The Washington Redskins entered the 2017 off-season looking to strengthen the team’s Achilles heal, their defense that has finished at or near the bottom of the league‘s standings the past two years. For the team to make the strides they felt were necessary to improve the unit, a massive overhaul was needed. During that overhaul, the team decided that not only did they need to improve their front seven, they also needed to attempt to correct the issues the Redskins have had at safety.
During much of last season, Washington’s cornerback’s had continuous issues dealing with opposing players who were able to get behind the team’s coverage. To the untrained eye, it may appear that this was an issue with the cornerback’s themselves when in actuality this is an issue caused by safety’s continuously playing out of position. That shouldn’t come as much of a surprise as the Redskins have had issues with talent at the safety position since the late Sean Taylor played his last game in burgundy and gold.
The Redskins started 2016 with David Bruton, DeAngelo Hall, Duke Ihenacho and Will Blackmon as the main players at the safety spot. Bruton was hurt early on and was later released, while Hall suffered a season-ending ACL injury, Ihenacho got caught repeatedly trying to freelance in coverage and Blackmon did okay in his first season at the position after transitioning from cornerback. Several times during the season many opposing teams, and media members, wondered why the Redskins didn’t allow cornerback Josh Norman to follow the top opposing receiver around the entire game. That reasoning was the product of watching Washington struggle to cover big-name speedy receivers once they got past the line of scrimmage. While some again blamed the cornerbacks, the fact is the job of the safety is to be the last line of defense and ensure the corner has enough help containing each play/side of the field.
This season, the Redskins are committed to being more physical on defense, and also have perhaps the best set of talent the team has seen at the safety position in quite some time. At the end of the 2016 season, then rookie linebacker Su’a Cravens announced that he would take advantage of his special skill-set and make the transition to safety in 2017. Joining Cravens will be newly signed D.J. Swearinger, who played brilliantly in Arizona’s zone heavy scheme last season, Josh Evans, Blackmon, Hall, Deshazor Everett, Earl Wolffe IV and rookies Fish Smithson and Montae Nicholson.
Redskins head coach Jay Gruden likes what he’s seen thus far from Cravens this off-season, “I like Su’a. I like what he’s doing right now,” Gruden said. “You know, we’re out here without pads on, and we know the importance of being able to tackle at safety, so we obviously can’t see that and the angles. Based on his football knowledge and his skill set, I think he’ll be a good tackler. I think the key for him is his angles and playing coverage and playing in the post, playing two-deep, playing quarters, all those different things and seeing how he does, seeing how he reacts to the ball. I think he’s doing a good job. He had a couple picks yesterday, which was good to see. I feel him around the ball a lot. We’ll get the pads on, see his run fits. I feel his presence there, but we’ve still got to see him wrap up and tackle, which obviously based on his track record he can do.”
While it’s still unknown who will play which spot, the overall consensus heading into training camp is that Swearinger will play the free safety spot, while Cravens will likely playing the strong. Both players have a tendency to be “in the box players,” meaning they play better the closer they are to the line of scrimmage. It’s possible the Redskins could deploy a three-deep scheme and place Will Blackmon in as a third safety.
For Washington, having options available and being flexible with their scheme should lead to a much-improved safety unit in 2017. It will be interesting to see how much new defensive coordinator Greg Manusky uses fourth-round draft pick Montae Nicholson. Nicholson has the size (6-2, 212 pounds) and raw ability to contribute early and often to a secondary in dire need of some young talent. Veteran DeAngelo Hall is looking at possibly his last chance in the league this year after coming off of two major injuries that last two seasons. Everett, Wolffe, Smithson and Evans will all be competing for a roster spot as the four, at least for now, appear to be nothing more than ‘training camp bodies’ looking for a way in.
The Redskins are hoping that the changes made at the safety position the last two months will help them as they attempt to put together their third straight winning campaign in 2017.
[Featured Image by Al Bello/Getty Images]