Don’t overlook the secondary’s importance in Washington’s defensive success

How Washington’s secondary is contributing to defensive success originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

 

If 1985 Ron Rivera, the player who was part of the supremely historic Chicago Bears’ defense, could see 2022 Ron Rivera, the coach trying to modernize a defense where defensive backs play like linebackers, the former would be taken aback by the latter’s strategy

“Surprised as heck,” Rivera said in a press conference this week when describing how his former self would respond to the Commanders’ current defensive approach. “But with the way things are evolving and changing, you have to adapt.”

Like Rivera, Washington coordinator Jack Del Rio suited up in the NFL during the 1980s and ’90s. And now, like Rivera, Del Rio is aware of the differences between what he experienced on the field and what he’s presently witnessing as a coach.

“It’s speed and space,” Del Rio explained about today’s league, “and you’ve got to have the ability to match those things.”

Fortunately for Rivera and Del Rio, they do coach a secondary that can succeed when tasked with handling typical defensive-back duties — such as intermediate to deep pass coverage — and additionally hold its own when, as Del Rio put it, the “powerful element” of football surfaces.

So, as enthralling as the Commanders’ defensive line has been during the squad’s 6-1 surge — and it has been enthralling as of late — those on the opposite end of the unit are contributing aplenty to the club’s hot streak, too. Their work may not be as noticeable as when, for example, Jonathan Allen pushes an opposing guard directly into a fleeing quarterback, yet it’s critical nonetheless.

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Consider all that Kam Curl is capable of, for one.

Listed at 6-foot-2 and about 200 pounds, the third-year pro has ideal size for a safety. However, with Cole Holcomb out since Week 8, Curl has been forced to drop down closer to the line of scrimmage on a more regular basis (at times setting up directly next to Jamin Davis) and assume linebacker-like responsibilities. In fact, Curl actually donned the “green dot” in the early stages of Holcomb’s absence, meaning he was the person in charge of organizing everything pre-snap.

That sort of adjusted role is one he’s thrived in before, but that doesn’t make how he’s performing in 2022 any less impressive — nor does it make it any easier on his body.

“You get a game, say I’m in the [deep-safety spot] a lot, I’ll wake up feeling better,” Curl said Wednesday at his locker. “I’m in the box, I’m going to feel it when I wake up, for sure.

“That’s my job and I’m still pretty young,” he continued with only a slightly-pained expression on his face. “So I’ve got some hits to take.”

“He’s a very bright young man,” Rivera said of Curl. “He understands concepts. He sees things that may take another guy a second or two to register and then dissect it and then react to it. He’s a guy that’s got a good feel for the game. He really does.”

Aside from his astuteness — which is evident on screens, fakes, and other sequences that require preparedness and patience — Curl is, quite simply, a stud as a tackler. Per Pro Football Reference, he has just three whiffs this season, giving him a missed-tackle rate of 4.4%.

“I take pride in my tackling,” he said. “You miss a tackle, somebody runs through you, you feel soft as hell.”

Curl isn’t the only safety who deserves credit. Bobby McCain and Darrick Forrest possess strengths of their own, and together, the trio complements each other and allows Washington to flourish even with its shallow linebacker crew that features the growing Davis and not much else.

McCain, who entered the NFL as a cornerback, has become the de-facto slot/nickelback option after the Commanders recently shuffled through backups like Rachad Wildgoose and Danny Johnson. He isn’t merely chasing around receivers, though.

Similar to Curl, McCain’s throwing himself into charging blockers and affecting unfriendly rushing attacks as well, despite checking in at 5-foot-9 and sub-200 pounds.

“Bobby’s a little bit smaller, but Bobby’s a very physical player,” Rivera said. “He’s a dynamic player that knows how to fit.”

Thanks to Curl and McCain’s versatility, the blossoming Darrick Forrest can mix into the action as much as Del Rio wants him to. Judging by Forrest’s snap counts on defense in the past three contests — he has perfect attendance on that side of the ball in that stretch — it’s clear that Del Rio prefers when he’s involved.

“It really doesn’t matter their size,” Jonathan Allen told reporters Thursday when asked about the safeties joining in on the fun in the trenches. “As long as you have the will to and you want to, you’re going to be a physical player and that’s what they are. I’m not surprised at all.”

Kendall Fuller and Benjamin St-Juste’s help on the outside shouldn’t be discounted, either.

Fuller, who has an interception in each of his last two outings, is as locked in as ever at corner and is rarely in the wrong place. St-Juste, who’s dealing with an ankle issue and was sidelined in Week 12, is showing major promise across from Fuller in his second campaign and can’t get healthy soon enough.

The common thread between all of these Washington defensive backs — plus Johnson and Jeremy Reaves, a pair of reserves behind the main pieces — is that they were on the depth chart in 2021. Rivera, Del Rio and secondary coach Chris Harris, meanwhile, have been overseeing the scheme since 2020.

According to Fuller, that familiarity is awfully key.

“You’re able to keep the same staff, keep a good core of players and everybody just learns the defense a little bit more,” Fuller said Thursday in a session with the media. “And then, having so many guys that are versatile that know different positions gives a lot of us a better understanding of the defense.”

“Sometimes, we don’t even have to say any words out there, we just give a look,” Curl said, referring to the chemistry he and his peers have cultivated. “We’ve gotten a lot more comfortable with each other.”

As Del Rio has stated numerous times in his stint with the organization, the defensive line and the back end must be synced up with one another in order for a defense to truly flow.

In his third year on the job, Del Rio is witnessing exactly that, undoubtedly due to the frightening front but also because of a seamless secondary that can step up in myriad manners — including ones that don’t resemble the style of his or Rivera’s era.

“I think they love each other and they love playing,” Del Rio said of the safeties and corners specifically. “That’s a good combination.”

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