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Redskins mailbag: The state of the secondary and more

David Amerson, right, recorded two interceptions as a rookie. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press)

All is quiet at Redskins Park as players and coaches enjoy some time away before gearing up for training camp in a few weeks.

They’re not the only ones benefitting from some down time. I got a much-needed break last week, but am back in the loop this week and digging back into the mailbag and going over your Redskins questions.

Today we take a look at where things stand in the secondary, we evaluate some of the offseason moves, and also examine how things work for the quarterback in the area of film study and protection calls.

Thanks as always for taking part.

Here we go!

How confident are you in our defensive situation? David Amerson had a bunch of bright moments last season and Bashaud Breeland has the beef to excel in the slot. Plus we still have DeAngelo Hall and Tracy Porter. Also, both of our starting safeties are aging and are on one-year deals. How do you see those positions playing out in the near future?

– Eli Bookstaber

I don’t think I’d describe my overall confidence level in this secondary as high at this point. Too many questions still remain unanswered. Coaches and teammates say that Amerson has greatly improved as he enters his second season. He will start opposite DeAngelo Hall. With his length and athleticism, he seems to have the ability to give receivers problems. He has to remain disciplined in coverage, and improve his consistency in the run game, though. The fact that he had a good offseason is a positive, but the true test will come during the preseason, when he’s going against an unfamiliar opponent and unfamiliar offense.

Hall is coming off of his best year and is entering his 11th NFL season, but the Redskins believe the 30-year-old can continue to play at a high level. He looked good in offseason practices, as he and DeSean Jackson went head-to-head a number of times. The plan is for Hall and Amerson to share the duties of covering the top targets, depending on where the receivers line up rather than for Hall to follow pass-catchers all over the field as he did last season.

The big questions begin after there. Tracy Porter and E.J. Biggers will compete for the nickel back duties. Porter has spent the offseason rehabbing from shoulder surgery, so this competition will not begin in earnest until training camp. Coaches believe that Breeland will likely spend this season learning and contributing primarily on special teams, and that his time will more realistically come next year. It remains to be seen where Richard Crawford and Chase Minnifield fit into the plans.

Safety would seem to be slightly improved over last season. Brandon Meriweather is now two years removed from anterior cruciate ligament surgery, and the addition of Ryan Clark means Meriweather can go back to his natural position of strong safety. Clark is a seasoned, savvy veteran, and coaches see him as an upgrade over the departed Reed Doughty. They also think he, even at the age of 34 — he’ll turn 35 in October — is a better option than second-year pro Bacarri Rambo, who still is learning the position. But, as you mentioned, both safeties are on one-year deals. So, long-term, the Redskins have lingering questions. Can Phillip Thomas fill in here and there while playing catch-up after a year lost to injury, and in the process prepare to take over at strong safety next year? Are Rambo’s tackling woes correctable so he can take over at free safety next year? Can either young safety play well on special teams in the meantime? And then there’s Tanard Jackson. He’s trying to shake off two years of rust thanks to drug suspensions. If he manages to do so, will he squeeze Rambo out of a roster spot? Can he stay out of trouble?

I’m curious. When NFL players are watching film, aren’t they watching a high-elevation picture of the plays? The reason I ask is, how does that help a quarterback recognize defenses? That is to say, the quarterback doesn’t have a bird’s eye view of the defense when he goes under center, so how does that help him?

– Tom Lloyd

The game film, and most of the practice film, is indeed recorded from up above, giving players a full view of the field. This offseason, the Redskins did have a camera set up at a lower vantage point behind the line of scrimmage and filming downfield. It’s still elevated, but from a view that’s closer to the quarterback’s. But, the aerial shots are still extremely beneficial even though it’s from a bird’s eye view. A quarterback – as well as other players – can still tell where opponents line up, how plays unfold, how defensive backs react, where the pass rush comes from and more. It’s kind of like how you look at a map, or nowadays, Google Maps. It’s all laid out from up above so you can see how the whole route plays out. The view changes, but you still are mindful of what’s up ahead. It’s the same way on a football field.

Pro Football Focus graded Washington’s new starting right guard Shawn Lauvao, re-signed starting strong safety Brandon Merriweather, and new nickel cornerback Tracy Porter as “poor starters.” Why on earth did Washington sign/re-sign these guys?

– David Ellis

Well, first off, you have to be mindful that while some of their analytics are interesting, you have to take some of the information on ProFootballFocus with a grain of salt. The breakdowns aren’t done by people who talk to coaches, players or team officials to gain informed opinions. They have their own evaluation system that they’ve come up with. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. At one point last year, they had Tyler Polumbus rated as Washington’s best offensive lineman. I’m sorry, and no offense to Polumbus, but that’s just not accurate. The snap counts and targets and things like that are interesting. But then there are other things like blown assignments that are impossible to know without going straight to the source. There have been many times where I see something – like a blown coverage as a cornerback apparently gets beat by a double-move. But then, once you ask players and coaches about the play, you find out, ‘Oh, yeah, the cornerback was there, but after the double-move, a safety was supposed to pick up that receiver, and the cornerback had released the wideout to the help over the top that actually blew the play because he wasn’t in the neighborhood as he should have.’ Or, maybe one offensive lineman appeared to be out of position and let a linebacker run through untouched, and you later find out that the wrong protection was called out, or something was misidentified pre-snap. I’m going off on a bunny trail here, but you get the point. It’s an assessment, or a point of view, but not gospel. I wouldn’t rate Meriweather as a “poor starter.” He gets himself into trouble by leading with his head, but when used properly, he is a serviceable starter. I’m very curious to see how he does this year now that he can go back to playing strong safety, and because he’s a second year removed from knee surgery and should have more explosiveness in his legs. I’m not saying he’s going to put up Pro Bowl numbers, but he isn’t what I would rate as “poor.” Even while playing out of position at free safety, he was much better than Madieu Williams or O.J. Atogwe at that spot a few years ago. Those were what I would rate as “poor starters.” As far as Lauvao goes, I still need to see more. I do know Browns officials were very disappointed in him and thus let him depart via free agency. And Washington didn’t sign Porter to start. They want him to compete for the nickel-back job. He has had some solid play over the course of his career, but he seemingly can never stay healthy. When I talked to him earlier this offseason, Raiders coach Dennis Allen, who worked with Porter both in Oakland and New Orleans, described Porter as a smart, versatile player, but unlucky when it comes to injury. Can Porter be a serviceable backup corner, as Washington brass hopes? It’s definitely possible.

As we go into the dead part of the oncoming season and before Training Camp begins, I’m hoping you can answer a few questions regarding the responsibilities of everyone prior to each play. First, in light of the knock against RGIII last season (his inability to read defenses and change plays at the line of scrimmage), did Jay Gruden work on improving that aspect of RGIII’s game during the OTAs? Second, who really runs the offense and changes the protection prior to each play? Some say it is the QB’s job while I also hear people talking about the center calls or changes these protections. Whose call is it really? 

– Olufemi Adepoju

While Griffin did at times struggle with recognition as defenses worked to confuse him in the secondary, he wasn’t allowed to change plays at the line. The Redskins had rules in place that dictated, ‘if you get a certain look, then switch to this,’ but Kyle Shanahan didn’t give Griffin the freedom to call audibles, as he will be permitted to do this year. Griffin, Gruden and Sean McVay have all been working this offseason to help the young quarterback improve in all aspects of his game – including reading defenses. As far as calling out protections, this is a team effort. The center does call out assignments for his linemates as they get to the line. The quarterback then may make calls regarding things he sees with the linebackers, or further downfield.

Have a Redskins question? Send an e-mail to with the subject line “Mailbag question,” and it might be answered on Tuesday in The Mailbag.

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