Redskins defensive coordinator Greg Manusky, talking to defensive linemen Phil Taylor (99) and Jonathan Allen (95), must get more out of his players than predecessor Joe Barry. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
Columnist

The new Washington Redskins defense is good at inspiring two things right now: competition and rhetoric. If nothing else, it has been sufficient to get the unit through two weeks of training camp.

How does the defense look? Like a bunch of interesting spare parts flying around and vying for the attention of coordinator Greg Manusky. What are the players saying about it? Happy preseason things about getting to play an aggressive style (no one ever brags about wanting to be passive and milquetoast, right?) and trusting that Manusky and his staff will accentuate their strengths. In terms of teaching the system and establishing a standard, Washington has done just fine during the rudimentary phase of revamping a defense that ranked 28th in the NFL the past two seasons.

Of course, this was expected. What the players and coaches have accomplished so far is merely dipping their feet into the water. They’re still a long way from swimming. On Thursday night, they get a chance to make a first impression in a preseason game against the Baltimore Ravens. This is normally the part where I’d warn you not to put too much stock in whatever happens, good or bad, but who wants perspective? Football is back. Get carried away and deal with the repercussions.

“I think that we’ve already made improvements,” safety Su’a Cravens said recently. “I think we made moves in the offseason that bettered our defense. I think we have a coaching staff that’s going to use every one of their players in any way they can to help benefit the defense. I think we’ll be faster, and I think we’ll be more aggressive this year.”

No one will say it, but if you could spike the team’s Gatorade with truth serum, the honest expectation for this defense would be solid improvement, not a meteoric rise. Washington has greatly improved its talent on the line, at linebacker and in the secondary, but unless rookie Jonathan Allen becomes an all-pro type immediately, there’s not enough elite talent to change the defense in a dramatic way. That thought goes against what Coach Jay Gruden said about the defense in May.

“I don’t think patience is in the dictionary here in D.C.,” he said then. “I think we have to be good now. We were 9-7 two years ago, 8-7-1 last year. I think the expectations are high. They’re always going to be high in this area, and we have to perform.”

What qualifies as performing, though? Manusky will have a solid year if he can improve Washington from No. 28 to somewhere between No. 17 and 21 in total defense this season. That’s still below average, but it’s a considerable upgrade from terrible and hopeless. But total defense is only one measurable.

Manusky should be judged primarily on two things. First, he has to get the best out of his best players, which former coordinator Joe Barry didn’t do. The ability to utilize personnel properly is the biggest problem that the defense had. Washington hasn’t been blessed with great defensive talent for many years, but this is the NFL. Even bad defenses have good players. Barry had little chance of surviving last year after Washington gave Josh Norman $50 million guaranteed and the cornerback wasn’t put in the best position to succeed.

The most encouraging sign this camp: Manusky is making sure Norman is being used similar to how he played in Carolina. He wants Norman to play more off coverage, have his eyes on the quarterback and be able to anticipate plays more. He will still be in plenty of press coverage situations, but he should be used more effectively this season. Perhaps that will reduce his penalties and allow him to create more turnovers.

“I think that it’s going to allow a Josh Norman, I think, to be more active and make more plays, I’d like to think,” quarterback Kirk Cousins said of Manusky’s defense. “He’s been scaring me a little more this camp than maybe last year simply because of the coverage schemes and what he’s being asked to do or given the opportunity to do.”

Washington has other coveted defensive pieces — Allen, Cravens, Ryan Kerrigan and Zach Brown among them — and Manusky needs to help them perform, too. But there’s another area in which you should judge him: developing a couple of consistent strengths.

If Washington finishes, say, 19th in total defense but does a few things really well, this is a playoff team, provided the offense doesn’t take a significant step back. There’s often this perception that you have to be good in all areas to be a playoff team, but it’s not true. You have to be great at something and manage to be functional in areas of weakness. The offense has the potential to be great, or at least very good. If that’s the case, the defense just needs to be helpful for now.

How can it get there? There are two things: pass rush and limiting big plays. Even though Washington ranked in the bottom five of the league in total defense, it finished ninth with 38 sacks last season. Five more sacks, and it would have landed at No. 3. If Allen helps to provide more of an inside pass rush and Junior Galette stays healthy and Preston Smith continues to mature, the pass rush could be even better than last season. The defense has better depth, which will mean a stronger rotation of fresh bodies to create havoc. It’s not a stretch to imagine a team capable of getting ahead by 10 points and then attacking from all angles without having to blitz too much.

When it comes to limiting big plays, better communication and fundamentals would help. If D.J. Swearinger and Cravens are both solid at safety, that’s another positive factor. Washington can’t solve all of its defensive problems in a year, but it’s not too much to ask the defense to do a better job of making teams earn points. The breakdowns have been laughable — and frustrating to watch.

As Manusky prepares for his first impression Thursday night, the bar is low. Just be a useful complement to a good offense. If that’s too high an expectation, then the defensive problems are worse than imagined.