A sixth-round draft pick from Georgia, Rambo says he’s “night-and-day” different entering his second season: a more effective tackler who understands the importance of pursuit angles, as well as a smarter player who sees the game unfold slowly and can react more quickly.
Rambo’s progress will be put to the test early, it appears, in the wake of a two-game suspension to starting strong safety Brandon Meriweather for a dangerous hit on Torrey Smith in Washington’s preseason loss at Baltimore on Saturday.
Barring a successful appeal, the notoriously hard-hitting Meriweather, 30, will be sidelined for Washington’s Sept. 7 season opener at Houston and the Sept. 14 home opener at FedEx Field. He’ll also be docked two game paychecks.
The penalty also represents a hard hit on the Redskins, who are trying to rebound from a 3-13 season.
Washington’s defense finished 20th against the pass and 17th against the run last season. To bolster the defensive backfield, Redskins officials signed veteran free agent Ryan Clark, 34, who registered 104 tackles for Pittsburgh last season. And they re-signed Meriweather to a one-year deal despite his history of illegal hits. Last season he was fined $42,000 for an illegal hit on Packers running back Eddie Lacy and suspended one game for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Bears wide receiver Brandon Marshall.
With Meriweather’s latest infraction, the unit that most needed shoring up will start the season minus a starter.
An appeal is already in motion, according to Clark, a member of the NFL Players Association’s executive board, who argued forcefully Tuesday that Meriweather took all the proper precautions to make a clean tackle Saturday but ended up colliding helmet-first because Smith moved.
“I think it’s a very fast decision,” Clark said. “It’s a harsh decision. It’s rash. And I also think it’s incorrect.”
Washington Coach Jay Gruden saw it much the same way though stopped short of criticizing league officials.
“Brandon has been working very hard at lowering his target,” Gruden said Tuesday. “He has done very well since his last suspension. He hadn’t had any issues. This is the first one that has come up, and it was an unfortunate incident. He tried to lower his target, I thought. I thought it was a legitimate football play, but the NFL didn’t see it that way. We’ll just have to fight it the best way we can to get that thing dropped or reduced.”
If that effort fails, Gruden’s options are few. And Rambo is the best among them.
The Redskins drafted Fresno State safety Phillip Thomas the same year as Rambo, 2013, and two rounds earlier. But Thomas missed his entire rookie season with an injured ligament in his left foot. Then, after missing two weeks of training camp because of a strained hamstring, Thomas reinjured his foot in the Aug. 18 preseason victory over Cleveland.
Ruled out for Thursday’s preseason finale, Thomas is scheduled to see a foot surgeon, but skepticism about his durability remains.
Sixth-year defensive back E.J. Biggers also could take snaps at safety.
But for now, Gruden said Rambo is his first option. He’ll play in Thursday’s preseason finale at Tampa Bay although the other presumptive starters will be held out.
“I’ve grown a lot,” said Rambo, who forced a fumble, had one solo tackle and assisted on three others against Cleveland.
Asked how his tackling has improved, Rambo said: “It’s just taking angles, and don’t think about it. All tackles aren’t going to be pretty. Once it’s an open field, just try to grab a body part and hold on.”
It’s a fine line defensive backs must walk in the modern-era NFL, paid to bring down explosive receivers and running backs yet restricted in their ability to make contact.
The rules are designed to protect players, particularly from the head injuries and concussions that mounting evidence has shown contributes to long-term impairment. The NFL has cracked down in particular on helmet-to-helmet hits, issuing 15-yard penalties on the field as well as fines on individual players and suspensions of repeat offenders. Meriweather’s illegal hit Saturday was his sixth.
Gruden said he has shown the Redskins about 20 video clips of illegal hits, in hopes of driving the point home.
“It’s very difficult, though, because a lot of them are bang-bang plays,” Gruden said. “Sometimes the receiver lowers his target right as the defensive backs has already got his target lowered and they collide, which is kind of what happened with Torrey Smith and Brandon.”
It has left some defensive backs, such as second-year cornerback David Amerson, shaking their heads.
“You can’t touch receivers now,” Amerson said. “You can’t hit ’em. What else we gonna do? What’s gonna be next? You can’t intercept the ball? I mean, this is getting crazy. This is my second year in the league. It’s a hard time to be coming in the league right now, for a DB.”
Meriweather declined to comment Tuesday, as did veteran cornerback DeAngelo Hall, among his more outspoken defenders, saying it was best to let the appeals process play out.