Commanders made a big change on defense. Could it stick?

Late in the first quarter on Sunday afternoon, the Washington Commanders faced cornerback William Jackson III, one of the team’s highest-paid players. Drive after drive, he stood on the sidelines without a helmet as Washington used a new combination of defensive backs, and a team spokesperson maintained that he was not removed due to a wound.

“We make decisions based on how the game unfolds,” coach Ron Rivera said after the 21-17 loss to the Tennessee Titans. “[Changing cornerbacks] was one of the things we decided.

But in the locker room, Jackson hinted that he pulled out voluntarily because of a bulging disc in his back. He missed the loss to Philadelphia in Week 3 due to a back injury, and has been on the daily practice injury report ever since, although he was still listed as a full participant.

“I fight for my teammates, but you know, things happen,” he said. “[I was] just playing through the pain. [It] I thought it best to let someone else in. I have a disk and I can’t do anything else with it.

If Washington keeps Jackson on the bench Thursday night in Chicago, that would be significant — he was one of the front office’s first significant recruits, and the team doesn’t have an easy exit with his big contract — but not surprising. Jackson, who excelled in man-to-man coverage early in his career, has struggled to adjust to Washington’s zone-based schedule since joining in 2021. And last week, Rivera hinted that if his team doesn’t improve quickly, he could be changes — and he didn’t mean quarterback or coordinator.

Late-Game Struggling Commanders Suffer Their Fourth Consecutive Defeat

In press conferences, as Rivera praised the progress of young defensive backs, it seemed likely the team could bench Jackson or Kendall Fuller, veteran cornerbacks who underperformed to open the season. After the Titans’ third possession on Sunday, when Jackson missed a tackle at third-and-one and the defense finally allowed a touchdown, Washington replaced Jackson.

On the next possession, Washington used a new group of defensive backs. In the nickel subset, Benjamin St-Juste slid out of the slot and Rachad Wildgoose came in as cornerback from the slot. In the big nickel, St-Juste remained on the outside, Kam Curl moved from solid safety to slot, and Darrick Forrest replaced Curl.

Over the next eight drives, with the same rotation, the Titans scored two touchdowns and kicked six times. They gained 174 yards on 48 plays (an average of 3.6 per play), and much of that came on a 61-yard pass. St-Juste said it wasn’t difficult to go from the lunge to the outside in the middle of the game, and he excelled on the outside, as he did against Philadelphia.

“I’m used to it,” he said of the changes. “Someone is going to fall, or is going to make a change or whatever. You just have to be ready.

In the locker room, a reporter asked Jackson this: If you’re healthy on Thursday, do you expect to start?

“We’ll see,” he said. “I just have to see how my body feels. It’s just one of those things – the treatment doesn’t really help.

Several teammates, including Curl and Fuller, said the defense backing up Jackson hasn’t changed much and they still believe in Jackson.

“He definitely takes care of his back [injury]”, Fuller said. “But Will-O is a competitor, man. I know what it takes to play [defensive back]and… he has what it takes.

If Washington commits to benching Jackson, what happens next?

The team has a few options. This could keep it active as a backup every week or make it inactive to send the clear message that it’s gone. But either would be expensive.

Jackson has the second-highest salary cap charge on the list, at around $13.8 million, according to the Over the Cap website. The team could try to trade him before the November 1 deadline, although it could be difficult as his load cap next season will be around $15.8 million.

If Washington were to wait until the offseason to cut it, it would absorb a “dead cap” penalty of about $9 million and save $6.8 million.

For commanders defense to progress, haste and cover must work together

Whatever happens, the failure of the partnership between Washington and Jackson raises questions about the process and the cohesion of the organization. At the start of 2021, Rivera selected a new brain trust, led by general manager Martin Mayhew and executive vice president of football for player personnel Marty Hurney, and one of the group’s first major signings was Jackson, whom he gave a three-year contract for $40.5. million.

At the time, the approach made sense. In 2020, Washington’s defense excelled, especially against the pass, but it struggled against No. 1 receivers. It seemed that Jackson, who had an excellent reputation as a man-to-man corner in Cincinnati, could help solve this problem.

But last season Washington’s defense struggled for a number of reasons, and for the first half of the season Jackson looked uncomfortable in a one-time drop shot that required him to play with vision. In the second half of the season he seemed a little more comfortable.

During the offseason, defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio tweaked the true zone coverage to more game zone scheme, which is a hybrid of man and zone schemes. Jackson was one of the players who looked more comfortable and confident in practice and pre-season games.

“I was ecstatic,” Jackson said in late August of the rise in the game zone. “It was still from the area, but it’s something I know.”

But at the start of the regular season, the promising steps did not translate into production. During Week 2 in Detroit, Jackson slipped and fell to allow an easy touchdown. In Week 4 at Dallas, his first game back after sitting out against Philadelphia, he was flagged three times for 70 yards, racking up more than half of the team’s penalty total (136 ).

Now the Commanders secondary seems to be improving even as the team continues to falter. Curl said it didn’t matter who the outside cornerback was on Thursday.

“He’s the next man,” he added. “Anyone out there, you have to make plays.”

About Ellie Cohn

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