Brandon Meriweather returned to the Washington Redskins' defense two Sundays ago just long enough to tease them with hard evidence of what might have been.
Washington's first-string strong safety lost the first nine games to a sprained left knee and the final six games to a torn ACL in his right knee. But for 2½ quarters against Philadelphia in Week 11, Meriweather flew around the field, providing the Redskins' secondary with some much-needed speed. It's no coincidence that was the defense's best game of the season.
Although Meriweather's injury was a cruel twist, it represents opportunity for second-year safety DeJon Gomes. After being benched in Week 4, Gomes has a chance to prove he can positively impact a unit that could use the help.
"He needs to step up and play at a high level the rest of the time," defensive coordinator Jim Haslett said. "This is a second opportunity for him to go out there and show what he can do, and he needs to take advantage of it."
Haslett's words contained parallel meanings. Yes, the NFL's 28th-ranked defense needs Gomes to play well. But Gomes also needs to contribute in order to earn coaches' confidence and gain a foothold on the team.
That begins with knowing his responsibilities. Consistency also is a sticking point.
"I think he has some things to work on, but he will make plays and then he'll miss some plays," coach Mike Shanahan said. "You're always hoping for that guy to get better and make some strides. I think he's doing that."
Against Dallas on Thursday, Gomes recovered a fumble in a 28-point second quarter that helped the Redskins take a commanding lead. When cornerback Josh Wilson used his helmet to dislodge the ball from receiver Dez Bryant's grasp, Gomes was there to scoop the bouncing ball.
He finished the game with five solo tackles, tied for third on the defense.
On the downside, Gomes broke down as the last line of defense on Bryant's 85-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown in the third quarter.
Bryant caught the ball beyond Wilson's outstretched dive. Gomes might have been able to make the tackle if he hadn't slipped, but that enabled receiver Dwayne Harris to get inside position against Gomes, block him and secure a path for Bryant to run down the sideline.
In the fourth quarter, Harris gained an extra 16 yards on a catch over the middle after Gomes took a bad angle in pursuit.
"There are a couple little things that I can continue to clean up and get better," Gomes said.
One area of Gomes' focus centers on the energy Meriweather brought to the defense two games ago.
Several players heralded how Meriweather's return inspired the defense. The unit played fast in giving up only six points to the Eagles, and many have credited Meriweather as being a catalyst.
Gomes watched Meriweather play, and the impact was clear to him, too.
When he entered the Philadelphia game, he broke up a pass intended for Jeremy Maclin with a big hit.
"Just seeing how he played the game really gave me new motivation," Gomes said. "You could just see the passion from Play 1 until the last play he was in. He was out there giving his all and then a little more. Just seeing that really inspired me."
Another challenge for Gomes, then, is replicating that energy level. He is one of the quieter, more reticent members of the team.
"Any time you can get your defense hyped and get everyone flying around, it's a good thing," he said. "If I have to step out of my comfort zone a little bit -- I'm kind of laid-back -- to help the team win, it's something I'll do."
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