Young Redskins defensive backs still have a lot to learn

August 8, 2013

The education of Washington Redskins rookie defensive backs Bacarri Rambo, David Amerson and Phillip Thomas continued Thursday night in a preseason opener here. The group definitely needs more study time — especially Rambo.

A standout in training camp, Rambo had a rough NFL debut in the Redskins’ 22-21 victory over the Titans at LP Field. Titans running back Chris Johnson toyed with Rambo on a long touchdown run, and then Rambo committed a personal foul on Shonn Greene’s touchdown run. Those aren’t the type of first-quarter highlights Redskins coaches like to see.

Amerson and Thomas didn’t have memorable performances, either. Amerson broke up a pass that he could have intercepted. Thomas’s night ended after he suffered a foot injury in the first quarter and sat out the rest of the game. At least Amerson and Thomas avoided the bad marks Rambo received. Fortunately for Coach Mike Shanahan, other players earned good grades.

As expected, star quarterback Robert Griffin III sat out as the team proceeds cautiously in his return from knee surgery. Once again, backup quarterback Kirk Cousins made the most of an opportunity in a brief-but-sharp outing. Tight end Fred Davis and outside linebacker Brian Orakpo, sidelined most of last season with injuries, provided reason for encouragement by making big plays.

There was a lot to evaluate as Washington played the first of its four preseason games before kicking off the season. The secondary is a good place to start.

The Post Sports Live crew tries to make sense of Mike Shanahan's comments about the "different game plan" for quarterback Robert Griffin III's recovery. (The Washington Post)
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Rambo had no chance against Johnson — possibly the NFL’s fastest player — on Johnson’s 58-yard sprint to the end zone. Like a point guard who makes a defender dizzy with a wicked crossover dribble, Johnson juked Rambo in the open field and went untouched for the score.

Orakpo’s missed tackle resulted in Rambo being isolated with Johnson. That’s a bad matchup for a Pro Bowl safety, let alone a sixth-round draft pick in the first quarter of his career.

Adjusting to the speed of the game is among the most difficult things for rookies in their transition to the NFL. It was clear Rambo was overmatched from the moment Johnson broke through the line of scrimmage. Could Rambo have taken a better angle in pursuit? Possibly. Hopefully for Rambo and the Redskins, Rambo will review the game tape and learn something that could help him in a similar situation in the future.

But the preseason, especially for rookies, is about learning. Redskins coaches have seen enough of Rambo in practice — no safety on the roster has better range — to list him as the starter at one safety spot. They’re not going to give up on Rambo after his difficult opener.

Captain Kirk

Cousins proved himself last season in leading the Redskins to a victory in relief and as a starter while playing in place of Griffin. Coach Mike Shanahan and his son, Kyle, Washington’s play-caller coordinator, believe the Redskins’ offense would be equally effective if Cousins had to play for a long stretch — or an entire season.

Clearly, the second-year player now has complete command of everything the Shanahans have asked him to do. Whether operating in the shotgun or from under center, Cousins displays a confidence in the pocket that should be comforting to the coaching staff as Griffin strives to take over in the season opener.

In the big picture, Cousins’s stats — six completions in seven attempts, 52 yards and a three-yard touchdown to Davis — really aren’t important. What does matter, however, is that Cousins possesses an impressive combination of skills and smarts. The Redskins have a great insurance policy at the game’s most important position

Against the Titans’ first-team defense, Cousins displayed poised against the rush while cycling through his possessions. He showed off his arm strength on a 15-yard sideline pass to Aldrick Robinson.

Later in the drive, he located Davis in the back of the end zone for the touchdown pass. Cousins waited for Davis to break from coverage and then made the right decision.

Griffin is all in on playing Sept. 9 against Philadelphia. He wants to take back control of the Redskins as soon as possible. If for some reason Griffin suffers a setback, however, Cousins appears ready to take a big step forward.

Rak and Fast Freddy

Okay, Orakpo’s missed tackle on Johnson contributed to Rambo looking silly. But Orakpo fared well for a guy playing in his first game since Week 2 of the 2012 season.

On the Titans’ second series, Orakpo pressured quarterback Jake Locker, helping outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan record a sack on the play. On Tennessee’s third series, Orakpo used a speed rush to beat tackle Michael Roos to record the sack.

Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett is counting on Orakpo to significantly improve the Redskins’ pass rush, which wasn’t among the defense’s strengths last season. Knowing Haslett, he liked what he saw Thursday.

Kyle Shanahan is counting on Davis, who is a difference-maker in the midrange passing game. Davis possesses the speed to create mismatches against many linebackers, and Shanahan makes the most of mismatches in his play-calling.

The Takeway

The Redskins know there’s no point in getting too excited or disappointed about anything that happens in the preseason. There’s plenty of time to fix problems and improve on what worked well in the opener. One game is finished, and the Redskins still have a lot of work to do.

For more by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.

Jason Reid is a sports columnist with the Washington Post. He joined the Post’s Redskins team in 2007 after 15 years covering many beats at the Los Angeles Times.
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