There aren’t many questions about the front end of Washington’s defense, but the back end is less stable. In the secondary in particular, there are new veterans mixed with guys coming off injuries and youngsters expected to take a step forward. With training camp set to open in Richmond in late July, let’s look at four questions facing a defense that finished 17th in yards allowed last season and has the potential to be much better.
Can the secondary take a step forward?
The Redskins’ pass defense finished 2018 ranked 15th, allowing 237.1 yards per game. Starting cornerback Quinton Dunbar missed nine games to injury, which required rookies Greg Stroman and Danny Johnson to learn on the job.
There were even more issues at safety, including season-long conflicts involving D.J. Swearinger Sr., who was cut before the final game. Safety Montae Nicholson, who was playing well early in the season, was replaced by Ha Ha Clinton-Dix after a midseason trade. Clinton-Dix, who is now with the Chicago Bears, was average, and Nicholson finished the season on the reserve/non-football illness list after being arrested following a bar fight. (Charges were eventually dropped.)
The secondary should be upgraded if its main members can stay healthy. Three-time Pro Bowl safety Landon Collins signed an $84 million deal in free agency. Dunbar was having the best year of his career before the injury. Coach Jay Gruden called cornerback Fabian Moreau, who operated out of the slot much of last season, one of the most improved players during offseason workouts. Stroman and Johnson should be better in their second years. The team also added Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. Josh Norman is back and, despite the criticism about the size of his contract, remains a quality starter in this league.
Will Jimmy Moreland get significant playing time?
Every year and on every team a new, young player grabs attention with an unexpected performance during spring and summer workouts. This year, for the Redskins, that player was Moreland. The cornerback, a seventh-round pick, had three interceptions during a single workout and showed a flair for the dramatic. He even got into some friendly banter with Gruden. Moreland is known for his speed and ball skills, which were evident while he snagged a school-record 18 career interceptions at James Madison.
While many of those offseason workout warriors fade away, it would be presumptuous to think Moreland won’t get an opportunity to earn a role in Washington. Yes, he has to make the roster first, but Stroman (a seventh-round pick) and Johnson (an undrafted rookie) saw major playing time in the secondary as rookies. Defensive coordinator Greg Manusky said Moreland reminds him of former Redskins cornerback Kendall Fuller “a little bit,” and Gruden praised his knowledge of route concepts.
Can Troy Apke make an impact at safety?
Second-year safety Troy Apke had a challenging rookie season, failing to stand out in offseason workouts after being drafted in the fourth round and only playing two games because of a lingering hamstring issue that landed him on injured reserve. Despite the injury, Manusky wanted him in meetings to learn Washington’s defensive scheme. The coordinator said Apke is in the second year of a three-year transition in which he is learning the entire defense as opposed to just his individual responsibilities.
There were concerns about Apke’s feel for the position when he was drafted; he was best known for his 4.34-second speed in the 40-yard dash. The coaching staff continues to have faith.
“If something breaks through, you’ve got to make those plays on the back end, and I think he’s one of those players that can make plays in space when the running back is coming,” Manusky said. “… Right now we’re still judging every player, but overall I like where [Apke] is at."
What impact will new assistant coaches Rob Ryan and Ray Horton have?
If experience is life’s greatest teacher, the Redskins’ defensive coaches have it in spades. The offseason included the arrival of former defensive coordinators Rob Ryan and Ray Horton to coach the inside linebackers and secondary, respectively.
Ryan has a pair of Super Bowl rings from coaching linebackers with the New England Patriots and led one of the top defenses in the league with the New Orleans Saints in 2013. Horton has had four stints as a defensive coordinator and was on staff for two Super Bowl wins by the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The past doesn’t necessarily determine future success, but the defensive side of the ball has multiple coaches, including former San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Tomsula, who were once considered near the top of the profession.
“I think it’s the old over-50 gang, you know, pretty much all of us, a lot of old guys,” Manusky said. “Pretty much the best thing about it is just shooting ideas back and forth with what Ray has done in the past and the same thing with Rob, going back and forth on certain situations. It could be in a two-minute situation, it could be in red zone, but … it has been pretty cool sitting down and talking with them.”