Phillip Thomas felt like a rookie all over again, fidgeting on the sideline as he waited to get into the game. It had been more than a year since the Washington safety had seen action, and that was a painful memory. He had suffered a season-ending injury in his first preseason game last year, and that just couldn’t happen again.
“I was really anxious because it had been so long,” Thomas said. “It was devastating to come out here and just want to play, then get hurt in the first preseason game. I stayed mentally intact, learned the playbook and just got ready for this year.”
Monday night’s game, a 24-23 win over the Browns, offered the Redskins a chance to evaluate their long-term solutions at safety — second-year players Thomas and Baccari Rambo. While Thomas was sidelined with an injury last year, Rambo was demoted early in the season after he struggled with tackling.
They had encouraging performances against the Browns on Monday. Rambo forced a fumble, had a solo tackle and assisted on three, while Thomas had a pass breakup and a solo tackle. With starting safeties Ryan Clark, 34, and Brandon Meriweather, 30, both in the second half of their careers, the development of Rambo and Thomas is important to the Redskins as both take on key rotational roles in the secondary.
“There’s pressure to try and stay healthy,” Thomas said. “There’s nothing you can really do about it.”
Thomas suffered a Lisfranc injury in last year’s preseason opener against Tennessee. The mid-foot injury sidelined him for more than four months, wiping out his rookie season. It was deflating and another red flag; the fourth-round draft pick had injuries at Fresno State, too.
“People have an eye on me, seeing if I can stay healthy and play a season,” Thomas said.
Thomas said his confidence grew during training camp as the backup to Meriweather at strong safety. Even though he didn’t play last season, he understands the playbook better than he did a year ago, allowing him to be more vocal .
But Thomas suffered another setback, a strained hamstring that sidelined him for the Redskins’ first preseason game against the Patriots. The positive impressions Thomas made on coaches took a hit .
“I know he’s frustrated, and as a coaching staff, we’re frustrated because we don’t know if he’s reliable and accountable enough yet from an injury standpoint,” defensive coordinator Jim Haslett said last week. “There’s a fine line there. . . . Time’s running out. I don’t know the consequence, but obviously it’s not good for him or for us if he’s not out there.”
Thomas returned to practice Thursday, and he played late in the second half and in every series of the third quarter Monday. He was rarely targeted, but he broke up Cleveland quarterback Johnny Manziel’s pass to MarQueis Gray in the red zone at the start of the fourth quarter. Thomas didn’t have any stellar plays, but he made no obvious mistakes either.
Rambo did have a stellar play, forcing a fumble in the second quarter that was recovered by rookie Bashaud Breeland . A sixth-round pick out of Georgia in 2013, Rambo was the starting free safety throughout the 2013 preseason and in the first two regular season games, but poor tackling landed him on the bench for the rest of the season. He’s the backup to Clark at free safety this season.
Rambo said Clark and Meriweather have given him tips on how to become a better tackler, showing him how to take better angles and not allow opponents to have as much space. With the preseason meaning more for him than for more established players, the improvements showed.
“It’s coming along,” Rambo said. “I feel a whole lot more comfortable. I’m just going out there and playing ball.”
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