Redskins vs. Buccaneers: Five story lines to follow in the preseason finale

August 29, 2013

Evan Royster gets one last shot to impress coaches before Saturday’s cutdown deadline. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

The Washington Redskins close out the preseason with a game against the hosting Tampa Bay Buccaneers at 7:30 p.m.

Most of the starters have already been ruled out for this game. Strong safety Brandon Meriweather and cornerback Josh Wilson are believed to be two exceptions, and tight end Fred Davis hadn’t been ruled out on Tuesday, either.

But, although the game will not feature many household names, intrigue remains – at least for the diehards.

Here are five story lines to follow (and here’s our open discussion thread, with TV and radio info, live stats and more):

1. Meriweather’s debut: The Redskins just about have their starting defense in place, but one question remains: Can they count on Brandon Meriweather as their starting strong safety? Meriweather played lights out in 45 snaps against Philadelphia last season – his only action of the year. But can he have that kind of impact over a full season? And more importantly, can his surgically repaired knee hold up?

Meriweather’s teammates say that when on the field with them in practices, he brings next-level energy, and a bit of a nastiness. He’s always chattering away on the field. Pierre Garcon said he’s the kind of safety that receivers always have to be mindful of as they make catches and wonder if he’s coming at them with a full head of steam. That presence would make a difference in a secondary that ranked among the worst in the league against the pass last season.

We’ll see how Meriweather looks Thursday, and then – just as importantly – we’ll see how his knee responds to its first game action since the ACL tear in Week 11 last season.

2. Running back battle: Kyle Shanahan said Alfred Morris and Roy Helu Jr. are locks to make the roster, and that everything else after that remains up in the air. That means Evan Royster, Keiland Williams, Chris Thompson and Jawan Jamison are left to vie possibly for one more roster spot.

Williams seemed to overtake Royster, the former All-Met from Westfield, with an impressive performance last week while Royster sat iwith an ankle injury. Both are expected to see time tonight. Of all the backs behind Morris, Royster is probably best suited to start if something happened to No. 46. But he isn’t powerful, lacks breakaway speed and isn’t consistent as a third-down back.

Williams offers decent pass protection ability to go with receiving skills, and probably is the better special teams player. Meanwhile, Thompson must show he can hold onto the football after fumbling in back-to-back weeks. And, can he run between the tackles with effectiveness? Jamison’s opportunities have been few. Will he get one last shot to impress coaches?

3. Punt return duties: Thompson can help himself out in this department. With Richard Crawford out, the Redskins need a punt returner. If he can produce a couple more nice returns, Thompson might be able to convince coaches to carry four running backs. Meanwhile, wide receiver Skye Dawson also has auditioned for this job. Santana Moss could be the best option, but he isn’t expected to play. Coaches know what they have in him anyway. Undrafted rookie Nick Williams has yet to field a punt in a game, but also would welcome the opportunity to do so and prove his worth with cut-down day approaching.

4. Nick Barnett’s play: The 10-year veteran inside linebacker is expected to continue his acclimation to Washington’s defense, and should play a fair amount with starting ‘mike’ linebacker London Fletcher receiving the night off. Barnett grasps the concepts of the defense, and has good instincts, but he was admittedly slowed down last week because he isn’t yet completely comfortable.

Tonight will afford him another opportunity to gain more experience as he re-acclimates himself to the role he played in Green Bay’s defense three years ago. Bryan Kehl has the ability to play both inside linebacker spots and could be competing with Barnett for a job. But it seems more likely that those two veterans make the team and give Washington a strong veteran backup tandem.

They’re not the only candidates. Will Compton, an undrafted rookie out of Nebraska, has done well in the preseason with 11 tackles while seeing action on the second and third teams.

5. Bubble players: Don’t tell any of the young players battling for a job that this final preseason game isn’t important. This represents their final chance to impress coaches and prove to them that they deserve a spot on the 53-man roster. These players are also showcasing their talents to the other 31 teams in the league. If things don’t work out in Washington, perhaps some other team will snatch them up.

We’ve already mentioned Thompson, Royster, Dawson, Keiland Williams and Nick Williams and Compton. But a couple of young guys on defense that coaches want to get a long look at are cornerback Jerome Murphy and safety Jose Gumbs. Jim Haslett spoke highly of both young DBs on Tuesday. Of Murphy, he said, “He’s tough. He’s physical. He’s got a little mean streak. He’s got great speed. He understands what we’re doing now.”

Washington added Murphy with five games left in the season in 2012, and he basically had to feel his way along. Now, with the cornerback ranks thinner after Crawford’s injury, he has a chance to earn a spot on the 53.

Of Gumbs, whom Raheem Morris affectionately calls “Gummy bear,” Haslett said, “He’s got pure football intelligence. The kid has a good feel for the ball, a nose for it. He’ll throw his body around. Pretty good understanding of the scheme for being here a minimal time, and he’s one of those guys that we’re going to get good evaluation of this week.”

In years past, we’ve seen apparent roster long shots turn in strong performances in the final week of the preseason and force his way onto the team. Who will it be this year?

Mike Jones covers the Washington Redskins for The Washington Post. When not writing about a Redskins development of some kind – which is rare – he can be found screaming and cheering at one of his kids’ softball, baseball, soccer or basketball games.
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Mike Jones · August 28, 2013

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