Do Washington Commanders fans owe defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio an apology?
It may make you wince, wrench, grimace or growl, but the Commanders defense is the engine behind the recent 6-1 run that has Washington (7-5) looking like a real playoff contender.
Still, it's a remarkable turnaround that started in August with the unusual preseason firing of defensive line coach Sam Mills. It seems reserve linemen left over their dislike of Mills while dissent among starters bubbled over last year with a near sideline fight. Del Rio and coach Ron Rivera repaired the room by promoting assistant coach Jeff Zgonina and elevating Ryan Kerrigan to full-time.
The move turned an underperforming unit last season into one of the NFL's more feared lines. Zgonina, a 17-year veteran with eight teams, has turned interior linemen Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne from sparring partners to the league's best inside combination. Atlanta triple-teamed Allen and double-teamed Payne at times on Sunday. Kerrigan retired as Washington's career sack leader and was just spending the summer trying to see if coaching was for him. Now Kerrigan's helping Montez Sweat return to his 2020 form.
Still, the line needed time to switch from individuals into a fist that has smashed offensive lines. The four early losses were too often beatdowns up front, where Washington's defense now thrives, and the back seven couldn't compensate.
But Del Rio and Rivera found a way to elevate linebacker Jamin Davis' production. The 2021 first-rounder was a rookie disappointment and started slowly again, but the coaches got in Davis' face and then went public with their dismay, a rare move by staffers. But, they knew Davis was the son of two military parents and would respond best to tough love. Two months later, Davis is regularly making plays and the stench of "draft bust" is gone.
Then there was the problem of cornerback William Jackson. The prominent 2021 free agent signing was a costly mistake. Del Rio couldn't get Jackson to produce the same man coverage production in Cincinnati while working in Washington's zone. Finally, Del Rio and Rivera admitted it was a bust move and traded Jackson in October to Pittsburgh for what's now just a salary dump and no draft compensation.
Del Rio gambled that Benjamin St-Juste could stay healthy after missing eight games last season as a rookie with varied injuries. St-Juste was moved from the slot to outside corner and has fared well and absolutely much better than Jackson. St-Juste missed Atlanta with an ankle injury, but should soon return.
And there there's the emergence of safety Darrick Forrest. The 2021 fifth-rounder only played eight games last season with six tackles, but is one of Washington's top surprises this season with 56 tackles and three interceptions.
The trickle down on the line's improvement has spread to linebacker and secondary. Earlier this season, Detroit, Philadelphia and Dallas just abused Washington's defense. Now the Commanders come off three straight wins over Philadelphia, Houston and Atlanta while allowing a combined 23 points over the last two weeks. In the final moments on Sunday, Payne tipped a pass to Kendall Fuller for an interception to seal the victory over Atlanta.
So hold off on buying that bus ticket for Del Rio. Turns out, he can build a defense.
Rick Snider has covered Washington sports since 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @Snide_Remarks.