Defensive struggles prompt Washington to make changes for Week 6 originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington
Quarterback is the most important position on the field, but it's hardly the only one the Washington Football Team has shaken up through five weeks of the season.
Multiple remarks from both head coach Ron Rivera and defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio this week suggest that the team will be experimenting with some new personnel groupings on the defensive side of the ball, beginning this week against the winless New York Giants.
Through five weeks, the most obvious hole in Washington's defense has been at the free safety position opposite of Landon Collins. Troy Apke had plenty of promise entering the season, but his training camp hype has not carried over.
In Week 5, Apke saw his snap count dip in favor of Deshazor Everett, a special teams ace who has played some safety for Washington since signing with the team in 2015. Everett didn't necessarily impress, but he did earn more playing time, according to Del Rio.
"I thought Shaze [Everett] gave us a little bit more juice, so I’d like to continue to get him involved," Del Rio said Thursday. "Troy has had a lot of opportunities. Shaze has earned his way to get a couple more looks."
Although he praised Everett, the defensive coordinator didn't knock Apke, either, saying he has a "bright future." But, at least for the present, it appears that Everett will be given a shot at the full-time role.
"There are things that [Apke] needs to get ironed out and get better at," Del Rio said." We’ll continue to work and develop him. It’s just that, at this point, we feel like Shaze gives us something that we covet and he’s going to play more."
When Washington inked Kendall Fuller to a four-year deal this offseason, the team cited the defensive back's versatility as a major reason for the addition. In Kansas City, Fuller played all over in the Chiefs secondary, spending significant time at both nickel and outside cornerback, as well as snaps at free safety.
Three games into his Washington reunion, Fuller has been fantastic. He's hauled in three interceptions already and been one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL, according to PFF.
Kendall Fuller has been balling‼️:— PFF Washington (@PFF_Washington) October 15, 2020
🔥 4 INTs + PBUs (44.4%, 2nd)
🔥 3 Receptions (33.3%, 1st)
🔥 16.2 Passer rating (2nd)
(% of targets, pos. rank) pic.twitter.com/s8upBZdVNl
Yet, with the team's struggles at free safety, there has been some chatter among fans if Washington's defense, as a whole, would be better served moving Fuller to free safety, allowing Fabian Moreau to resume the outside cornerback duties.
Rivera was asked about that possibility on Wednesday, and the head coach didn't necessarily rule out that possibility.
“The thing that we’ve got to look at really is who is the best fit for the situation and circumstances," Rivera said. "We’ve got four guys that came in and our four safeties. We’ve got to find a combination of who’s the best fit out there at free right now, who’s the guy that can work with Landon. That’s probably the thing that we’re looking at and trying to develop. So, as we go through this, we’ll find out which of those guys is the best guy.”
The secondary isn't the only group that Washington needs more out of on the defensive side of the ball. Both Del Rio and Rivera -- former NFL linebackers themselves -- have gone on the record this week voicing their displeasure for the lack of consistency among the Burgundy and Gold's linebacker corps.
"If there is one position we’re really, on the defensive side, I’d like to see a little bit more from it is the linebacker position," Rivera said. "I’d like to see them be a little bit more consistent and productive. They’ve had good numbers, but we’ve given up some plays. In my opinion, that can be directly related to that position. I’d like to see that position play better for us.”
Luckily for Washington, the team is anticipating the return of second-year pro Cole Holcomb, who has been sidelined since Week 1 due to injury. As a rookie last season, Holcomb trailed only Jon Bostic in tackles on the team.
Both coaches said they believe Holcomb's return will make a major difference for Washington's defense overall.
"Cole is getting healthy. Hopefully, we’ll get Cole involved," Del Rio said. "I think Cole’s got a chance to be a good player for us."
"We anticipate Cole Holcomb being able to play for us. He’s not on the report," Rivera said. "He hasn’t had the opportunity, so we’re going to give him the opportunity and we’re going to see how that goes."
The Burgundy and Gold's defense was supposed to be the team's strength in 2020, but thus far, they've underwhelmed. The unit had given up 30 or more points in its last four games, a major reason why Washington has not won any of its contests since the opener.
When Rivera made the switch from Dwayne Haskins to Kyle Allen at quarterback last week, the head coach cited the team's upcoming favorable schedule as a chance to make up ground.
But if Del Rio's unit doesn't improve on its performances from this past month, Washington will be in no position to compete for the division, regardless of how much the offense may improve.