As he watched strong safety Brandon Meriweather fly around during the first half of the Washington Redskins’ Nov. 18 meeting with the Philadelphia Eagles, second-year pro DeJon Gomes had an “ah-ha” moment.
Gomes observed the energy and passion Meriweather — who played for the first time after nursing injuries in the first nine games of the season — displayed while recording seven tackles, two pass deflections and an interception. Suddenly, Gomes said, he understood how strong safety was supposed to be played in the NFL.
Meriweather’s 2012 season ended after just 40 snaps, however, when he tore an anterior cruciate ligament four plays into the third quarter. Gomes took Meriweather’s place and promptly delivered a bone-jarring hit. He went on to record four tackles and two pass breakups to help ensure Washington didn’t experience a drop-off in its best defensive outing of the season. The team held the Eagles to just six points.
“You could just see the passion from Play 1 to the last play [Meriweather] was out there,” Gomes recalled. “He was giving his all, and then a little more. Just seeing that really inspired me.”
The Redskins stuck with Gomes — their fifth-round pick in 2011 — as their primary strong safety for the following game against Dallas. He recorded five tackles and recovered a fumble, returning it 13 yards.
“I told a few people, after that Philly game,” Gomes said, “after I got to see Brandon play, it carried over in that second half, and it carried over into that Dallas game a little bit. Just seeing the way he played the game gave me some motivation.”
Now in his third stint as a starter (Gomes started five games as a rookie when LaRon Landry was injured and the first three this season before he was benched), the Nebraska product is trying to make the most of yet another opportunity.
He’s aware that playing at Meriweather’s level is no easy task. Meriweather is a two-time Pro Bowl selection and former first-round draft pick. But Gomes said he will do his best.
There are similarities between the two. Both played some cornerback in college before moving to safety. Both have the speed and versatility to cover receivers or move closer to the line and play the run.
“He’s able to do a lot of the same things,” cornerback DeAngelo Hall said of Gomes. “He’s athletic, can cover guys in the slot. When they went four-wide, we were able to leave our nickel package out there and let him cover. He’s definitely coming into his own. . . . I think, D.J., being able to play a little bit early in the season and then getting benched at one point, he’s felt that taste of being out there and it being taken from him.”
Gomes still is trying to learn both how to play with more consistency and anticipation. He also is trying to play with a higher energy level.
Redskins coaches observed improvements in Gomes’s play during practice midway through the season, after he spent six weeks primarily as a special teams player following his demotion at strong safety. That prompted them to give him another try when Meriweather was injured. Gomes said the demotion prompted him to keep working on his game.
He said he “felt all right” about his play against Dallas. The fumble recovery and six tackles (five solo) obviously were positives. But he was part of a secondary that surrendered 441 passing yards to Tony Romo. Gomes also missed a couple of tackles, and failed to shed a downfield block that let Dallas wide receiver Dez Bryant run past him on an 85-yard touchdown play.
“I thought he did some good things. I think he’s got some things to work on,” Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan said of Gomes. “But he’ll make plays and then he’ll miss some plays. You’re always hoping for that guy to get better and make some strides. I think he’s doing that.”
Gomes wants to become more of a tone-setter for the Redskins defense. Meriweather’s play helped him understand the intangible responsibilities a strong safety has. But for Gomes — a laid-back kid from Hayward, Calif. — morphing from his quiet off-field nature to a boisterous, high-energy force on the field is a challenge.
“It’s hard to play like someone that’s Brandon Meriweather,” Gomes said. “ . . . I’m usually even-keeled, but . . . if I have to step out of my comfort zone a little bit, from laid back, to help the team win, that’s what I’ll do.”
That’s the type of statement Gomes’s coaches like to hear. They’re hoping that he can find a way to flip that switch and help spark the defense, regardless of how he carries himself off the field.
“If you have that laid-back personality, you have to still make plays on the field,” Shanahan said. “Everybody’s got a different type of personality. [Pittsburgh safety] Troy Polamalu is probably the easiest-going guy I’ve ever seen off the field. On the field, he is a playmaker . . . Everybody is a little bit different in the way they handle themselves.”