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Commanders linebacker Jamin Davis uses his brain to unlock his body

Commanders linebacker Jamin Davis uses his brain to unlock his body


In his second season, Washington Commanders linebacker Jamin Davis has become a key cog in an up-and-coming defense by making subtle improvements to the nuances of his position. The 2021 first-round pick had a rough rookie year, but throughout this season he’s made strides in several key areas, including play recognition and eye discipline. The 24-year-old’s mental progress has allowed him to consistently display the tremendous athleticism that enamored coach Ron Rivera in the first place.

Basically, Davis’ brain unlocks his body.

Some of the reasons for this development, such as better preparation, were in his control, and others were not. Last year, an undisciplined group of linemen hurt Davis’ performance, and this year he has benefited from the line’s elite cohesion. This offseason, coordinator Jack Del Rio tweaked the scheme in part to help his athletic defenders – more “fight” zone, less traditional coverage – and Davis has looked more comfortable.

Coaches also pushed him. During Davis’ rookie year, Rivera and Del Rio preached patience and defended him despite his struggles. But in Week 1, when Davis played poorly, Del Rio sharply criticized him to reporters in part, Rivera said, because coaches believed his military upbringing might make him more responsive to direct challenges.

“The biggest thing is how we handle him now,” Rivera explained. “It’s not, ‘Oh, he’ll be fine.’ Now it’s, ‘Hey, come on. You’re smarter, you’re better than that. Let’s go.'”

Over the past three months, Davis’ steady growth has given him confidence. In October, when middle linebacker Cole Holcomb was injured, Davis moved from weakside linebacker to center. Before Washington’s biggest game of the year — at undefeated Philadelphia on Monday Night Football — Del Rio gave Davis the green dot, meaning he was responsible for relaying play calls and helping set the front. Since Week 8, Del Rio has shown confidence in Davis by using just one linebacker on 39.7 percent of the unit’s snaps, more often than any other team in the league and nearly double the rate of the next team (Las Vegas, 22.8), according to Week 8. to TruMedia.

From training camp: Jamin Davis is making progress. The commanders need it to continue.

In Week 9 against Minnesota, in the middle of the rally, Davis tore a ligament in his right thumb. It was less physically limiting than it was a test of his pain tolerance, and Davis said he wore a small cast, “numb [the thumb] up a little bit and play through it.” He waited until Monday of the bye week to have surgery and said he expects to play Sunday night in the high-stakes New York Giants rematch.

The Post recently reviewed game film of Rivera and Davis to understand in detail how Davis has improved this season.

“He’s not a finished product by any means, but he’s done a good job,” Rivera said.

Early this fall, Davis’ quick reactions stood out as one of his biggest improvements. As a freshman, Davis struggled to diagnose presnap plays, forcing him to process them after the snap, creating hesitation and false steps, making him slow and late. But over time and study, he got better at using context clues — formations, personnel groupings, field position, downfield and distance — to predict plays.

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In Week 3 against Philadelphia, Davis’ presnap read suggested a sweep to the left, and when the post-snap read confirmed it, he bolted around the edge and snapped the pull center. Rivera praised the quick response, but said Davis needed to do more; the running back still got outside for a seven-yard gain. The next step would be to drive through the center, instead of just hitting him, to reverse the drive or to tackle.

Ten weeks later, against the Giants, Davis made a more advanced read. He already suspected a run, but when he noticed the left guard was set “really easy” on his left hand, he suspected the guard might be preparing to run left. After the snap, read confirmed, Davis filled the gap with what Rivera called “very good” form, another improvement. Davis kept his helmet up to continue reading the play and his hands in the blocker to give himself leverage.

For other reasons, the running back gained five yards. Davis criticized himself, saying he could have hit the inside shoulder of his blocker to make the tackle instead of allowing the gain. He credited Holcomb, a mentor, with helping his game recognition.

“Unbelievable leap forward, to be honest with you,” Davis said. “Now that I know these things, it’s clear as day to me. It’s easier to pick up plays and just make them a lot faster.”

As a rookie, Davis sometimes had poor technique and leverage in coverage against running backs and tight ends. This season, he has shown several examples of better man-to-man coverage against backs, especially on wheel routes, and in a critical moment in Week 10, Davis used his athleticism to maintain good leverage in space.

Early in the fourth quarter, Davis realized the Eagles were running the same tight end screen they had scored on in Week 3. He took an angle to the convoy that allowed him to keep outside power and force the ball back inside. For another player, funneling the piece to his aid would be enough. But because Davis is quick, he planted his foot — “Look how athletic he stops,” Rivera said — and changed direction to reach the tight end and force a key fumble. (Davis also got away with a face mask.)

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In the preseason, when Davis’ progress first materialized, he began to regain his pregnancy. In late August, he dismissed those who called his good plays “glimpses” of who he could become by saying, “F— that. That’s me.”

In Week 2 in Detroit, Davis’ confidence got him in trouble. It was third and three when he stepped up to the line of scrimmage. He tried to bluff a blitz up the middle, but he was caught out of position when the ball was snapped. He tried to read the play as it happened, and the runner took off for a route, which was a trigger for Davis to flash off the edge. Rivera said Davis’ lack of feel, as well as poor play recognition and eye discipline, delayed him. He didn’t generate pressure, a teammate blew a coverage, and the Chiefs allowed a 49-yard completion.

For the Commanders’ defense to advance, the rush and coverage must work together

Almost three months later, against the Giants, Davis demonstrated a better feel for being in the structure of the defense. On one play, the Giants showed a tight end across the formation against Davis, and Davis took a couple of steps forward to present man-to-man coverage. But it was a trick. He was actually blitzing and wanted to get a few steps and a better line. Noting the cerebral adaptation, a mixture of art and science, Rivera exclaimed, “Look how patient he is!”

Davis burst into the backfield initially unblocked and helped limit a running dive to a two-yard gain. If the Giants had run something to Davis’ side, like a boot or stretch, they wouldn’t have expected him and it could have been a big play.

The next step, Rivera said, is for Davis to put up blocks with feel. Rivera liked Davis’ fundamentals while defending a run earlier in the Giants game — hands up, eyes up — but he wanted Davis to gain an advantage by manipulating the lineman with his body. Instead of Jumping into his assignment right away, Rivera said, Davis could have baited the lineman with a deliberate fake step, made him overshoot and used his athleticism to avoid the block altogether.

“If I sell it…it [lineman] stays flat,” Rivera said, mimicking Davis hitting the lineman. “Look at the big hole.”

In Week 8, when Washington needed a critical stop at the goal line, Del Rio called a play designed for Davis. The linebacker said he recognized Del Rio’s confidence and was “a little anxious, like ‘Oh, s—. This is me. This is my time.'”

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Before the snap, Davis read the field and decided his opening would be the front A gap between center and left guard. Davis suspected the Colts were going to run the read option, and he had to hit the gap quickly to get into the backfield and make the stop.

In that moment, everything crystallized. Davis burst through the open gap, stuck his foot in the ground to change direction and drove through the running back, dragging him to the ground.

“Look how strong he is,” Rivera said. “Son of a gun. He reminds me so much [former Carolina linebacker] Thomas Davis at his age.” Rivera nodded. “[Thomas Davis] was in the part where things started to become more natural, and that’s what’s happening right here. That’s what I see as a huge, huge, huge opportunity for us.”

“They are few and far between”

Early in the second quarter against Atlanta, Rivera said, Davis and end James Smith-Williams “made an exchange call” to stop the Falcons’ dangerous read option. They switched responsibilities – Smith-Williams took a run in the middle; Davis the edge – but after the snap, Davis hesitated. Rivera said Davis looked into the backfield (poor eye discipline) and stood a step to his right instead of filling the edge immediately.

Immediately, the Falcons’ right tackle scrambled to Davis. The quarterback kept the ball on the read option and nearly ran through the hole for a big gain. But Davis, playing with good fundamentals, shed the block and lunged at the quarterback, tripping him to limit the offense to seven yards.

His body covered up for his brain.

“Every once in a while he’ll do something like this,” Rivera said. “But they are fewer, far between, and you see the growth and development.”

The play was a decent encapsulation of where Davis is: He’s made strides in parts of his game, such as play recognition, to raise the floor, and in real time the progress is actively refining the athleticism that excites Rivera and gives Davis such a high ceiling. Davis said that, almost a year after his difficult rookie season, he feels like himself again.

“[Growing up]one of the biggest lessons I was told is, regardless of what people say, if you just trust the process, trust your work, at the end of the day everything will work out, he said.

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