Washington Redskins pass defense hindered by instability at safety

October 5, 2012

The Washington Redskins had an offseason plan for remaking their secondary that included bringing in veteran safeties Brandon Meriweather and Tanard Jackson as their likely starters at the position.

But things haven’t gone as scripted, with Meriweather hurt and Jackson serving a suspension by the NFL for violating the sport’s substance abuse policy. The Redskins again are left patching together a lineup at safety to face the unbeaten Atlanta Falcons and their highly productive quarterback, Matt Ryan, Sunday at FedEx Field.

This season’s instability at safety has continued an unwelcome trend in recent years for the Redskins, who have been unable to find the right players to settle in as lineup fixtures at those two spots.

“I’ve been here two years and I think that’s just the norm,” cornerback Josh Wilson said this week. “The next guy comes up. I’ve learned not to learn names or numbers and just say, ‘Hey, guy.’ It’s what we’ve kind of, unfortunately, had to get used to around here. Once we get some stability, I’ll start remembering names again.”

The Redskins signed Meriweather, Jackson and fellow veteran Madieu Williams as free agents in the offseason. Meriweather and Williams practiced with the starters throughout training camp as Jackson spent the offseason working his way back from shoulder surgery, then began camp on the physically unable to perform list because of a calf injury. Even so, the Redskins seemed to be leaving open the possibility of Jackson earning a starting job for the regular season alongside Meriweather.

But it didn’t happen. Just before the season, Jackson was suspended for at least a year. Meriweather injured his left knee in the second preseason game at Chicago. The Redskins planned for him to return for the season opener in New Orleans, but he re-injured his knee in practice six days before that game. The Redskins again were set for him to return last Sunday at Tampa, but he hurt his knee yet again in a collision with wide receiver Aldrick Robinson during pregame warmups.

With rookie safety Jordan Bernstine on the injured reserve list, the Redskins have been severely tested at the position.

“It’s crazy this year because I thought we had more depth at that position than any position that we had,” Coach Mike Shanahan said. “We had six guys that I thought would make this football team. I liked all six of them. To lose three guys like we have is quite unusual. So [it’s a] good thing we did have depth at that position. . . . We still have guys that can play and we expect them to play at a very high level.”

Meriweather has damage to the medial collateral and posterior cruciate ligaments in his knee and is to miss Sunday’s game. The Redskins say they expect to know next week how long he will be sidelined. His absence has been particularly hurtful to the defense, the Redskins say.

“The other day we knew Meriweather was going to play,” defensive coordinator Jim Haslett said. “We had a lot of plans for him, a lot of things to do. He actually becomes our third corner in a lot of situations. So we had to scrap all that stuff. You’re sitting in the locker room crossing things off and thinking of things you can do. . . . Meriweather has great strengths because he’s an ex-corner that can play coverage.”

The Redskins had Reed Doughty start at safety alongside Williams in their 24-22 triumph over the Buccaneers. DeJon Gomes had started the first three games with Williams.

“We just thought Reed deserved an opportunity,” Haslett said. “Nothing against DJ but we’re trying to find the right combinations, obviously.”

Doughty contributed to the Redskins holding an opposing quarterback below 300 passing yards for the first time this season. But the Buccaneers’ Josh Freeman missed that mark by only a yard, throwing for 299 yards and nearly orchestrating a comeback victory with a pair of long completions in the second half that led to touchdowns.

“I’m really just going out there trying to take care of my part of the game, not do anything too big and give our team an opportunity to win each and every week — take care of my game in the run game, the passing game, whatever it is, not give up big plays,” Doughty said.

The Falcons come to town with Ryan as the league’s top-rated passer.

“The biggest key is to win,” Wilson said. “At the end of the day, we can have the game of our lives, shut them down to not passing for a yard. But if we lose, no one cares. We can give up 1,000 yards in one game but if you get a win. . . no one cares. So at the end of the day, it’s just about figuring out a way to come out of here the same way we did last week with a win.”

Mark Maske covers the NFL for The Washington Post.
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