With a defensive roster of young, talented players and a stable of bright, young coaches to match, the Redskins defense looks to make a leap in 2018
What do the players on the Redskins’ defense want to be this year? You might ask 10 players and get 10 different responses, but I’m going to stick with what Jonathan Allen had to say about what he wanted from himself and the defense; ‘Being some badasses. Simple as that.’ Yeah. I think I’ll stick with that. While I’ll focus more in individual position groups below, I’d like to paint another picture for you detailing the contrasts I noticed from camps of years past.
Say what you want about Jay Gruden as a head coach, but the man knows how to assemble one heckuva coaching staff. Sean McVay was promoted to OC by Gruden in his second year as head coach and subsequently left to, I don’t know, do an OK job as a first-year head coach with the LA Rams. Gruden’s staff boasts two former head coaches in Bill Callahan and Jim Tomsula to go along with Greg Manusky, Matt Cavanaugh, Wes Phillips, Kirk Olivadotti, Kevin O’Connell, and, the guy I’d like to focus on, Torrian Gray.
Just to put it out there plain-and-simple: Gray will be a head coach some day. Soon. He has the same passion and fire that both draws players to him and makes players listen to and trust him that Jim Tomsula has made a career out of. Though he has never (officially) told his players to play…earmuffs…’butt-a** naked,’ he is in constant communication with all of the DBs, whether they’re involved in the play or not. On one play, Alex Smith threw a 10-yd out to the defensive left-side of the field. Torrian Gray could be seen SPRINTING to the defensive right-side of the field exclaiming, ‘That’s it, Dunny! That’s what I’m talking about!’ Gray saw one of his young defensive backs playing with good leverage-on the opposite side of the field-and knew that he should praise that player. In contrast, when Greg Stroman played outside of his block (giving up the middle of the field) on a running play that, again, went to the opposing side of the field, Gray could be heard loud and clear, ‘No, no, no!!! You’re just letting him wash you out!’ This type of attention to detail from Gray helped thirteen defensive-backs get drafted that he coached at Virginia Tech (as well as two first-rounders from his short stint at Florida) and has helped players like Kendall Fuller, Quinton Dunbar, and Montae Nicholson go from raw, toolsy players to NFL starters, and perhaps more.
What has me most excited about this defense is the tangile evidence that Tomsula’s and Gray’s passion is both incredibly detailed, focusing on improving in every minute detail-and motivating. Players on both sides of the ball feed off of it, and I believe this team is a better team because of it. Now, how did each player perform at each position group? Here’s my defensive breakdown from my days at camp:
DL: This unit is obviously what has fans buzzing the most, as it’s a unit loaded with both NFL Draft capital and young talent. I’m here to report that you all should remain excited, but also be patient and allow this unit to develop. One thing that struck me watching this unit in individual practice, 1v1s, and team work, is the sheer size of these men. Jonathan Allen is a tank, weighing in at over 290 lbs, but he looks like a child next to newcomer Da’Ron Payne. Fellow rookie Tim Settle is massive, and yet is one of the quickest defensive lineman on the team. Phil Taylor is his normal large self and consistently eats up double-teams and holds his ground. Matt Ioannidis, who looks like the runt of the group and weighs over 300 pounds, looks quick and was praised on multiple occasions by Greg Manusky and Jim Tomsula.
While Allen and Payne get all the fanfare right now because they were first round picks out of a decent college program called Alabama, Ioannidis might be the player the coaches are most excited about. The third-year Temple product is great with his hands, keeping linemen off his pads consistently and keeping his balance on some pretty nifty moves, including a spin-move the team has dubbed the ‘ice-pick.’ Jonathan Allen is already quietly one of the better interior defensive lineman in the league and he is trending in the right direction. Tomsula used him as the example on a plethora of occasions, which is a testament to the second-year player’s attention to detail and overall ability.
Payne certainly held his blocks using his massive size, but was, more importantly in my opinion, praised by his teammates and coaches for his smarts/knowing where he needed to be on any given play (until he heard some jeers for going down with an injury). Ziggy Hood is still the grizzled vet of this group, and he could often be seen leading his young counterparts throughout the day. Anthony Lanier spent time with the second unit and looks stronger and more confident; though, again, it’s tough to gather much from half-contact drills in practice. Overall, this group is incredibly talented and has the best defensive-line coach in the league molding them. That’s pretty exciting.
ILB: Josh Harvey-Clemons (JHC) was my biggest winner of training camp. Even before Zach Brown went down with an injury, JHC was flying around making plays both in the run game and against the pass. My favorite aspect of JHC’s game was his patience. He isn’t flying to a gap/guessing at the direction of a play. He diagnoses and picks his gaps carefully. On one play, against a screen, Mason Foster actually came across the formation in front of JHC before he made his break, but JHC blew up the play in the backfield because he waited that extra split-second to diagnose the desired lane and then shot that gap. This type of play could be seen often and was reminiscent of the role the team envisioned for Su’a Cravens before that whole debacle. I see JHC being a starter in the nickel, or a $LB, this season.
Zach Brown is fast. His speed was evident again throughout camp and team speed is something the Redskins have flat-out lacked in the past. He needs to keep his head, as he became visibly (and audibly) frustrated on more than a handful of occasions in 11v11 sessions by my count, and that’s too many. Mason Foster is the cool, calm leader of this group. He called plays exclusively with the first team and did not come out in nickel. His replacement, Zach Vigil, looked solid and reminded me of a more athletic Will Compton. Like the former Redskin, Vigil is smart, diagnoses quickly, and can communicate plays and keys to his teammates, but he gets to the play more quickly than Comp.
Martrell Spaight ran with the third team until ZB got hurt, and although he is a thumper and plays well downhill, his counterparts offer more lateral movement, key-diagnose-ability, and coverage skills than he does. He was loudly scolded on one of his zone drops, as he didn’t drop deep enough and, as a result, Crowder caught a 15-yard in-route over his head. I don’t think Spaight makes this team. Shaun Dion Hamilton honestly didn’t pop much, as he played mostly with the third team, but you have to believe the team sees a lot in him; they moved up in the draft to pick him and have been effusive in their praise of his smarts and ability when healthy. Youth, exuberance, and investment will win the day here.
CB: One of the pleasant surprises of camp was the cornerback play. Coming into camp, I was left wondering about how this new-look group would handle their new (and much more substantial) roles. I won’t spend long talking about Josh Norman. The ‘Cerebral Assassin’ was his normal self, doing well to key on plays, often being one step ahead of the receiver on routes. He mentored many of the young players and stayed more than an hour after practice running drills, from one-handed catching to jumpballs with his teammates.
Couple young guys, Quin Blanding and Kennedy Ladler staying after with Norman playing some jump ball games. Norman never stops. He’ll sign autographs for an hour after an extra hour of work on the field. #Redskins pic.twitter.com/sW4LYkW68Y— Kennedy Paynter (@Kennedy_Paynter) July 27, 2018
Quinton Dunbar looked great. His coaches agreed, as Torrian Gray found himself giving effusive praise to ‘Dunny’ on many plays. He has learned to stay low and use his length as an asset as opposed to using his length as a crutch. He is far less ‘handsy’ than he has been in the past, relying on solid leverage to start the play (something Gray harps on repeatedly), good feet in his pedal, a quick burst out of his stance when breaking on a play, and his length to finish and breakup the play. The Redskins practiced far more press-coverage than they have shown in the past, and this is another area in which Dunbar used his length effectively.
Orlando Scandrick will be a solid nickel corner. While he didn’t do much to move the needle in either direction, his communication was evident. He and DJ Swearinger were clearly the vocal leaders of the defensive-backfield and they both moved their counterparts into position pre-snap on every play. One could even hear Dunbar thanking Scandrick for telling him to change his leverage after a play. Fabian Moreau finds himself, once again, as the fourth corner on a defense that doesn’t often use 4 CBs. However, when given a chance to step into the slot when Scandrick was out for Saturday’s practice, he shined. Moreau is long and has tremendous recovery speed, which he demonstrated on a pass breakup where Crowder would’ve gained about 25 yards on a post. Moreau also had an instance of beautiful coverage on Brian Quick and was in position for the interception, but a horribly underthrown McCoy pass ended up being snagged by Quick on a nifty adjustment.
Adonis Alexander has a long way to go. He has all the tools needed to be a dominating press-corner, but he needs to grow in the IQ department and focus more on his feet. He reminds me of a young Dunbar; all tools and no idea how to use them, overstepping his frame, losing leverage, and (literally) holding on for dear life after those missteps. He needs time. Fans and media types were clamoring over Kenny Ladler after he intercepted a pass and took it back for 6, but the guy to keep an eye on is Danny Johnson (the non-Rob Kelly #20). He played very well in the slot with the second unit and reminded me almost exactly of Joshua Holsey’s rookie mini-camp last year. Nothing special-just solid. I don’t think there’s room for him on this roster, but he showed well and is a strong practice squad candidate. This was a bad camp for Holsey to miss.
S: People seem to be excited about the safety group, but I would urge you to proceed with trepidation. Yes, DJ Swearinger picked off two passes in 11v11 on Saturday and the safeties had more than a few pass breakups in the deep middle of the field, but overall, the man-coverage from these safeties has me worried. The best safety tandems in the league have at least one safety that can cover TEs at the same level or better than an average CB. The ability to matchup a larger player against TEs is an advantage because of not only the size needed to efficiently defend this type of receiver, but also because bringing a safety into the box is less of a liability against the run than having a CB in the box would be.
Swearinger and Nicholson both struggle in 1v1 drills and struggled to stick with backs and TEs in 7v7 (it’s hard to definitively know a safety’s assignment in 11v11 without being able to review tape). I know 1v1s are designed for the receiver to win, but you like to see the DB sticking with the receiver through the route. Nicholson was burned on multiple occasions, standing flat-footed as the receiver caught a pass over his head. Swearinger fared better, but gets far too handsy in the middle of the field and would’ve drawn a penalty fairly often. I would like to see both of these players work on keeping his steps within his frame in order to keep balance and maintain leverage with the receiver without having to grab hold of the receiver. Nicholson was visibly frustrated and took a break with Bruce Allen on Friday after Vernon Davis caught two corner-posts in a row over him in 1v1s.
Troy Apke is two things; 1-lost in coverage and 2-fast. He showed off both of these attributes on multiple plays, being caught out of position, but having the recovery speed to be there and force an incompletion or make the tackle/limit YAC. Recovery speed can’t continue to be his out when it comes to the games that matter, but it’s always nice to possess those attributes that can’t be coached. Coach Gray has a nice ball of clay to play with in the former Nittany Lion, but he has his work cut out for him. Deshazor Everrett is now the leader of special teams and is making the calls and signals for the unit. It’s nice to see a player work as hard as he has, from getting cut at CB and then resigned to be a solid backup safety and core special-teamer. Deshazor isn’t a player you want starting on your team, but he’s a solid 3rd safety and has good instincts around the ball. His teammates and coaches love him.
That’s it for my defensive breakdown. Check back tomorrow for the offensive half of my 53-man projection, and, as always, ask me a question on Twitter @Kennedy_Paynter.