Free safety Montae Nicholson looked over at strong safety Landon Collins and adjusted a few steps. The Washington Redskins rarely, if ever, disguised coverages last season, so Nicholson spent Thursday’s preseason game against the Cincinnati Bengals figuring out how to best implement them at game speed.
He has leaned on Collins, who regularly disguised coverages last season with the New York Giants, and the tandem manning the back line of Washington’s defense has honed its communication and positioning, all with the intent of confusing opposing quarterbacks.
“He’s bringing me along in that regard,” Nicholson said. “It’s all about being comfortable.”
The Redskins’ strength in the front seven gets deserved praise, but the retooled secondary wants to prove itself as well. The defense allowed 237 passing yards per game last season, 15th in the league, and the defensive backs understand that seamless communication will be crucial to cooling pass-heavy offenses. Key additions, a holistic approach from first-year defensive backs coach Ray Horton and early results on the field have the secondary believing it can make a jump this season.
On Thursday, if penalties are excluded, the first-team defense yielded zero first downs to the Bengals’ offense across three series.
“Things change when you are in a real game and [not] a practice field,” cornerback Quinton Dunbar said. “Just to see [the new approach] traveled over from practice to the game is outstanding.”
The perfect illustration of the two defensive units meshing came on the first drive of the Redskins’ second preseason game. Three penalties backed the Redskins into the red zone, and the Bengals seemed about to score.
Then quarterback Andy Dalton threw a pass over the middle, and Nicholson broke on it. Redskins defensive lineman Daron Payne’s hand rose up, batting the ball straight up into the air, where it fell into the arms of Nicholson, who sprinted 96 yards for the touchdown.
It was, other than rookie quarterback Dwayne Haskins’s first professional touchdown pass, the highlight of the night.
Underneath it, defensive backs saw it as an example of what their new coach had preached all offseason: Learn what your teammate is doing. The Redskins hired Horton after the veteran defensive coordinator had been fired by the Cleveland Browns after the 2016 season and spent two seasons out of football. Now, in the meeting room, Horton schools defensive backs on grasping the assignments of every defensive player on every play. Less memorization, more comprehension.
Still, knowing what to do can get tricky because the defense sometimes has two or three calls on the field at one time to counter whatever the offense does. To avert potential confusion, Horton empowered Nicholson and/or Collins to set the secondary on each play.
“It's going pretty smoothly,” Nicholson said of his communication with Collins. “I'm not surprised, but it's actually going very smooth. It's kind of natural, very organic.”
Nicholson said he thinks Collins’s leadership style — “he doesn’t say much unless he has to” — has rubbed off on others. Dunbar said defenders feel more “comfortable” with those two behind them, knowing that they are there as a last line of defense. He added that all of the team’s defensive backs have learned each other’s roles.
“The difference this year is we actually know what's going on,” Dunbar said. “We have corners who can make the calls, who understand [the scheme]. … We all know what each other's doing.”
Part of the reason this idea works is because the Redskins now have the pieces to do it, players said. They singled out 11-year veteran Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, seventh-round draft pick Jimmy Moreland and Collins as valuable new pieces of the puzzle. Cornerback Josh Norman called the defensive backs group — which brought back its top three corners from last season in Norman, Dunbar and Fabian Moreau — the deepest he has experienced “in a good minute.”
“You can plug-and-play because you know [those players] can actually stand up to what they're being asked to do,” Norman said. “We even got Lil Jimmy coming in, and he plays first squad like routinely, [like] he's been here, even though he hasn't. He don't know what he don't know, so we just plug him and play. It's crazy.”
For the Redskins’ secondary, Thursday’s game finished without busted coverages or too many long completions. They considered it a success. Nicholson cautioned that they had work left to do but appreciated what his unit accomplished.
“There’s always something to be improved,” he said. “But I think that, for the first time to be out there altogether, it was pretty good today.”
The Redskins have signed linebacker Gary Johnson, a rookie undrafted free agent who has spent time in the Chiefs and Texans camps. Johnson, a second-team all-Big 12 selection out of Texas, had 90 tackles, including 16.5 for a loss and 6.5 sacks, in his final season with the Longhorns.
The 6-foot, 226-pound Johnson clocked a 4.43 in the 40-yard dash at the NFL combine.
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