RICHMOND — Bacarri Rambo turned his back to the line of scrimmage on a pass play during Washington Redskins practice Tuesday, and he ran. It’s a bit precarious to have a rookie serve as the last line of defense, but the Redskins believe in Rambo because of what he did next.
He ranged to his left toward the sideline as quarterback Kirk Cousins rolled in that direction. Cousins reared back and threw a deep pass to receiver Josh Morgan. Rambo, however, arrived at Morgan just as the ball did, and he swatted it to the ground. Incomplete.
That play is evidence of why the Redskins have penciled Rambo and the two other defensive backs they recently drafted, safety Phillip Thomas and cornerback David Amerson, into the starting defense for Thursday’s preseason opener against the Tennessee Titans.
Coaches and teammates are optimistic about the rookies’ individual development through 11 days of training camp. All three won’t necessarily begin the regular season with the first string, but they will have opportunities to grow together during the four games this month.
“It means that, I guess, we’re the future of this secondary,” Thomas said “It’s going to be great because … we talk about us being the future and we talk about us all being on the field together and being the rookie DBs coming in at the same time and all making plays back there.”
Amerson and Thomas are expected to start Thursday because of injuries to veterans. Cornerback DeAngelo Hall (right ankle) and strong safety Brandon Meriweather (right knee) are not expected to play. Cornerback Josh Wilson (shoulder) might not, also.
Rambo, meanwhile, has practiced at free safety with the first-string defense throughout training camp. His development this summer is crucial because of his position atop the depth chart.
Coach Mike Shanahan often says it is difficult to evaluate safeties during practice because the Redskins don’t tackle during team drills. Some aspects of a safety’s role, such as tackling form and taking pursuit angles required to tackle, are a bit of a mystery until preseason games.
Rambo and Thomas have at least provided teammates reasons to expect positive results this month because they arrived from college familiar with some of Washington’s defensive concepts. Rambo played behind a 3-4 front at Georgia. Thomas played some similar coverages at Fresno State.
“They’re kind of comfortable with the terminology,” seven-year veteran safety Reed Doughty said. “That’s a big part of it. When I came in, I didn’t know some of these coverages I had never run before. So you’re not just learning the nuances, you’re learning a whole new coverage. And then it’s just learning how the coaches want it played and learning the speed of the game. They seem to pick it up quickly.”
“You have to know what the linemen are doing because you have to have certain fits,” he said. “And then a lot of pressure. You just fly around and catch the ball and play tight coverage and don’t allow big plays. The 3-4 gets you a lot of pass rush, so the ball could be flying out. You just got to go out there and just be ready, be in position to make plays.”
Communication is another major responsibility for a Redskins safety. After the Mike inside linebacker position filled by London Fletcher, it’s more involved in pre-snap checks than any other in Washington’s defense.
During training camp practices this month, defensive backs coach Raheem Morris constantly yelled directions to Rambo and Thomas to ensure they recognized certain formations and alignments that trigger changes to the defense’s plan of attack.
“It’s night and day for me from OTAs until now,” Thomas said. “Just really focused in on it. If I have this call, I need these checks. That’s probably the biggest thing I struggled with was just the communication part of it. Now it’s second nature to me. I’m out there making the calls, being confident, being vocal. I’m able to just look at the offense and make plays now.”
Shortly after Rambo broke up the pass intended for Morgan on Tuesday, Amerson intercepted one near the other sideline. He positioned himself in front of the receiver, and at 6-foot-1, quarterback Rex Grossman had no chance to get the ball over him.
Amerson often played about eight yards off the line of scrimmage at N.C. State so he could try to read the quarterback and jump routes to intercept passes. During training camp, he has been playing more press coverage, which should suit him considering his length.
Will all the rookies’ work be evident in live action? The Redskins are eager to find out.
“These guys have kind of got accustomed to our receivers, so this will let us know, kind of game situations, what it’s going to be like week in and week out with a different set of receivers,” Hall said. “So I can’t wait to see these guys in the game to actually see how they communicate, how they play, how they hit, how they take getting beat, how they take making a play and just bouncing back and just keeping it going.”