When the Washington Redskins signed free agent safety Ryan Clark in March to play a 13th NFL season at 34 years old, the thinking was his experience would compensate for whatever speed he had surrendered to age. Clark, who helped Pittsburgh to victory in Super Bowl XLIII in the 2008 season and earned Pro Bowl honors in 2011, provided the Redskins with both a seasoned signal-caller and a mentor for the team’s young safeties.
Even before Sunday’s regular season opener at Houston, that thinking has paid dividends.
The combination of Phillip Thomas’s lingering foot injury and the two-game suspension of starter Brandon Meriweather has winnowed the ranks of Washington’s safeties, propelling second-year player Bacarri Rambo into a starting role despite streaky play as a rookie.
That makes for an intriguing opening-day pairing at safety — one 34-year-old and one 24-year-old — on a team that made upgrading its defensive backfield a priority on the heels of a 3-13 season. Though Washington misfired in all facets of the game in coach Mike Shanahan’s final season, the defense was a particular liability, ranked 20th against the pass and 17th against the run.
“The laughingstock of the league” is how cornerback DeAngelo Hall characterized Washington’s defense the past few years Thursday, adding that he believed this year’s bunch could be one of the league’s best.
If there is a statistical turnabout, Clark deserves some of the credit, defensive coordinator Jim Haslett suggested.
“Ryan has been a help to everybody,” Haslett said. “He’s a guy who comes in, knows the defense, played in it for the last number of years in Pittsburgh and has been on great defenses up there, some of the top defenses in the league.
“He knows what it takes to have a great defense: the way he prepares, the way he gets ready for a game. His enthusiasm for the game, his love for the game rubs off on everybody, including coaches.”
Coach Jay Gruden had said he will make his final decision Friday or Saturday on whether Rambo will start against Houston, but it seemed a foregone conclusion as players and coaches trudged off the field Thursday afternoon.
It’s also possible former Denver strong safety Duke Ihenacho, whom the Redskins claimed off waivers over the weekend, could figure in on some plays — most likely against the run, given his linebacker-style 6-foot-1, 207-pound physique.
Though Houston finished an NFL-worst 2-14 last season, scoring the second-fewest points (276, compared with Washington’s 334), the Texans boast explosive offensive playmakers.
Wide receiver Andre Johnson is among the best at his position, with 927 receptions and 61 touchdowns during his 11 years at Houston. At 33, he doesn’t appear to be slowing down, hauling in more than 100 catches each of the past two seasons.
Texans running back Arian Foster is a handful in his own right, although Haslett isn’t sure what to expect Sunday, given he was held out of the preseason as a safeguard against injury.
As for Rambo’s readiness, Haslett voiced confidence.
“I’m excited for him because he has a great job of working in the offseason and preparing for this point,” Haslett said. “You kind of know that something is going to happen during the season; you have to be all-hands-on-deck all the time. I think he has done a nice job of cutting angles down, of tackling, understanding the scheme.”
Hall has watched Rambo progress during the offseason as well and said he expects him to play great Sunday.
“He has had a tremendous camp, a tremendous offseason,” Hall said of Rambo. “We’re going to do a couple other things through the course of the game as far as bringing in other guys, trying to use guys to their strength. There’s going to be a lot of guys in and out.”
Haslett deflected a suggestion that Ihenacho, who practiced with the Redskins for the first time Monday, might be part of that equation.
“You guys think a guy can walk off the street and learn how to play,” Haslett told a throng of reporters. “It’s not that easy.”
But he added Ihenacho seemed like “a quick learner,” leaving the question of his participation unanswered.
For Rambo, who relishes his opportunity, there is comfort in starting alongside Clark, who has seen so much in his dozen years in the league.
“Ryan was a great addition,” Rambo said. “He’s a great communicator, a great leader and is helping everybody stay on pace and know what’s coming.”
Technically a free safety, Clark said he’s happy to swap positions and play strong if it puts Rambo and the team in a better position to succeed Sunday.
“We’re going to move around, mix it up, do some things that he is comfortable,” Clark said. “I know, especially being a young player, that you want to be comfortable; that’s when you play fast and more physical. So for me, I’ll figure it out.”