The Washington Football Team wants former University of Kentucky standout Jamin Davis on the field in part because of the touchdown he allowed Sunday.
In the short term, the score certainly hurt — it put the Green Bay Packers up two touchdowns in what became a 24-10 loss — but in the big picture, if his play improves because of what happened, it could be remembered as a necessary growing pain for a middle linebacker who was drafted in the first round and is expected to become a centerpiece of this defense.
On the play, Green Bay lined up with three wide receivers to the left and tight end Robert Tonyan attached to the line on the right. Washington blitzed, and quarterback Aaron Rodgers spotted Tonyan running a corner route to the end zone. Davis had aligned himself in coverage to the inside of Tonyan, and with no receivers right, there were no Washington defenders to help Davis on the outside. Tonyan got a step on him and caught an easy 20-yard touchdown.
Afterward, Coach Ron Rivera noted two things Davis should’ve done differently. First, he should’ve been more physical with Tonyan at the line to disrupt his timing, and second, he should’ve played with outside leverage. Davis had help inside — safety Bobby McCain was in center field if Tonyan ran a post — so playing outside would have put him in position to defend out or corner routes.
“That’s an experience thing,” Rivera said. “The more Jamin plays, the more he works, the more . . . he’ll know. He’ll learn, ‘Hey, based on this, I’ve got to go ahead and convert to an outside position because my leverage is to the inside.’”
If Davis is to become the all-purpose linebacker Rivera drafted him to be — if he’s to step into the role former Carolina Panthers all-pro Luke Kuechly once had, as Rivera has suggested — he needs to apply these hard-earned lessons. The team has never doubted Davis’ athleticism, the reason he was one of the NFL Draft’s fastest risers, but his struggles to parse complex offenses and process plays as they unfold have held him back.
In the last two weeks, Rivera said the game has slowed down for Davis, unlocking his athleticism. Davis had been limited to a part-time role earlier in the season, averaging about 50 percent of snaps, but he played all but one of the 56 defensive snaps Sunday, a career-high. It appears likely that Davis will get more chances to prove this progress is real — including at the Denver Broncos this weekend.
Davis was a player the Broncos “liked a lot” in the draft process, Coach Vic Fangio said, adding that he noticed while studying Washington’s game film this week that Davis has started to puzzle out NFL offenses.
“Good athlete. Really good range. Packs a good wallop when he hits people,” Fangio said. “He’s going to be a damn good linebacker in this league.”
Rivera said Washington’s coaches are similarly excited about Davis’ progress.
“Now he’s using his full skill set,” he said. “When you see Jamin range from one side to the other, that’s what we saw on tape coming out of Kentucky. He was the best linebacker coming out of the (Southeastern Conference) for a reason.”
In this bigger role, the stakes of Davis being able to avoid those repeat mistakes are high. Linebacker was one of the team’s weakest units last year, and Washington did little to address the position other than draft Davis. Rivera tried to fast-track Davis’ development by putting him at the challenging mike, or middle linebacker, position from his first professional practice, but even by the time the season started, Rivera was still effectively having to choose between Davis’ development and playing to win. He chose to ease Davis into things, but now that Rivera has signaled that he believes Davis can handle a high volume of snaps, it’s up to Davis to capitalize.
“Just getting more confident and playing Jamin Davis football. It ain’t nothing special,” Davis said as the key to his development after a Week 3 loss at Buffalo. “It’s just going out there, trying to do my job as best as possible and stepping up when my number’s called.”
When asked about Davis’ potential, linebacker Cole Holcomb pointed out the stop he made in that Buffalo game. After Davis contained quarterback Josh Allen’s scramble on third down, he made a big stop on a fourth-and-2 play as well. Davis read the running back from the slot to the flat and flew in to make a tackle short of the first down. It highlighted the physical talents Davis has and what he’s capable of when he reads the play clearly enough to use them.
“Every game, he’s getting more and more comfortable,” Holcomb said. “He’s learning to rely (on his athleticism). When he knows what he’s doing and he’s got confidence, he goes and makes plays.”
NFL games on TV this weekend
1 p.m.: Cincinnati at N.Y. Jets (CBS-27)
1 p.m.: San Francisco at Chicago (Fox-56)
4:25 p.m.: Tampa Bay at New Orleans (Fox-56)
8:20 p.m.: Dallas at Minnesota (NBC-18)
8:15 p.m.: N.Y. Giants at Kansas City (ESPN, ESPN2)