid role. But Collins is now gone.

Also gone are defensive tackles Tim Settle and Matt Ioannidis. When their departures are combined with DE Chase Young’s uncertain return from a mid-season ACL tear, the defense appears to be undermanned relative to 2020 and 2021.

Collins has not been replaced at all; Settle and Ioannidis have been replaced by rookie Phidarian Mathis, and the DE position was bolstered by the addition of Efe Obada. Nothing has really been done to bolster the linebacker group that seemed overmatched in 2021, there is not much clarity about the slot corner position, and the secondary depth is concerning; it seems to be one injury away from potential disaster.

Washington Commanders Off-Season Workout
JUNE 14: Phidarian Mathis #98 of the Washington Commanders looks on during the organized team activity at INOVA Sports Performance Center on June 14, 2022 in Ashburn, Virginia.
Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

Certainly, the Commanders defense boasts plenty of talent. The team has five 1st round draft picks in the front 7 (Allen, Payne, Sweat, Young, Davis), a talented LB in Cole Holcomb, and a veteran group of defensive backs. The issue isn’t so much the talent of the players as their ability to play together in a scheme that effectively stops opposing offenses, along with the lack of depth among the LBs and DBs that may tell when injuries start to pile up.

A few stats

Last season, the WFT defense was 22nd in yards surrendered, 29th in passing yards given up, 25th in points allowed, and 24th in takeaways. The Commanders were 31st in opponents’ 3rd down conversion percentage, and 18th in red zone scoring percentage allowed.

In short, the Washington defense in 2021 was statistically poor, which was both disappointing and surprising after a 2020 season in which the Football Team had finished 2nd in total yards allowed, and 4th in scoring defense.

It all points to the idea that the team has the roster it needs to play good defense, though the LB and DB depth could be better, but the unit has been plagued by inconsistency, poor communication and frequent breakdowns on critical plays (such as 3rd down and in the red zone), and that the secondary gives up too many big plays while not forcing enough takeaways.

There’s a lot that needs to improve from last year with a defensive roster that, on paper at least, seems to have taken a half-step backwards.

Retooled offense

The Commanders have underperformed on the offensive side of the ball pretty much since Kirk Cousins left for the northern hinterlands. Certainly, in Ron Rivera’s first two seasons as head coach, the offense has suffered from a revolving door at quarterback (Dwayne Haskins, Kyle Allen, Alex Smith, Taylor Heinicke, Ryan Fitzpatrick, and Garrett Gilbert all started at one time or another in the 33 regular season games the team has played since Rivera was hired). Injuries have also taken a toll, with Curtis Samuel, JD McKissic, Logan Thomas, and much of the offensive line missing significant numbers of games last season.

This offseason, the Commanders have invested huge resources on the offensive side of the ball in an effort to make it a more dynamic and higher scoring offense.


The first and most significant offensive move this offseason was trading for quarterback Carson Wentz. He and head coach Ron Rivera are now wedded to one another; the success of each is tied inextricably to the other.

NFL: Washington Commanders Minicamp Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports


The Commanders selected a wide receiver, Jahan Dotson, with the 16th overall pick in April’s draft, and then used their 3rd round pick on an running back, an early 5th round selection on rookie QB Sam Howell, and another 5th round pick on a giant pass-catching tight end. That’s a lot of draft capital invested in young playmakers.

free agency

The team retained 3rd down back JD McKIssic in free agency, and worked hard to bolster the offensive line even as they reduced the salary cap cost, saying goodbye to Ereck Flowers and the oft-injured and very expensive Brandon Scherff, and hello to Andrew Norwell and Trai Turner, a pair of guards who played together in Carolina under Rivera and offensive line coach John Matsko. While it wasn’t a flashy free agency period, it was well-considered and efficient in terms of salary cap reallocation.

home grown talent

With Terry McLaurin’s contact extension getting signed this week, the offense is loaded with playmakers and should be the most explosive group we’ve seen in Washington since the departure of Desean Jackson and Pierre Garcon.

Bottom line

It seems clear that the single biggest factor in the team’s 2022 success will be the play of Carson Wentz, but, assuming he does his job well, then Hogs Haven readers have made it clear that Jack Del Rio’s defense will be the key to a successful season once September arrives.

One question, though, revolve around the coach, Jack Del Rio, and his ability to get the right players in the right positions with good communication and the confidence that they know the scheme and their responsibilities. The other question relates to the depth of talent on the defensive side of the ball, which seems paper thin at the second and third levels just 4 weeks before the start of training camp.

There’s still time to get some veteran free agent help at linebacker and cornerback, but whether that help arrives or not, the pressure will be on the defense to start fast and play well in 2022. If they don’t, it seems a good bet that the team will post its 6th consecutive losing record, and its 7th consecutive season with 8 wins or less. However, if Wentz can play to his potential and the defense shows up ready to play from Week 1, then the Commanders could end up surprising a lot of people.

Welcome to SB Nation Reacts, a survey of fans across the NFL. Each week in the regular season and periodically during the offseason, we ask questions of the most plugged-in Washington football fans and NFL fans across the country. Sign up here to join Reacts.