Charged with the task of improving a unit that ranked among the worst in the NFL last season, new Redskins secondary coach Raheem Morris said he feels good about the progress his players have made during the offseason and training camp.
With veterans DeAngelo Hall and Josh Wilson now trained to play either the outside cornerback positions or nickelback – lining up against opposing slot receivers -- and fourth-year pro Kevin Barnes having a strong camp as well, Morris believes that Washington will boast a versatile secondary that is better equipped to cause foes problems in the passing and run games. Couple those new wrinkles at cornerback with anticipated upgrades at safety, and Morris believes the Redskins will make significant strides this season.
“Teams certainly can’t get all the matchups they want,” said Morris, who was hired in January soon after he was fired as head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. “Guys are always moving guys all over the place all over the league. You take the Green Bay Packers, where they’re taking Jennings and lining him up as No. 3 inside and matching him up with linebackers, you have the ability to take a D-Hall or a Josh in there, match them up with a corner and be able to take away some of those things they want to do and we have a better matchup for that day.”
The Redskins’ defense improved last season, going from 31st overall in 2010 to 13th last season. Against the pass, Washington advanced from 31st to 12th. But the cornerbacks still had their struggles, and the Redskins found themselves lacking in the take-away category. Washington’s defensive backs accounted for a total of only nine interceptions.
Morris and defensive coordinator Jim Haslett spent the offseason analyzing the execution and strategy, and together they came to the conclusion that when it came to cornerbacks, their problems were more schematic than personnel-related. The coaches came to the the conclusion that in some situations, Hall or Wilson might not be best suited to cover receivers on the outside. Perhaps one of those players, and not Kevin Barnes, would be better covering opposing slot receivers, while Barnes matched up on the outside.
“We decided to train [Hall and Wilson] in the nickel because we wanted to upgrade that position as far as a guy that can really cause some pressure and blitz, a guy that makes more plays,” Morris explained. “Usually when you go in there, you’ve got to be a more physical-statured guy. One thing about D-Hall, is people never criticize his physicality. . . .If you want to put Josh in there against a smaller, shiftier guy and have him be sticky and play man-to-man, whatever matchup you like, you can change it up depending of the week, and it just increases the knowledge of the whole defense.”
Morris added, “[Barnes] is really more of a bigger guy that’s capable of playing some bump-man [coverage], and he’s really having a phenomenal camp. He has the ability to do that. Being thrown in there at nickel last year, he kind of sacrificed for the team, which is good for him… but his strengths really lie on the outside.”
All three receivers have welcomed the changes. Hall and Wilson remain the team’s starting cornerbacks. But in those situations, when opponents run three-receiver sets, Barnes will enter the game as a cornerback on the outside, and either Hall or Wilson will slide to the inside, depending on the matchup. And in another wrinkle, Hall and/or Wilson could slide back to safety.
“That’s going to make our defense even better for us to get in there and play that nickel, or get in there and roll back to safety,” Wilson said. “If you’re a quarterback and you see 26 and 23 in the middle of the field, you won’t know what’s going on. And that’s what we have to do: make it harder and make them think about us first rather than what they want to do.”
Hall and Wilson previously had only limited experience at nickelback, so learning the new position has required both to expand their knowledge of the defense. But Morris said both have eagerly soaked up all of his instructions about technique and schemes.
“It’s given them a spark,” Morris said. “Every day is not mundane now. Every day is learning. Every time you install throughout your program, it’s a new day for them. You really have to have a knowledge of the defense and exactly what’s going on outside and around you, you’ve got to be able to use your help and where it’s at.”
Wilson said that the position does require him and Hall to play with more physicality, so he spent more time in the weight room this offseason, but he didn’t mind. And Hall says that the new role plays naturally to his football instincts.
“I always make a statement, ‘I’m probably not a great corner, but I feel like I’m a great football player,’” Hall says. “To actually go in there in the slot gives me a chance to be a football player and that’s what I like to do. . ..They’ve given me a lot of flexibility to just go out there and make plays.”