- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 20, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The great Joe Gibbs was in the house Sunday at FedEx Field to watch the Washington Redskins solidify their hold on first place in the NFC East with an impressive 35-25 win over the Buffalo Bills.

Gibbs knows something about first place. He was there often when he led this franchise to five division, four NFC championships and three Super Bowl titles during his first tenure as coach from 1981 to 1992.

When we hear Gibbs talk about those teams, there are two words he uses so often, we’ve come to laugh at them: Super smart.

He must have liked what he saw Sunday — particularly on defense — because that is the most accurate description of this Redskins defense that has come together of late.

It is super smart.

It is a patchwork of young players such as cornerback Bashaud Breeland and inside linebacker Will Compton, veterans entering their prime like outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan, free agents like strong safety Dashon Goldson and defensive end Ricky Jean Francois and guys brought in to fill in the gaps — some, like cornerback Will Blackmon and inside linebacker Mason Foster, right off the street — who have proven to be super smart football players.

This defense has been physical for the most part this year, but struggled early trying to adapt to a whole group of new defensive coaches, from coordinator Joe Barry to defensive backs coach Perry Fewell, and, let’s face it, a lack of Pro Bowl talent and speed.

But there have been no shortage of brains on defense — save for the occasional lapse of lining up in the neutral zone so often you would have thought they were seeking asylum in Switzerland — with a group of guys committed to, wait for it, being the masters of their domain. In this case, it’s their domain being their positions and responsibilities.

“You have to master the situation,” said defensive end Ricky Jean Francois, one of the smart free agents general manager Scot McCloughan brought in this season. “One thing Joe B preaches, one thing Jay [Gruden, the coach] preaches, you have to master the situation. You know what the team is going to do, the situation, the downs, you understand that, everything else falls into place. We feel confident that we know each of us is going to be in the right place. We need you doing your assignment. We believe in that, everyone knowing their role.”

Breeland, after an impressive rookie season, worked even harder this year, developing a reputation as a film junkie, always trying be prepared for his opponent.

“Our unit, we put in the work, from the young guys to the veterans, we all feel responsible to each other to know our roles,” Breeland said.

It is that team commitment to defensive responsibility that allowed Foster, signed in early October to fill in for an injured Perry Riley after being cut by the Chicago Bears, to step right in as a starterand be a valuable contributor, not a liability.

“With Will playing next to me and Dashon behind me, we’ve got some leadership on the field that holds you to a high standard. You need to be accountable, if that means studying extra or whatever. There is a lot of trust on this defense. I came in after a couple of weeks, but I knew they had my back. Don’t try to do too much, just do your job, because your teammates will be doing their job.”

Compton’s name keeps coming up when players talk about the evolution of this defense. He first started seven games ago as a fill-in for Riley, and now has taken the inside linebacker job away from Keenan Robinson. Undrafted out of Nebraska in 2013, Compton made every all-academic list there was for athletes in college and is the big brain on the field right now for this defense.

“We’ve got a linebacker that knows everything about where all of us need to be it makes the game a lot easier,” Jean Francois said.

Compton was undrafted for a reason. He was not the sort of standout athlete that makes NFL scouts swoon, but he overcame that in college to become Nebraska’s defensive MVP in his senior year because he recognized the value of knowing more than anyone else.

“I take a lot of pride in studying and preparing,” Compton said. “I know what it takes in this league to play.”

This Redskins defense won’t be mistaken for the 1985 Bears. They are ranked 20th in the league, but of late have had their moments, more often than not — like the goal line stand near the end of the first half on Sunday with Washington leading, 21-0 — that has taken some of the pressure off Kirk Cousins and the offense.

“It was a huge turning point … you have to credit everyone on the defense for standing up,” said Gruden, who, responding to a question about the defensive intelligence, said, “They are smart.”

No, coach. They are super smart.

⦁ Thom Loverro is co-host of “The Sports Fix,” noon to 2 p.m. daily on ESPN 980 and espn980.com.

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