Could the Washington Commanders switch to a 3-4 base scheme after trading the defensive end duo of Montez Sweat and Chase Young?
There's no clearer sign Ron Rivera is on borrowed time as head coach of the Washington Commanders than the decision to trade Chase Young to the San Francisco 49ers and Montez Sweat to the Chicago Bears. Dealing both starting defensive ends for premium 2024 NFL Draft picks shows the franchise is already in rebuild mode, but there are still nine games left to play this season.
Rivera's best shot of making the most of those games is to tweak his defense post-Young and Sweat. It should mean rolling with a 3-4 base front better suited to the personnel the Commanders have left up front.
Going to the 3-4 will help compensate for Rivera and defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio no longer having a premium edge-rusher at their disposal. It will also maximize the plethora of defensive tackles still on the roster.
More importantly, Rivera's experience coaching the 3-4 can help the Commanders be more creative on this side of the ball.
Commanders HC Ron Rivera knows the 3-4 well
Rivera earned his first shot as a pro head coach with the Carolina Panthers in 2011. The promotion came on the heels of the former linebacker guiding the then-San Diego Chargers to the No. 1 ranked defense in the league a year earlier.
The Chargers' unit in 2010 is the ideal case study for how Rivera can make the 3-4 work again with the Commanders. He didn't have a standout pass rusher at his disposal. Shaun Phillips was versatile and savvy, Larry English was a draft bust, and Antwan Barnes was only for situational use.
Despite the absence of a true game-wrecker off the edge, the Chargers still logged 47 sacks, the second-most in the league. That number bodes well for Casey Toohill, an obvious replacement for Young and Sweat, while James Smith-Williams also has the build of a 3-4 outside linebacker.
Both players featured at the first practice after the trades, per Scott Abraham of 7NewsDC.
Toohill has four sacks already, and Smith-Williams has added another. Their numbers can be boosted by Rivera being more creative about how he sends pressure.
Many of the Chargers' sacks in 2010 came from the sophisticated package of blitzes Rivera designed. Sadly, the 61-year-old has gotten away from his blitzing roots since he gave Del Rio the keys to the defense.
Rivera played for '46' defense creator Buddy Ryan with the Chicago Bears, before serving as an assistant coach under legendary Philadelphia Eagles' defensive coordinator Jim Johnson, who updated many of the same schemes in the 2000s.
The change can be tracked by looking at Rivera's penultimate season with the Panthers in 2018 when they blitzed 33.4 percent of the time. It was the fifth-highest percentage in the league, but the 2023 Commanders are blitzing at 27.6%.
Rivera has emphasized the need for Washington to blitz more often in previous seasons, including 2021:
Dialing up more pressure is the obvious place to start making up for the absence of Young and Sweat. Particularly when the rest of the line is equipped to occupy blockers and open rush lanes.
Commanders linemen perfect for three-man front
A quick look at most of the names left on the depth chart shows the Commanders have an abundance of potential nose tackles. Jonathan Allen can slide out to the defensive end spot in a three-man front, but Daron Payne would be a greater menace lined up over centers.
Even if Payne moved around, fellow defensive tackles John Ridgeway and Phidarian Mathis are naturally suited to playing over the ball. Another backup, Abdullah Anderson, operated in a 3-4 front for the Atlanta Falcons last season.
A Payne, Ridgeway, and Allen trio would give the Commanders the same base look as Del Rio's 'Cinco' five-defensive linemen package. As NFL Network's Brian Baldinger highlighted, this jumbo version of a 3-4 worked to stuff the run against the Falcons in Week 6.
Using the same front and personnel as their go-to defense would give the Commanders a more solid base against the run. It would also expand the pressure looks Rivera and Del Rio can show.
Just as important as creativity, a five-man line executing 3-4 principles should encourage better gap discipline and technique. Those things were problems for Young according to John Keim of ESPN.
"A source said a lack of gap discipline impacted not only the pass rush but defending the run. The coaching staff also knew that, two years ago, when Washington played without Sweat and/or Young for six games, it went 4-2 and improved in every key statistical category -- going from allowing 29.9 points per game to 17.5 and from 400 yards allowed to 284."- John Keim, ESPN
Young's lack of strategic discipline on the field has been noted by multiple reporters. It means there was likely motivation to trade the former No. 2 overall pick.
Rivera and Del Rio must believe their less heralded holdovers will follow orders to the letter. It'll be easier if the Commanders are running a base defense more suited to their remaining personnel.
The 3-4 Rivera knows well and Del Rio doesn't mind turning to in sub-package situations fits the bill.