Each week, the Washington Redskins' secondary seeks to showcase its collective talent. Sometimes it succeeds. Sometimes it falls short.
But the group's game day mind-set never changes.
Confidence and improved play go hand in hand in the NFL, and luckily for Coach Jay Gruden, his defensive backs are armed with plenty of bravado.
"As Coach said, we're a bunch of ball-hawking, hard-hitting sumbitches," safety D.J. Swearinger said, smiling.
It has been a decade since the Redskins had a physical free safety setting the tone. And on the 10th anniversary of Sean Taylor's death Monday, Swearinger and his teammates acknowledged that Washington's secondary is still an unfinished product in search of itself. Consistent play and communication remain its biggest issues. But the unit — which has weathered the surprising departure of expected starter Su'a Cravens (who is now on the reserve/left squad list) and injuries to key players such as cornerback Josh Norman and safeties Deshazor Everett and Montae Nicholson — believes its strength lies in the sum of its parts.
And its newfound swagger.
Swearinger's arrival in March, courtesy of a three-year free agent deal, signaled a shift in attitude, players said, and it also produced a new nickname for the collective: the "Flight Marshals." The veteran safety, who spent his previous years in Houston and Arizona, felt the Redskins' secondary needed "a little juice." And the 'Marshals' moniker resonated with a new group in search of a distinct style.
"When we all came in we had different identities, so we had to build something together," said cornerback Bashaud Breeland, a fourth-round draft pick in 2014. "And one thing we all want to have in common is shutting receivers out. 'Flight marshals.' Lock everything up."
Last year, Washington had 13 interceptions. Through 11 games this year, the Redskins have 12, with Kendall Fuller (four) and Swearinger (three) leading the way. The Redskins also are 19th in passing yards allowed, surrendering 234.2 yards in the air per game compared with 258.1 yards in 2016.
But the on-field product hasn't always been pretty.
Case in point: Case Keenum's 21-for-29 passing for 304 yards and four touchdowns in Minnesota's 38-30 win over Washington in Week 10. It was among the defense's worst performances in the Gruden era.
But even in the face of inconsistency, the defensive backs remain resolute.
They know who they want to be.
And they're still trying to find their way. Together. As one.
"Even though we've been playing really well, we still have some things to iron out," Norman said, just three days after the Redskins held the New York Giants to season lows in total yards (170) and yards per pass (3.19) in their 20-10 Thanksgiving night win at FedEx Field.
Norman admitted he worried about how the secondary would fare when he was sidelined for two games last month with fractured ribs. But although the unit's fluctuating starting lineup took a toll on its cohesion and communication, Norman praised the play of Fuller and Breeland.
"They've been playing admirably," he said of his teammates. "Can't say enough about Kendall Fuller and how he's been playing. He's been really, really showing out in his second year. Breeland has been doing a phenomenal job as well, coming in and making plays that he needs to be making.
"It just shows that these guys are capable of playing at this level and playing for a long time. . . . It's truly amazing to see where they've come from and where they're at."
Breeland has rebounded from a rough start to the 2016 season and emerged as one of the most improved players in Gruden's secondary.
"I think Breeland against New Orleans [in Week 11] and the last two weeks has played extremely well," Gruden said. ". . . I like the way he plays. I like the way he tackles. He's a physical corner, so I think he's in a good position to get a nice contract."
The Redskins (5-6) next face the Dallas Cowboys (5-6), a familiar NFC East opponent, and star wide receiver Dez Bryant, a physical player Breeland loves to battle. Asked if facing a top wideout in prime time will be added motivation for the unit, Breeland shook his head.
"Every game hypes us up, whether it's a Pro Bowler or a slap-[expletive]," he said matter-of-factly.
Fly around. Be physical. Have fun. And compete.
That's the goal each week, Fuller said.
"When you make a play, that's when you can swag out," the 22-year-old corner said.
Of course, that type of boldness, that bluster, is nothing new to Swearinger, whose postgame attire often mirrors his vibrant, colorful personality and his spirited play. The hard-hitting safety has succeeded in infusing some much-needed attitude into the unit, but he insisted there's more work to be done before the Redskins' defensive backs are collectively viewed as beasts on the back end.
"We want to be stingy. We want to control everything in the air, control all of the deep balls, not letting anything get over our head and be sure tacklers," said Swearinger, who wears Taylor's original No. 36. "We still got a lot of work to do. We have games where we're on top, and we have games where we don't look as good. So the main thing is, we're headed in the right direction. But we've just got to stay consistent in what we do."