A new season arrives Monday night for the Washington Redskins, with great expectations for a team coming off a division title, but also with a significant holdover concern. The Redskins had one of the league’s most generous pass defenses last season, and there is room to wonder whether enough has been done to upgrade it significantly.
The bulk of the attention will be on quarterback Robert Griffin III, who makes his return from knee surgery in January, when the Redskins host the Philadelphia Eagles. But in between scrutinizing Griffin’s play, the crowd at FedEx Field and a national television audience can begin to ascertain whether the Redskins will be less helpless to slow down opposing quarterbacks and receivers.
The Redskins are crossing their fingers that the addition of rookies David Amerson and Bacarri Rambo, the potential return of Brandon Meriweather and the prospective improvement of their pass rush will make a difference in the performance of their secondary.
“Bacarri has made great strides since he’s been here,” defensive coordinator Jim Haslett said last week. “I feel good about him playing. David Amerson, he’s another guy that’s made great strides since he’s been here. We feel good about him. . . . I think that’s going to make us better in the back end just because of those two and the rush.”
The Redskins ranked 30th among the 32 teams in pass defense last season.
They re-signed one of last season’s starters at cornerback, DeAngelo Hall, in the offseason after releasing him just before free agency. They retained the other, Josh Wilson, after he accepted a salary reduction.
The major change at cornerback came when the Redskins used their second-round draft choice in April on Amerson. He had some impressive moments during training camp and the preseason and is poised to move into the playing rotation immediately. At times during the preseason, Amerson took over at Wilson’s right cornerback spot when opponents used three or more wide receivers, with Wilson moving inside to cover a slot receiver. With the Eagles likely to use three- and four-receiver formations regularly Monday, Amerson could start and play often.
Rambo, too, is poised to be on the field from the outset, having been in place as a starter at safety since offseason practices. The sixth-round draft pick from Georgia has had issues with his tackling, particularly when he was badly outmaneuvered by Tennessee’s Chris Johnson on a touchdown dash in the preseason opener. But the Redskins like Rambo’s playmaking skills and believe he is a willing tackler who will improve with experience.
Having two rookies in the defensive backfield might not be an ideal way to open a season, particularly under the bright Monday night spotlight. The Redskins hope their young players will adjust quickly.
“They’ve had preseason games under their belt to be able to get adapted to the NFL,” linebacker London Fletcher said. “The intensity may pick up a little bit more. Offenses may do a little bit different things, be more expansive in their play calls and things like that. But at the same time, it’s still football and they’ve had an opportunity to get themselves acclimated to the National Football League. It’s all about paying attention to your responsibilities.”
In this case, the young defensive backs also must deal with the hurry-up offensive approach of the Eagles under new Coach Chip Kelly.
“In the NFL, everybody’s fast,” Hall said. “I think a lot of our young guys kind of saw that in the preseason. Everybody’s fast. Everybody is the best of the best. I don’t feel like there’s gonna be anything overly complicated that we’re gonna feel like, ‘Oh man, it’s just going so fast, we can’t see it.’ That’s why we get paid to go out there and see things happening. I like our chances.”
The Redskins are hopeful they’ll have Meriweather in the lineup at safety alongside Rambo. Meriweather played only one game last season because of a series of knee troubles and remained slowed throughout training camp and the preseason. He played in the preseason finale but suffered a groin injury last Monday in practice, according to Coach Mike Shanahan, and is listed as questionable for the game.
Reed Doughty would start if Meriweather is unable to play. Either way, the Redskins believe a pass rush bolstered by the return of outside linebacker Brian Orakpo, who missed all but two games last season because of a torn pectoral muscle, will aid the secondary’s efforts.
“I don’t care how good your secondary is. If you don’t have a pass rush, you’re going to be in for a long day,” Shanahan said.
Wilson said the secondary’s performance shouldn’t be measured by passing yards surrendered, but by the team’s victory total.
“We got to the playoffs” last season, Wilson said. “It doesn’t matter what happens in the beginning. It matters how you finish this thing off. We were able to put our missteps early on behind us, and we focused on every game that was ahead of us and we went and got us into the playoffs and gave ourselves a chance. It’s not about anything other than making sure we take that this year and just finish, man. That’s the big thing.”