In 2010, during his first NFL draft as the head coach of the Washington Redskins, Mike Shanahan drafted LSU Tiger Perry Riley in the fourth round with the 103rd overall pick. As a true freshman on the 2007 National Championship team, Riley saw limited action, but registered two solo tackles in the BCS title game against Ohio State. However, Riley went on to become a highly productive and durable linebacker in Les Miles’ SEC defense. He was a tackling machine in his two seasons as a starter (2008-2009), was named Defensive MVP of a 38-3 win in the 2008 Chick-fil-A Bowl and was a finalist for the Butkus Award that same year.
One of the reasons Shanahan went searching for a linebacker in the middle rounds of the 2010 draft was the poor play of 2006 draftee Rocky McIntosh. Drafted early in the second round with the 35th overall pick, McIntosh never lived up to that high selection.
Despite working alongside the ageless London Fletcher since we began watching every play of every game in 2008, McIntosh hasn’t graded positively overall in any season–2009’s -2.4 grading is his career high. When the Shanahan regime implemented a 3-4 defense, McIntosh continued to be a liability. He struggled in every aspect of his game and ended the 2010 season with a -12.7 overall grade.
The plan was for Riley to take over from McIntosh and start alongside Fletcher in 2011, but the lockout-shortened offseason helped prevent the former Tiger from being ready once the season arrived. Given eight games to start in 2011, McIntosh continued to be a weak link in the Washington defense (he’d accumulated a -9.4 grade overall at that point), paving the way for the Redskins’ Secret Superstar to take over exactly halfway through the season. He would not disappoint.
Riley rarely saw the field his rookie year, playing just eight snaps on defense all year. He did make something of an impact on those snaps though, making two tackles which were both stops–one of those occurred with 12:27 left in the Week 15 shootout in Dallas where, left one-on-one with Jason Witten on3rd-and-10, Riley limited one of the best tight ends in the league to an eight yard gain, forcing a punt.
Playing special teams, he contributed six tackles, but was also called for two penalties, one of which directly impacted the game. In Week 12 against the Minnesota Vikings, with the Redskins trailing 13-17 with 7:15 left in the4th quarter, Brandon Banks returned a punt 77 yards for a score … which was negated by Riley’s illegal block in the back on the play. Neither team would score again, leaving the Redskins to a four-point defeat.
Making A Difference
Riley’s fortunes improved dramactically in 2011. Inserted into the starting lineup Week 10 in Miami, he made his presence known immediately. His quickness and youthful energy were evident instantly to the announcers and everyone else, and he racked up seven tackles, two assists, a QB hit that was nearly a sack and another pressure that forced the quarterback to scramble. Riley was especially valuable against the Dolphin’s ground game with four of his tackles being stops in run support; his +1.6 run defense grade was better than any of McIntosh’s efforts in that area since the Shanahan era began. It was still Riley’s first start, however, and his game wasn’t perfect. There were a few plays where offensive linemen were able to neutralize him at the second level, especially center Mike Pouncey’s effort during Reggie Bush’s 18-yard TD run in the final quarter.
The next week at home against the Dallas Cowboys would be a harder test, with DeMarco Murray, who ended the season averaging 5.5 yards per carry, coming to town. Riley again proved to be a fast and aggressive force, registering six stops and helping tremendously in keeping Murray to a 2.9 yard average on a season-high tying 25 carries. Riley’s play against linemen also improved: he got away from guard Montrae Holland twice at the second level to get in on gang tackles and put him on his back on another play, while also beating guard Kyle Kosier twice in the hole. He finished with a +3.6 run defense grade, again impressing onlookers and further validating the Redskins’ decision to start him.
Riley would continue effectively stopping running backs, whether beating a fullback in the hole to get there (6:49 Q1 Week 15 game in New York), maneuvering past a lineman at thesecond level (12:55 Q2 Week 12 game in Seattle), shoving a lineman out of the way (11:22 Q1 Week 17 in Philadelphia) or reacting soundly when his teammates ate up blockers and left him un-touched to make the tackle (4:30 Q1 Week 16 game against the Vikings). In the end, he comfortably out-performed McIntosh, ranking fifth among linebackers in run stop efficiency (12.6 Stop% with 26 stops) behind the great Ray Lewis. Grading green in this area in five of his eight starts, his only negatively-graded performance came in the Week 16 Vikings game in which nearly the whole defense struggled. His undeniable success has cemented his starting role next year alongside Fletcher.
Room For Improvement
Placing any inexperienced player into the lineup halfway through a season can be risky, and Riley proved to be no exception. He had problems when asked to cover receivers and tight ends downfield. In the Dallas game he missed two tackles and played a role in allowing Jason Witten’s 59-yard TD catch-and-run, earning him a -2.9 coverage grade. He would get the same terrible coverage grade a few weeks later against New England when Tom Brady and company victimized him for 87 yards on five catches. It could have been worse, as Rob Gronkowski beat him twice at the goal line on plays where Brady couldn’t deliver an accurate pass. He would get beaten for a 17-yard TD on a simple out route by TE Kyle Rudolph a few weeks later.
Only so much can be expected from Riley in his first set of career starts, but this is clearly an area he will need to improve in with Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning, Tony Romo, and Michael Vick looming in the division.
And there were some positive signs in 2011. His ability to dart around blockers quickly proved to be useful in coverage against screens and other short passes thrown behind or right at the line of scrimmage–in his debut he dropped Brandon Marshall and Bush in the backfield for losses of 4 and 7 yards. He would continue making similar plays, getting a nasty hit on Kevin Faulk on a 1-yard catch and breaking-up a third down pass to Adrian Peterson with another solid hit. He also finished the season well in Philadelphia with two passes defended. More tellingly, he made a smart play with 2:45 left in the second quarter when he saw DeSean Jackson on a screen with elite blockers Jason Peters and Evan Mathis leading the way and, 10 yards downfield, wisely went low instead of getting trampled and managed to take out both Jackson and Peters.
The future is bright for the Washington Redskins’ Secret Superstar.