- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 5, 2013

Bacarri Rambo celebrated his interception during rookie camp Sunday morning by running to Phillip Thomas on the sideline, jumping and bumping shoulders with him.

The sequence previewed a best-case scenario for the Washington Redskins: The two rookie safeties could eventually help a secondary that provided more questions than answers last season.

When coach Mike Shanahan drafted Thomas in the fourth round, Rambo in the sixth and cornerback David Amerson in the second last month, he created the flexibility he sought among Washington’s defensive backs. Those options began to crystallize during the Redskins‘ three-day rookie camp that concluded Sunday. The three new defensive backs were introduced to the defensive scheme and began to sense what their roles might be.

“You’re trying to add depth where people can compete, and that’s what I think we’ve been able to do,” Shanahan said. “We got three quality guys in the secondary that we were hoping to get. Now they get a chance to show us what they can do.”

Amerson, Thomas and Rambo’s assimilation to the defense in the coming months is a critical element of the Redskins‘ attempt to improve a pass defense that ranked 23rd in the NFL in passing yards surrendered per attempt.

Several factors will impact the formula. Getting outside linebacker Brian Orakpo back from his torn left pectoral muscle also should help. After he was injured in Week 2, the Redskins missed his ability to harass quarterbacks into ill-timed, inaccurate throws.

Washington also would be better if strong safety Brandon Meriweather returned from his torn right ACL, as expected. Meriweather’s athleticism helped the Redskins disguise coverages in his only start last season, a 31-6 win over Philadelphia in rookie quarterback Nick Foles’ first career start. Not coincidentally, that was the pass defense’s most productive game.

Beyond Orakpo and Meriweather, though, are more reasons for Shanahan’s optimism.

During the Redskins‘ season-ending seven-game winning streak in 2012, Washington surrendered 5.99 yards per pass. That’s a significant decrease from the 7.38 it allowed in the first nine games.

A season-long average of 5.99 would have ranked sixth in the NFL.

“Guys felt more comfortable in their roles, not only at the safety position, also at the outside linebacker position when Rak went down,” Shanahan said. “So that’s good experience that we’ve got with guys on our football team.”

Shanahan specifically mentioned strong safety Reed Doughty for his ability to play the run from inside the box, and Jordan Pugh, who often replaced Doughty in passing situations.

And now Amerson, Thomas and Rambo are competing to be part of that rotation.

Thomas played mostly at strong safety during the weekend rookie camp, he said. His blitz during team drills Sunday helped force a high throw that Rambo, the free safety, intercepted after it went off receiver Jason Thompson’s hands.

“I feel like I can make an impact immediately,” Thomas said. “I know it’s going to be very hard. You’ve got to have a lot of trust with a rookie coming in making all these calls, and the game speed is different. So it’s really going to be up to me to get in the film study, get in the playbook, bug Brandon Meriweather all day, trying to get extra film and have him teach me up and coach me up every day.”

Thomas‘ experience as a free safety at Fresno State could allow Shanahan to pair him with Meriweather and exploit the interchangeability Shanahan and defensive coordinator Jim Haslett value so greatly.

“I played in the single high at Fresno State a lot, too, even though I did most of my things in the box,” Thomas said. “We would work out stuff … in every day work. You get your backpedal right. I feel like I’m comfortable being in space like that, covering ground, making plays on the ball in the air. If they’re trying to throw it to the far hash or the far sideline, I feel like I can make up ground and get there.”

Rambo demonstrated his heralded ball skills Sunday by adjusting to the tipped pass and catching it.

He knows he must improve his angles and his tackling, but the interception was an important component of the foundation he built during camp.

“It just built my confidence up,” he said. “I just got out there and followed the scheme and just did what the coach asked me to do. Once you do that, it allows you to make plays and play full speed. Once I learned what to do, it was just natural.”

Amerson played with Thomas and Rambo during team drills and sensed their playmaking ability. Each of the three ranked either first or second in the nation in interceptions in either 2011 or 2012.

“First, you got to learn the defense,” Amerson said. “You’ve got to get comfortable with it so you can play faster and know what to do. Then your natural ability comes in after that.”

If that process progresses quickly, the Redskins‘ secondary would have many more occasions to celebrate.

NOTES: Tight end Jordan Reed, a third-round pick, did not practice because of a left knee bone bruise he suffered during Florida’s bowl game, he said. “Hopefully he’ll be able to go in a couple of weeks,” Shanahan said.

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