Cowboys scouting report: Breaking down the Commanders defensive scheme

When Ron Rivera took the head job in Washington, one of the expectations was that he would establish consistently great defenses. Not only did he inherit some great talent on that side of the ball, but Rivera – who played linebacker for the legendary 1985 Bears – had done exactly that for years with the Panthers.

Rivera hired seasoned coach Jack Del Rio as his defensive coordinator, and the two quickly built up a vaunted defense. Rivera’s first season saw his team, then known only as the Football Team, finish fourth in defensive DVOA and power the team to an NFC East title. Injuries led to a steep drop-off in 2021, but the 2022 season saw the newly-christened Commanders bounce back and finish 10th in defensive DVOA.

That led to a lot of the optimism around this year’s squad, as the Commanders believed to have found a great coordinator/quarterback combo in Eric Bieniemy and Sam Howell that, together with a dominant defense, should at least get Washington a Wild Card playoff berth in a wide open NFC.

It’s safe to say that hasn’t been the case. While the offense has had its issues, the defense is really what has let the Commanders down. Seemingly every week saw the defense getting burned, repeatedly asking the inexperienced Howell to go win a shootout. Things got so bad that Rivera actually fired Del Rio following a 45-10 loss to the Cowboys on Thanksgiving. Rivera opted to start calling plays himself, perhaps inspired by the success that Mike McCarthy has been enjoying this season.

Make that one of many differences between McCarthy and Rivera, because this defense is still a problem. Rivera’s first game calling defensive plays saw the team once again give up 45 points, this time to the Dolphins. The Commanders have surrendered at least 27 points in all four games that Rivera has called plays, and they’re fittingly 27th in EPA/play over that span. For the season, they’re 31st in both EPA/play and defensive DVOA.

The switch from Del Rio to Rivera didn’t really usher in any changes in defensive philosophy, though, as the two coaches come from the same schematic background. At its core, this is a very traditional 4-3 defense that runs their base personnel at one of the higher rates in the league.

Rivera’s defenses don’t often blitz much, preferring to rely on rushing just four and drop seven back in coverage. In terms of the more common coverage types, Rivera’s scheme has always hinged on a variety of zone looks, with quarters and Cover 3 the most popular by far. While it would be unfair to say that Rivera and Del Rio have made zero tweaks to the scheme over the years, they’ve remained much more stagnant in how they operate defensively when compared to the rest of the league.

This scheme relies, by design, on talented players that play fundamentally sound football. Rivera’s best defenses in Carolina featured studs like Luke Kuechly, Kawann Short, James Bradberry and others. In Washington, much of his success stemmed from a dominant defensive line that featured interior defenders like Jonathan Allen and Da’Ron Payne with Montez Sweat and Chase Young rushing off the edge. Allen and Payne remain, but Washington made the decision to jettison off Sweat and Young at the trade deadline this year.

That’s part of the problem in Washington: not enough talent. Without a dominant pass rush, young corners like Benjamin St-Juste and rookie Emmanuel Forbes have been picked apart by opposing quarterbacks, while the predictability of the scheme makes it easy to figure out ways to beat the defense. In fact, Washington is allowing the second most yards per play and second most passing yards on the season while ranking third from the bottom in pressure rate.

That was a big part of the Cowboys’ dominance of this team on Thanksgiving, as Dak Prescott was rarely under pressure and not sacked once. He completed 68.8% of his passes for 331 yards and four touchdowns, having his way with a defense that kept running the same coverages and never sped up Prescott’s process.

One would think that Rivera would have tried to switch things up after firing Del Rio immediately following that game, but he really hasn’t. Perhaps it’s a problem with the players themselves, or maybe Rivera doesn’t understand the root of their defensive struggles, but Washington has continued to get beat in the same way each week. That’s why the Cowboys enter this one as heavy favorites to win, and why it’s likely that Prescott and this offense will have another big day.


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