Early in the 2017 season, the Redskins defense under new coordinator Greg Manusky has certainly seemed like it has turned the corner. This is in stark contrast to previous years, when the Redskins defensive unit looked like a JV team playing the eventual varsity state champion.
Manusky has instilled an attitude of confidence in his unit, led by veteran standouts Ryan Kerrigan, Josh Norman and newcomer D.J. Swearinger. These three players, along with the addition of linebacker Zach Brown, and the emergence of young guys like Preston Smith, Matt Ioannidis and Kendall Fuller, and rookies Johnathan Allen, Ryan Anderson and Montae Nicholson, have given the Skins a blend of veteran leadership, youth, athleticism and attitude.
Just how good is this defense, and how good can they become?
After three games, linebacker Zach Brown is number two in the NFL in total tackles with 33. Third year outside linebacker Preston Smith is tied for third in the NFL with three sacks.
As a team the Redskins rank fifth in yards per game at 272, and are tied for ninth in the league giving up 20 points per game. On the young season Manusky’s unit has four interceptions (tied for fourth), two forced fumbles (tied for second), and three fumble recoveries (tied for fourth).
But these stats tell only a portion of the story.
For the first time in what seems like a long time, the Redskins defense seems to be playing as one cohesive unit. The talent amongst the front seven has greatly improved, and this certainly helps. Allen has been as advertised after a stellar career at Alabama. He continues to improve each game, and we are beginning to see the dominance we all expected. Ioannidis may be the biggest surprise on the defensive line so far in this young season. After a rookie campaign which saw him relegated to the practice squad to start his career, he has now taken his game to another level, and has become the Redskins most effective down linemen. His pass rush and run-stopping abilities are not only tops on the team, but also rank among the best in the NFL in terms of efficiency and efficacy.
Ryan Kerrigan is as advertised, but it is Preston Smith who is dominating opposite the Pro Bowler. Smith has had a sack in each of the Redskins first three games, and his pass rushing prowess, and run-stuffing ability have been exceptional. Although Ryan Anderson has yet to garner the stats of Smith, his presence is being felt by opposing offenses who attempt to run to his side of the field. Even veteran outside linebacker Junior Galette, who is playing for the first time in two years due to injuries, is a force to be reckoned with off the edge. His non-stop motor keeps linemen on their toes whenever he is in the game.
Ive already mentioned Zach Brown’s nose for the football, but fellow inside linebacker Mason Foster has been effective too. Not only has Foster recorded a game-clinching interception, but he did so after suffering a separated shoulder early in the Rams game. It’s this toughness and attitude that separates this defense from previous squads.
In the secondary, the Redskins have been outstanding. Norman is arguably the best cornerback in the NFL, and his coverage speaks to this. But he’s also one of the best tackling defensive backs in the league, showing exceptional tracking skills, appropriate angles, and the ability to force fumbles on ball carriers. Breeland has been solid in coverage opposite Norman, although he’s not quite on Josh’s level when it comes to tackling. However, when a tackle needs to be made on the back end, it is D.J. Swearinger who brings the lumber. The veteran safety, who is also a team captain, brings an attitude and presence to the Redskins secondary that we have not seen since the days the great Sean Taylor patrolled the secondary.
The two biggest surprises on the back end of this defense however come from second year pro Kendall Fuller and rookie Monate Nicholson. Fuller has rebounded nicely from a rough rookie season to become a very good nickle corner. He’s shown the ability to blanket slot receivers and tight ends, and looks amazing in tackling; especially recognizing and blowing up screens. Nicholson may be the free safety the Redskins have been lacking for decades. His rare blend of size and speed have already flashed numerous times in this young season, and he should only continue to get better with more game experience. The rookie shows smooth, fluid hips, easy excelleration to break on balls as a single-high defender, and the ability to dislodge the ball from the receiver when he arrives. He’s easily making fans forget about the loss of Su’a Cravens.
The key for this unit so far has been the communication that Manusky relays to his players, and in turn, the ability to recognize and communicate his commands within the defense between the players. Foster and Brown have been able to get the defensive front set, and make sure everyone is in the right spots at the snap. On the back end, the General, D.J. Swearinger, has been key is setting coverage, recognizing concepts, and adjusting accordingly. This unit all working together as one is something we as fans can’t take for granted.
So, just how good can this Redskins unit become?
The talent, youth, athleticism and depth are key for a major turn-around, but much credit has to be give to Manusky for playing the best players, instilling a sense of confidence and swagger in his unit, and scheming to take away opposing offenses strengths.
If this trend continues on the defensive side of the ball, we could finally see this team take their entire game to a different level, and become a force within the league for years to come.