While days drain away in the monotony of self-isolation, two Washington Redskins have noticed a spark of optimism in the team’s defensive meetings. Good vibes have appeared in the spring before, but this time it feels more real to Jonathan Allen, a fourth-year defensive tackle, and Landon Collins, a veteran strong safety.

“It feels different because of the coaching staff,” Collins said. “We have changed the whole coaching staff and have switched the defense around. I can’t speak for everyone, but it was much needed. When I talk about concepts and rules, set-in-stone things that need to happen within a defense, this defense has it all.”

Collins’s confidence is inspired by tangible examples of progress: the new coaching staff, the rebuilt secondary, the addition of No. 2 pick Chase Young and the transition from a 3-4 base defense to a 4-3. The brook of positivity seems to spill out anytime a player speaks publicly. For Allen, there is something about the daily noon to 2 p.m. meetings that — aside from being “weird” because they take place over Zoom — just feels different.

“Our ceiling has always been as high as we want it to be,” he said, adding that Coach Ron Rivera and the defensive coaches have boosted spirits and reinvigorated players to keep training. “We just have a lot to prove.”

The Redskins know the team’s rebuild starts on defense and that improved performance on that side of the ball is their best chance to win this season. The team’s offensive rebuild remains in progress, and it’s unlikely the offense will be relied upon to win many shootouts. This puts pressure on the defense because last season, with a similarly talented unit, the Redskins ranked sixth worst in the NFL in points (27.2) and yards (385.1) allowed per game.

Improvement won’t come easily. The Redskins’ slate of opposing quarterbacks is unforgiving. It includes the league’s reigning MVP (Lamar Jackson), two Super Bowl winners (Russell Wilson and Ben Roethlisberger) and five No. 1 overall draft picks. The two easiest matchups seem to be with Carolina’s Teddy Bridgewater and the New York Giants’ Daniel Jones, who threw for 352 yards and five touchdowns the last time he faced the Redskins.

To limit those quarterbacks and to upgrade the defense in general, the Redskins need to have better communication. This issue plagued the unit all of last season, from a narrow season-opening loss to the Philadelphia Eagles to a blowout season-closing loss to the Dallas Cowboys. New defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio is responsible for patching the lines of communication, and what his players have seen from his frequent Zoom cameos gives them confidence.

“It’s been nothing short of fantastic,” Allen said of interacting with Del Rio. “He’s just there just talking ball, talking football and just trying to make sure we’re getting on the same page because we want to be able to hit the ground running come training camp.”

It was important for Collins and Allen to express excitement Wednesday. They are cornerstones of the defense, Collins as the unit’s vocal leader and highest-paid player and Allen as the up-and-coming stalwart whose fifth-year option was just picked up by the team. Allen cited Rivera’s arrival as one of the most important factors in fueling anticipation around Redskins Park, and he compared the coach’s demeanor to that of Nick Saban, his college coach at Alabama.

Allen first sensed the similarity shortly after Rivera was hired. Allen and his wife, Hannah, took Rivera and his wife, Stephanie, to dinner at the upscale DC Prime restaurant near the team’s facility in Ashburn. He felt it again as the two started texting regularly and saw it again Monday in the Redskins’ first full-team meeting of the offseason.

“That meeting was very stern and straight to the point,” Allen said. “He was telling us his expectations of the team and where he wants to go with us and what he’s looking for once we all get together. It was very, very good.”

Rivera has chosen his words carefully this offseason. He has established expectations for steady improvement, not necessarily an immediate turnaround. If Rivera is right and the Redskins take a step forward this season, it will probably be because of the defense led by a standout on the line and in the secondary.

“I am looking forward to [it],” Collins said of the season. “I don’t see why we don’t have that breakout year that we want.”

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