Thu. Mar 30th, 2023

ASHBURN — As he walked up to the microphone, Jack Del Rio greeted reporters with a “What’s up, everybody?” But the Washington Commanders defensive coordinator already knew what the main topic was going to be about. 

Speaking to reporters for the first time since being fined $100,000 for referring to the Jan. 6 riot as a “dust-up,” Del Rio soon made clear that he was there to discuss football. And football only. 

“Everything I’d like to talk about should have to do with football,” Del Rio said, “and playing good defense.” 

Two months ago, Del Rio’s comments about the attack on the Capitol ignited a distinctly partisan-flavored debate on free speech. The president of the NAACP called for the coordinator to resign. Republicans lambasted coach Ron Rivera for fining Del Rio at all, with Rep. Jim Jordan in a congressional hearing grilling NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell about the coach and his right to express a political opinion. Del Rio apologized for the remarks and deleted his Twitter account. 

That was then. On Wednesday, Del Rio swatted away questions related to the topic — saying he had “nothing to add” when asked about Mr. Jordan invoking his name in Congress. The two-time former head coach said it was his “personal choice” to get off social media. 

Yet, there was plenty to talk about regarding Washington’s defense. Del Rio, after all, is coming off a season in which the unit fell far short of expectations and ranked 22nd in yards allowed, 25th in points against and 31st in third-down defense. And earlier this month, Rivera made a significant shakeup to Del Rio’s staff — firing defensive line coach Sam Mills. 

Del Rio will need a bounce-back year. Or Mills might not be the only change. 

“We had a really productive offseason,” Del Rio said. “It was really important to make sure that our guys were here, working and together. … There is no shortcuts to success, there really isn’t. I think they’ve done a great job of working at it. Our communication, our knowledge and our understanding of the principles that we play with is much stronger right now.”

Del Rio declined to weigh in on Mills’ firing, but said that new defensive line coach Jeff Zgonina brings a “wealth of knowledge” to the position and can connect to the group because of his previous playing experience. Zgonina spent 17 seasons in the NFL before retiring after the 2009 season, and as a coach, the 52-year-old is animated on the practice field. “The guys respond well to him,” Del Rio said. 

Washington’s defensive drop-off last season was reflected in the performance up front. Despite a career year from defensive tackle Jonathan Allen, the rest of the group combined to do very little. The Commanders’ edge rushers — highlighted by Chase Young and Montez Sweat— accounted for only 31.1% of the team’s sacks, a league low. The team failed to generate much pressure when only rushing the front four, and Washington’s defense suffered as a result. 

The regression led Rivera and others to observe that perhaps the Commanders bought too much into their own hype last year, especially coming off a 2020 season in which the defense ranked as one of the best units in the league. It’s why Del Rio, Rivera said, has preached a message of humility this offseason.

Rivera hasn’t expressed any concern that Del Rio’s Jan. 6 comments could linger among the team. He said Del Rio has “been great” about moving on after issuing the fine. 

“He accepted it and he understood it had nothing to do with his points of view,” said Rivera, who previously said he fined Del Rio because the “distraction” the remarks created. 

In the meantime, there are football issues that Del Rio and his unit are still trying to resolve. In Saturday’s preseason loss against the Carolina Panthers, third-down defense was again an issue. Notably, the team’s starters allowed the Panthers to convert three straight downs on their opening drive.

There, Del Rio had something to say. 

“My reaction is not to overact but I didn’t like it,” Del Rio said. “Sometimes things go like that. For us, it’s about getting to work, understanding why. … We want to be a defense that starts fast. Letting them get three first downs on third down once we got them the third down is not starting fast. That is something that we have identified as a must do. We will keep tabs on that as we go.”

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