ASHBURN — If there’s anyone who knows how the linebacker position should be played, it’s Ron Rivera and Jack Del Rio. The two men, now coach and defensive coordinator for Washington respectively, have almost 20 years of NFL playing experience at the position between them. They recognize the instincts, speed and ferociousness a linebacker has to have — largely because they did it firsthand.
The two men have high standards — and the unit is not living up to them.
After publicly calling the position out last week, Rivera said he was concerned about the “lack of consistency” among the group as Washington prepares for Sunday’s game against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Rivera acknowledged that inconsistency has been a problem for the whole team. But it’s especially true at linebacker. Last weekend’s loss to Detroit saw Washington giving up 6.1 yards per carry in the first half before bouncing back, a little, in the second half, holding the Lions to just 4 yards a pop. Linebackers play a key role in stopping the run, filling in gaps to limit rushing lanes.
“There is a little bit of hesitation,” Rivera said last week. “They’re still learning and growing and trying to get to understand exactly how we want it played as opposed to how they’ve done it in the past.”
The hesitation has led to frustration, which has, in turn, led to changes in the lineup. To start the year, Washington used Kevin Pierre-Louis, Jon Bostic and Shaun Dion Hamilton. Then in Week 3, Hamilton was replaced by veteran Thomas Davis,
who was benched after three games. With Davis benched, Washington turned to Cole Holcomb. Holcomb’s playing time steadily increased, while the snaps for Pierre-Louis have decreased.
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Bostic has been the only fixture. Manning the middle, the 29-year-old has played 98% of the snaps this season — and that includes a game in which he was ejected.
Linebackers coach Steve Russ, who was also a linebacker in the NFL before going into coaching, said his unit has had the right mindset when it comes to preparing for games. He said that even Davis, who has been inactive for four straight games, is still “racing guys” to drills in practice and has been attentive in meetings.
They’re growing, he said.
“We all are competitors,” Russ said. “We’re all prideful, in a good way. We need to play better. The good part is I don’t think this is the kind of group that really needs a fire lit under them. … I’m not saying that Ron wasn’t right in (challenging them), but I do think these young men want to play better.”
The group is mostly veterans. One of the younger guys, Holcomb, who was drafted in the fifth-round in 2019, has continued to progress in his second year. After missing four games with a knee injury, Holcomb has made weekly strides to the point in which he played 100% of the defensive snaps in Detroit. His biggest moment of the season came in Washington’s win over Dallas, when he plowed through Ezekiel Elliott and helped set up a sack for Jonathan Allen.
In his last four games, Holcomb has 24 tackles, three tackles for loss, a sack and an interception.
With Bostic and Holcomb on the field, Pierre-Louis mostly observed from the sideline. He logged a season-low 14 snaps against the Lions. Washington signed the seven-year journeyman in March in hopes he would be a diamond in the rough, but it hasn’t turned out that way.
According to Pro Football Reference, Pierre-Louis has given up the team’s highest passer rating when targeted in coverage — a whopping 136.3.
“Linebackers are paid to produce,” Del Rio said. “We’ve had some good moments. We’re just looking for more consistency. That’s what we’re working at. I feel good about the way the guys are working. We’ve attacked things. We’ve made great strides in several areas. There’s a lot of work to do.”
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