Late on Thursday night, long after the Washington Redskins’ third preseason game had finished, cornerback Josh Norman stood in the locker room of Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium talking about his teammates in the secondary.
“This is the best one I’ve had,” he declared, before quickly adding “here” as in Washington.
Then he paused.
“We’ll get to the point where it could be all time.”
For most of the 3 ½ years since Norman signed as a free agent from Carolina, he has appeared frustrated by the Redskins’ defense. The Panthers had one of the NFL’s top defenses in his time there. But on Thursday, after Washington’s first-team defense again dominated, Norman seemed to believe he is part of a unit that can be very good — and the sensation made him laugh as he stood by his locker.
“It’s because we’re much more closer than we ever have been before,” he said.
Why, he was asked.
Norman nodded toward Landon Collins, the star safety who came over from the Giants as a free agent this winter.
“It’s just because we got guys in here that know how to play the game,” he said. “We got guys who are not so …"
He stopped for a moment, trying to choose the right word.
“Boisterous,” he finally said. “You know what I’m saying? They let guys do their thing.”
Norman’s selection of the word “boisterous” seemed to be a vague reference to the safety who isn’t with the Redskins anymore. He and D.J. Swearinger didn’t always get along, with some around the team saying Swearinger’s outbursts of criticism toward the team’s practice habits were directed at Norman. Coach Jay Gruden cut Swearinger during last season’s final week, days after Swearinger blamed defensive coordinator Greg Manusky for a late-game loss at Tennessee. Some players have privately complained that Swearinger, despite being a talented player, sometimes played outside of the system, causing the defense to break down.
On Thursday, Norman didn’t identify Swearinger by name, but his constant nods toward Collins and references to the leadership he believes Collins has brought, appeared to amplify his point.
“You play with him, it’s a difference, all the way around,” Norman said of Collins.
Then Norman turned and pointed toward the team’s other starting safety, Montae Nicholson, who was dressing in the locker on the other side of him.
“And [Collins] just makes him better,” Norman said.
Nicholson, who missed the final two games last season after an arrest for a late-night fight outside an Ashburn bar, has played well in training camp and in the preseason.
“He just got back here wanting to be better, and you see that, and it’s just yesssss,” Norman said about Nicholson.
Then Norman started to talk about that night’s game, one in which the starting defense gave up 112 yards to the Falcons’ starting offense and forced Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan to scramble and throw off balance for much of the first half.
“It looked exactly like what it was supposed to,” Norman said of the starting defense. “I am finally starting to feel [at] home here.”
He laughed again.
“I’ve been trying over and over again to get the right people in place, the right fixes, and I’m finally starting to [see it work],” he said.
Norman became the highest-paid cornerback in the league when he signed a five-year, $75 million contract two days after being released by Carolina in a salary dispute. At the time, he was coming of an all-pro season in which he returned two interceptions for touchdowns and helped lead the Panthers to a Super Bowl berth.
Norman hasn’t been the same player in Washington, though he has six interceptions and seven forced fumbles in his time with the Redskins. This past spring, Gruden said Norman hadn’t played to the level the team had hoped, saying it “would be far-fetched” to say Norman was the NFL’s best cornerback the past three years. But Gruden did add that he was happy to have Norman, nonetheless.
On Thursday, Norman said he was happy to be on this Redskins defense, suggesting that a culture in which the defensive linemen appear closer than ever and the defensive backs play cards in the locker room each day has made the group better than at any point in his time in Washington.
“It’s like there are people that are hungry to be in on this defense and [who are] making plays,” he said. “They want to show out, they want to show themselves, they want an opportunity to be on the first team, and we haven’t had that before. And we hadn’t had that before.”
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