Sure, maybe the Redskins come out in a base 3-4 look “sometimes”, but let’s not kid ourselves here, they, like many other teams in the NFL, are a base 4-2-5 team - or as most say, a Nickel defense.
With most teams passing the ball at or over 60 percent, defenses have had to adapt to become versatile enough to stop the pass on all three downs if needed, yet stout enough to defend the run when team try and pound the rock.
The emergence of dime linebackers, bigger more physical corners, and athletic do-it-all move linebackers are the talk of the NFL. Some teams have the luxury of playing their safety as a hybrid defender to help in these situations.
The Chargers Derwin James is today’s prototype safety. He has the ability to line up as a single high, come down in the box as an extra linebacker, and cover a receiver or tight end in the slot. For teams that don’t have a Derwin James type of player on defense (and most do not), they have to improvise a bit in their nickle look.
For the Redskins, who are in Nickle almost 70 percent of the time, they need to find more versatile athletes to make this look effective.
It all starts up front, and the Redskins have spent some serious draft resources to build their defensive line. In the base 3-4 look, the Skins can trot out Daron Payne at nose tackle, and have him flanked by Jonathan Allen and Matt Ioannidis as the two 5-techniques. But in base, one of those stud defenders has to come off the field to make room for an extra defensive back. Many see this as an issue, but it’s really not. The defensive line needs to be rotated and stay fresh. It is a luxury to substitute either Payne or Allen for Ioannidis or Settle - or even use a combination of the four.
Edge rushers are very important in a nickle defense, as they need to be able to apply quick pressure on the quarterback, but also set the edge and play run when needed. The Redskins have a very good one in Ryan Kerrigan, but are missing his counterpart on the opposite side. Preston Smith, who was not a good fit for the Redskins defense, is going to be a free agent this spring, and is likely to leave. Behind him, the team has very little. Ryan Anderson is a career back-up who’s best suited in a reserve/special teams role until his rookie contract is up.
The Redskins need to add a speed rusher on the right side to put more pressure on the passer, and eventually become a replacement for Ryan Kerrigan. Although there are some interesting free agent targets, the 2019 NFL Draft would be a great place to get that player.
If the defensive line is where it all starts, the linebackers are what make this defense tick. Just as in a base 3-4, the inside linebackers in a 4-2-5 need to be fast enough to play sideline-to-sideline, strong enough stack offensive lineman at the point of attack and make a play on the ball carrier, and athletic enough to drop into coverage or man up on a tight end.
The linebacking corps failed miserably at this in 2018, but help could be on the way in the form of Reuben Foster and Shaun Dion Hamilton.
Foster, who was claimed off waivers after he was released by the 49ers following an arrest for domestic violence allegations at the team hotel this past fall (charges that were later dropped), could be the answer at one of the middle linebacker positions in 2019. He’s a tremendous athlete who can tackle, cover and blitz, and his presence on this defense would be a major upgrade for a unit that struggled most of the year last season.
His potential counterpart could be fellow Alabama teammate Shaun Dion Hamilton. The due teamed up at Alabama in the past to form the best linebacking duo in college football, and could do so again in the NFL. Hamilton began to get more playing time as the 2018 season progressed, and he showed over the last five games of the season that he was the best inside linebacker on the team.
With these two roaming the middle, a 2018 liability could turn into a 2019 (and beyond) strength.
The back-end of a Nickle defense is very important, and the Redskins are lacking difference makers here.
Josh Norman is a competent corner, but he’s not the playmaker he once was. Opposite him, there are questions surrounding the health of Quinton Dunbar. When healthy, Dunbar is the team’s best corner, but a nerve issue in his leg cut his 2018 season short. If he can rebound to his former self, the Redskins should be alright on the outside. Second year corner Adonis Alexander, who came to the team a year early via the 2018 supplemental draft, could play a key role moving forward.
The slot position is an area of concern in this Nickle look. The Redskins have bodies, but none have really stood out. Fabian Moreau was the primary slot corner in 2018, but he struggled for much of the season keeping up with quicker receivers. Greg Stroman, Josh Holsey and Danny Johnson are all options as well in 2019, but they’ll have to take their game to the next level if they are going to be counted on.
Safety is, and has been, and area of concern for the team. The Redskins traded their fourth round pick in 2019 for Packers safety HaHa Clinton-Dix at the trade deadline. Clinton-Dix struggled a bit early on while he was learning the defense, but played well over the team’s final four games. He’s set to become a free agent in March, and if he’s not re-signed, the team could be in some trouble on the back end.
At strong safety, the Skins parted ways with D.J. Swearinger after he made public comments criticizing Greg Manusky’s play calling (something fans were doing all season). Despite playing at a high level, the team felt he was more of a distraction than a help. Without Swearinger, the team has very little. Deshazor Everett stepped in when Swearinger was released, but he’s can’t be counted on to start at the position.
One option at safety would be to move Adonis Alexander to the back end. He played the position at Virginia Tech as a freshman and excelled. He has the size, length and tackling ability to be a difference-maker. If Alexander is not moved, the Redskins may need to look to free agency or the 2019 draft to fill the void at safety.
Redskins Potential 2019 Nickel Defense:
EDGE - Ryan Kerrigan
1-Tech DT - Daron Payne/Tim Settle
3-Tech DT - Jonathan Allen/Matt Ioannidis
EDGE - 2019 Draft Pick
ILB - Reuben Foster
ILB - Shaun Dion Hamilton/Josh Harvey-Clemons
CB - Quinton Dunbar
CB - Josh Norman
Nickle Back - Fabian Moreau/Greg Stroman
S - HaHa Clinton-Dix (must re-sign)
S - Adonis Alexander OR 2019 Draft pick