On Washington Redskins’ list of problems on defense, it’s safety first

The Post Sports Live crew suggests changes the Redskins should consider during the bye week if they lose to the Oakland Raiders on Sunday. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)
September 27, 2013

The Washington Redskins selected two safeties, Phillip Thomas and Bacarri Rambo, in April’s draft, hoping the rookie duo would combine with veteran Brandon Meriweather’s return to the lineup to bring some elusive stability to the position.

But Thomas suffered a season-ending Lisfranc mid-foot injury during the preseason, and Rambo finds himself trying to work his way back into the playing rotation after being benched just two games into his NFL career. With the Redskins off to an 0-3 start entering Sunday’s game at Oakland after allowing opponents to pile up yards at a dizzying rate, the safety spots again are highly unsettled.

The Redskins, in fact, have made creative attempts to de-emphasize their safety play in two of their first three games. In their season-opening loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, with Meriweather sidelined by a groin injury, the Redskins used a cornerback, E.J. Biggers, alongside Rambo at safety. During last Sunday’s loss to the Detroit Lions, the Redskins went to an alignment with only one safety (Meriweather) to go with cornerbacks DeAngelo Hall, Josh Wilson and David Amerson.

The team’s coaches had game-planning reasons in both cases. The Redskins wanted to utilize Biggers’s speed to combat Philadelphia’s fast-paced offense, and they wanted to keep their usual defensive front seven on the field against the Lions to slow down the running game while still having three cornerbacks to deal with three-wide-receiver formations.

Regardless, the trend seems to be an indictment, at least to some degree, of the team’s safeties. Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett was evasive on that topic this week. Asked Thursday whether the unusual setups have been more attributable to game circumstances or to the team’s safety situation, Haslett said: “That’s something you’ve got to kind of figure out.”

The Post Sports Live crew debates whether the Redskins historically-poor defense or Robert Griffin III's level of play is the bigger concern for the team. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)

Haslett also said: “We just tried to utilize our players based on what they [opponents] come out in and what kind of personnel they’re using. I think we have some flexibility with the secondary. Some safeties can play corner and vice versa. We just try to utilize our players the best we can to give us our best matchup.”

There have been no promises by the coaches that Rambo will return to a prominent role this weekend. The coaching staff clearly wants to see more from the sixth-round pick from Georgia. Coach Mike Shanahan said early in the week that he wants to see Rambo take advantage of the opportunities he’s given. Rambo said the message has been received.

“It’s just gonna bring the best out of me,” the rookie said at midweek. “I’m just gonna get out there and just work harder and [it’s] just making me stronger.”

Rambo had moved ahead of Thomas, a fourth-round choice from Fresno State, during offseason practices and training camp, and Thomas’s injury intensified the need for the Redskins to rely on Rambo right away. But he struggled at times with his tackling, and now it’s unclear when or if he’ll reclaim his job.

“It was very difficult,” Rambo said. “I just let the coaches coach and I’m gonna just go out there and play. . . . I was very surprised. But like I said, it was just based on the personnel and the type of offense Detroit ran that it was best for the team and the defense to have three corners on the field.”

Haslett expressed confidence in Rambo’s long-term development, saying: “We feel good about Bacarri and his progress, and he’s going to be a good football player.”

But asked whether Rambo will play this week, Haslett said, “I don’t know. We’ll base everything off practice and what we’re doing.”

The good news for the Redskins is that Meriweather, a free-agent addition prior to last season, has played two straight games for the first time in his injury-filled tenure with the team. He apparently remains on course to play Sunday when the Redskins might face Raiders backup quarterback Matt Flynn, who could start if Terrelle Pryor is sidelined after suffering a concussion Monday night. The Redskins desperately need a defensive turnaround after yielding 1,464 yards in their first three games. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, that’s the most that an NFL team has permitted in the first three games of a season since 1966.

“What it really comes down to is just a collection of guys doing their job play in and play out, being on the same page and executing on game day,” Redskins nose tackle Barry Cofield said this week. “That’s got to be the plan. And until we get that done, we won’t win.”

Mark Maske covers the NFL for The Washington Post.
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