Linebacker has been a persistent question for the Washington Commanders' defense, but with less than two weeks before training camp, Ron Rivera has provided some answers.
The Commanders had their share of chances to bolster the linebacker corps, but with the draft and free agency now specks in the rear-view mirror, it seems that they're going to stand pat with their current group for now. Cole Holcomb, Jamin Davis, David Mayo and Khaleke Hudson are all locks, but the position gets murkier after that quartet.
Washington, which technically runs a 4-3 defense, will be changing things up a bit in 2022. It will be implementing more two-linebacker sets, otherwise known as the "buffalo" formation, in Rivera's third season at the helm, and it's all about adapting to how offenses are being run.
"You're seeing a lot more three-receiver sets, a lot more four-receiver sets," Rivera told Julie Donaldson. "You're seeing a lot more athletic tight ends coming in and splitting out."
Although Rivera isn't ruling out the possibility of adding a veteran linebacker to the mix at some point between now and Washington's Week 1 game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, he does like the starting groups. Holcomb, who has mentioned he's ready to "take control" of the defense, is the primary MIKE linebacker, while Davis is in a position where he can grow at the SAM position.
Washington's backup roles are filled by Mayo and Hudson. Mayo, who signed with the team during the 2021 free agency period, is a seven-year veteran who spent four years with Rivera in a previous stint with the Carolina Panthers. Hudson has been a special teams contributor for the bulk of the last two seasons, although the coaching staff has been pleased with his performance when granted the opportunity for an expanded role.
At the same time, Rivera wants to avoid any mismatches that can arise when a linebacker is lined up against a receiver or pass-catching tight end. The buffalo set, which Rivera said adds a hybrid linebacker or safety that can help handle the run, puts Washington in a more manageable position.
"You put that guy out there, and now you can adapt to whatever they're trying to do," Rivera said. "That guy has the ability to cover a wide receiver, or he has the ability to run with these athletic tight ends, or he has enough physical play to come in and help stop the run."
The Commanders implemented some of that in the latter half of the 2021 season with Landon Collins playing closer to the line of scrimmage. Collins is no longer on the roster, although Rivera has heaped praise on the players who could fill that role.
Much of that has centered around fourth-round pick Percy Butler, who Rivera believes will have an "immediate impact" on defense. A second team All-Sun Belt selection, Butler allowed a passer rating of 56.1 when targeted to go with a Pro Football Focus cover grade of 83.5.
Butler will have several responsibilities, as is the case with several members of the secondary, but some of them include a role in Washington's buffalo packages.
"Percy Butler has really come in and flashed and shown us that he has got a terrific skill set, very pleased with that," Rivera said.
The Commanders aren't the only team to lean more two-linebacker sets. Rivera pointed to what longtime defensive coach Dom Caper has done over his career as a sign that the philosophy does work. In Capers' first season as the defensive coordinator for the Green Bay Packers in 2009, he directed a unit that was first in takeaways, rushing yards and interceptions as well as second in total yards.
More recently, Rivera used two-linebacker sets with the Panthers. They used Shaq Thompson in the role, and he helped the Panthers' defense get two top 10 finishes in the last four seasons of Rivera's tenure.
"If we find that right guy, we feel very comfortable with it," Rivera said.
There are some high expectations on Washington as a whole in 2022. Rivera has said he expects a step forward this season, despite the 7-10 finish last season. With most of the pieces on defensive still on the roster, the Commanders are banking that the continuity will push the unit back to the form it showed in 2020.
Rivera knows people cringe at the word "potential," but a solid chance a changeup on defense will work out in Washington's favor.