- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 20, 2013

PHOENIX — The enduring images of the Washington Redskins‘ 3-6 start last season involve opposing receivers running long distances for touchdowns.

Pass defense was a problem then, and even after the team’s historic turnaround resulted in the division title, it remains a concern this offseason in light of the club’s lack of salary cap space.

Coach Mike Shanahan, however, is hoping for improvement despite the club’s inability to sign an elite free agent cornerback or draft a safety in the first round. That requires an improved pass rush and some young players to raise their level of play. Not only does he believe that’s possible, the Redskins‘ defense is depending on it.

“Obviously, we don’t have the depth we’d like to right now, but it’s not over yet,” said Shanahan of the Redskins‘ cornerbacks situation while speaking at the NFL owners’ meetings.

“We’ve got a game plan to fill all the different positions,” he continued. “I think the key will be this offseason to see how these guys step up and play. I can’t tell you right now which guy is going to be the guy who steps up, but we do have a few guys that have the ability to be starters. Do they take advantage of it or not? It’s really hard to say.”

Washington tried to fortify the cornerback depth chart Wednesday by signing free agent E.J. Biggers, who started 12 games last season for Tampa Bay. He is the first free agent the Redskins have acquired to help fill their significant needs in the secondary.

Their lack of salary cap space prevented them from seriously contending to sign a top-tier cornerback, such as Aqib Talib, during the first week of free agency, several league sources said. Washington released No. 1 cornerback DeAngelo Hall on March 11 to save $8 million in cap space.

Raheem Morris, Washington’s defensive backs coach, was the Buccaneers’ head coach when they drafted Biggers in the seventh round in 2009. The Redskins know Biggers’ speed to be one of his greatest assets.

Biggers, who turns 26 in June, had an interception, two forced fumbles and 41 solo tackles last season. He started 12 of the 13 games in which he played. A foot injury sidelined him for the first three games.

At this point, Biggers and veteran Josh Wilson probably are the top two cornerbacks on the roster. The Redskins also are optimistic about what second-year player Richard Crawford and cornerback Chase Minnifield, undrafted a year ago, might provide.

Crawford had an interception, a fumble recovery and four passes defended in 10 games. He flashed athleticism and ball skills, but he experienced typical rookie struggles involving identifying and executing assignments.

Minnifield, a University of Virginia product, was a strong cover cornerback during the offseason program last spring but tore the ACL in his right knee on the final day. His durability is a major question.

“You have to have a number of corners,” Shanahan said. “The offense dictates what type of personnel the defense uses. If you’re going against a team that’s three, four, five wide receivers, that dictates what you do defensively. So what we try to do is just improve our personnel in every area and have guys compete. If we can have guys compete for legitimate chances to make our football team, then we think we get better.”

There’s similar uncertainty at free safety, where last year’s starter, Madieu Williams, remains a free agent. Washington might be best served using its second-round draft pick to fill that need.

Shanahan hopes strong safety Brandon Meriweather will return from left knee ACL surgery.

“Brandon is working extremely hard in the weight room with the trainers,” he said. “I see him every day over there doing the little things necessary to give him a chance to be ready for the season. When he did play, he played exceptionally well.”

Pressure on the quarterback would alleviate some of the strain on the secondary. That’s one reason Shanahan is looking forward to having outside linebacker Brian Orakpo back from the torn left pectoral muscle that cost him 14 games last year.

Considering the personnel questions in the secondary, that might be Washington’s best hope for improving a defense that ranked 23rd in the NFL in yards allowed per pass.

“I don’t care how good the defensive back is, if that quarterback has got time [with] good wide receivers, he will get open,” Shanahan said. “I can promise you that. No matter who it is. A lot has to do with your pass rush. You have to have it all. Those great defensive backs get a lot better with a great pass rush.”

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