It doesn’t take long to notice — or hear — a change in the Washington Redskins’ defensive backfield at offseason practices as new secondary coach Raheem Morris barks out instructions and encouragements to his defensive backs.
Morris, hired by the Redskins in January and charged with the task of improving a secondary that produced only 10 interceptions in 2011, also often throws in some trash talk directed at Washington’s receivers.
Cornerback DeAngelo Hall remarked, “I ain’t the loudest one on the defense no more. Raheem probably is. I just love his energy, his coaching style.”
Morris is bringing more than just energy, however. This offseason, he has preached a new philosophy while also and revamping the secondary’s strategies and blending Washington’s holdover defensive backs with new pieces.
“We’ve made some changes to the defense because we had a few questions here and there with certain things we were doing,” says Kevin Barnes, who last season experienced his share of ups and downs while playing primarily at nickelback, but looks to rebound as he enters a contract year. “We got that cleared up. … Different nuances on the safeties being better in the hole and being able to cover more ground so the corners and the nickel can be a lot more aggressive on receivers.”
Safety and nickelback represent the biggest question areas in Washington’s secondary.
The team allowed hard-hitting, yet oft-injured strong safety LaRon Landry to depart via free agency, and released free safety Oshiomogho Atogwe. The team signed free agent safeties Brandon Meriweather, Tanard Jackson, Madieu Williams and drafted Jordan Bernstine out of Iowa to compete with returning players DeJon Gomes and Reed Doughty for the starting strong and free safety jobs.
Starting cornerbacks Hall and Josh Wilson return, as do Barnes and Brandyn Thompson, who spent much of last year on the practice squad. But the Redskins also signed Leigh Torrence and Cedric Griffin, drafted Richard Crawford out of SMU and signed undrafted rookie Chase Minnifield out of UVA to improve depth at corner.
Morris intends to shift some roles and make his defensive backs more versatile this season.
Barnes has taken snaps this offseason at free safety and at one of the outside cornerback positions – a change from last year, where he was charged primarily with covering the opposing slot receiver. Meanwhile, Hall and Wilson, who last season spent the majority of the time covering receivers on the outside, have both been working to learn that nickelback role. Hall also has taken snaps at safety. Meanwhile, Griffin has seen time at both cornerback and safety.
“A lot of the other guys, we’ve just been rotating everywhere,” Hall said. “Raheem’s been stressing guys learning to play everywhere. So, if push comes to shove, with motions, I could wind up playing safety one play, nickel the other. It just gives us more flexibility.”
Says coach Mike Shanahan: “You’re not really sure what an offense may present — three, four, five wideouts — so a lot of times you may have one linebacker in the game. You may have no linebackers in the game. Normally we always have one. Over the last couple of years we’ve had two. There’s a lot of times that will have one linebacker in the game. These defensive backs, they learn to play the inside slot position so regardless of what an offense throws out there, you can matchup personnel-wise. When you talk about those things, that’s what we’re doing.”
Safety isn’t new to Barnes, who has filled in their occasionally in each of the last two seasons. And he says he feels more comfortable at the outside cornerback positions, but will line up wherever he’s asked.
“It’s mostly corner,” he says of his role, “but I know the whole playbook and know what everybody’s doing. Any chance I get to get out there and show them what I can do, I’ll take it.”
Late in the year, Barnes lost his job to fellow defensive back Byron Westbrook. He said coaches told him that they wanted to evaluate Westbrook, who was an impending free agent and remains unsigned.
Barnes, who now is entering the final year of his contract, said the demotion motivated him to spend the offseason working to improve. He has gained 10 pounds of muscle to help him play with a more physical style and hopes the increased strength, along with his height (6-foot-1) will help him cause problems for receivers on the outside.
Meanwhile, Hall says he expects to take on a role similar to that of Green Bay’s Charles Woodson, who lines up all over the field depending on matchups, and covers receivers in the slot, on the outside and occasionally makes plays as a safety.
“You don’t ever see [Woodson] running down the field not looking for the ball,” Hall said. “He’s always underneath, blitzing, having some type of zone coverage underneath so he can see the ball, using instinctive football ability under there, and that’s kind of what we’re doing.”
Hall later added, “[Woodson] got defensive player of the year [covering the slot receivers], so hopefully I can get some of that same kind of buzz and excitement out there, making plays. I’m definitely relishing the opportunity to get in there. It’s hard, it’s different. But I’m down. It’s a lot more space. You definitely have to hone in on your technique and what’s asked of you in that moment, as opposed to just being a free spirit and only checking your guy. It definitely is a little bit different, but it’s part of the evolution.”
Jackson, who played for Morris in Tampa Bay is still working his way back from a shoulder injury and hasn’t yet practiced fully. But Meriweather, who made two Pro Bowl appearances in New England before struggling last season in Chicago, has impressed as he looks to revive his career.
“We’ll definitely miss [Landry and Atogwe], but at the same time, we felt like it was time to move on,” Hall said. “I feel like the guys we got are just as capable. Meriweather has probably go this hand on more balls in the first couple OTAs than I’ve seen in a long time. He definitely prides himself on getting around that ball, but at the same time, he’s not soft. He still wants to go in there and hit you, knock your head off. He gets all those fines, so he’s definitely a head-hunter. I like the guys we brought in. I can’t wait to get Tanard Jackson back. I’ve been a big fan of his ever since he came into the league from Syracuse down to Tampa. I just love the ability we have in the secondary.”
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