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Washington’s secondary has quickly gone from a question mark to a possible strength

Given the defensive backs' solid play early in training camp, Ron Rivera has gained confidence in the group. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
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Earlier in the summer, when he could evaluate his team only over Zoom, Washington Football Team Coach Ron Rivera was asked what he most wanted to see on the field. He cited depth in the secondary as one of his pressing questions, and though he thought the players were solid, he was unsure how they fit together.

Now, three weeks into training camp, the secondary is one of the position groups he’s most pleased with. During a recent conversation with director of pro personnel Eric Stokes and assistant defensive backs coach Richard Rodgers, Rivera said this group of defensive backs “is better than some of the groups we had in Carolina, especially during our run from 2013 to 2017.”

In 2013, the Panthers’ defense ranked second in the NFL. In 2015, it was sixth.

“We’ve been able to accomplish communicating,” said cornerback Ronald Darby, identifying a problem that has plagued Washington’s secondary for years. “To be out there and be able to communicate and have people coming at you at full speed — we’ve been able to do a good job at that.”

After Rivera’s outburst over poor effort Saturday, his team responded Sunday. Players maintained good tempo through the second day of this challenging, three-day stretch of practices in pads — and the defensive backs played no small role in that. They mirrored defensive backs coach Chris Harris, who flew around the field, asking defensive backs who dropped interceptions, “Do you not like nice things?”

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The progress, though, was overshadowed by a concerning development. On Sunday morning, several other teams interrupted their practice schedules because of positive test results for the novel coronavirus processed by a lab in New Jersey. While Washington doesn’t use the same lab, the scare underscored the fragility of playing professional sports during a pandemic and sharpened Rivera’s resolve to avoid an outbreak here.

“We do pay attention to what’s happening [around the league and] in other leagues,” Rivera said. “We’ll put examples up for our players to see: ‘Don’t be this team. Don’t be this guy. Let’s try to be smart.’ ”

In the defensive backfield, Washington feels confident it has identified its top five or six safeties — led by Landon Collins at strong safety — as well as its top five cornerbacks: Kendall Fuller, Fabian Moreau, Jimmy Moreland, Aaron Colvin and Darby. Fuller is likely to start outside in the base defense and could slide inside for sub packages. Slot cornerback is seen as his strong suit, and it’s what he mostly played in Kansas City.

In sub packages, Moreau and Darby have emerged as the top two outside options. But Moreland will push for a spot; he has played inside and outside early in camp, and though Rivera said he can be inconsistent, he has impressed. Washington wants its cornerbacks to play with “tremendous vision,” and Rivera pointed out that’s how former Washington and Carolina standout Josh Norman became one of the NFL’s best.

“[The coaches have] put our guys in a position where they can use their vision,” Rivera said. “They play with disciplined eyes; they give themselves a chance to make plays. That’s one of the things that we’re stressing — that you play with discipline.”

The flash of a young cornerback such as Greg Stroman, who snagged interceptions Friday and Saturday, bolsters the unit’s depth. It also helps Washington prepare for the future: Moreau, Darby and Colvin will be free agents in the offseason, and Rivera has emphasized the importance of continuity.

“In the next few years, you [want to] have the same few guys coming in and out of each season,” he said. “That builds the cohesiveness that you need to be a really good secondary.”

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While the scheme of defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio is new to all of them, it presents a different challenge to Darby, an injury-prone 26-year-old who signed a one-year, $4 million flier this offseason. The former Philadelphia Eagle has played his entire career in mostly man-to-man coverage, and though this defense will mix in more zone, Darby liked the aggressiveness enough to sign with Washington.

If Darby can remain healthy, it would help a Washington defense otherwise lacking elite speed. The team is clearly searching for plus traits — consider the extended audition for super athletic Troy Apke at free safety — and Darby’s legs could fit. He, like many others, praised Del Rio’s scheme for enabling its players to adjust on the field in hopes of making a play.

“You can have your eyes back on the quarterback on certain things,” Darby said. “I love [the scheme] a lot. And you’ve got the front that we have, which will cause pressure. You can make a lot of plays on this defense.”

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