- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 8, 2017

ASHBURN — Josh Norman laughed when asked about the nickname D.J. Swearinger gave the Redskins secondary. He didn’t give it up a thumbs up or a thumbs down, instead opting to stick his thumb out sideways.

Norman isn’t sold yet on “The Flight Marshals.”

“We can work on a few things,” Norman said with a laugh. “… We have to pass our own test. We’ve got to go to camp first. So far, so good.”

Nicknames are usually given to the NFL’s elite secondaries. There’s the “Legion of Boom” in Seattle and the “No Fly Zone” in Denver. But the Redskins’ pass coverage has miles to go before anyone would say it’s among the NFL’s best.

In what feels like an annual tradition, the Redskins have retooled their secondary and changed the defensive coordinator. Swearinger and Su’a Cravens have been running with the first unit at safety, both of whom weren’t in those spots for the Redskins last year. Swearinger was signed from Arizona in March and Cravens played mostly linebacker as a rookie.

Former linebackers coach Greg Manusky was promoted to defensive coordinator after Joe Barry was fired. Torrian Gray was hired as the team’s defensive backs coach.

“Talent can look great on paper, but if you don’t put in the work and the effort to be the best, you won’t be the best,” Swearinger said. “So the good thing is, all four of us (starters) are putting in that work to elevate our games to be the best.”

The results weren’t pretty for the Redskins defense last year. They ranked 25th in DVOA, a Football Outsiders metric which measures efficiency against a league baseline. In pass defense, they ranked 24th. They were poor on third down as well, allowing teams to convert at a league-worst 46.6 percent.

Norman, who signed a 5-year, $75 million contract last year, was getting used to a new team after having his franchise tag revoked by the Carolina Panthers. Despite the poor team results, Norman said he was able to prove his worth on the field.

He took the labels of being a “system player” personally and spent most of the time with the Redskins in press coverage and man-to-man compared to the Panthers’ zone-based scheme. Norman had three interceptions and 18 passes defended last season.

According to Pro Football Focus, Norman only allowed a catch every 13.5 cover snaps, which ranked fifth-best in the NFL.

“Last year was the year, I could actually stand in my own and say ‘OK, I can play whatever you want me to play, coach. Put me in,’” Norman said. “I can go in nickel. I can come off the edge. I come sag, have a big play and smack a running back in the back field. Whatever you need me to do. I’ll be the hammer and I’ll be the force.”

But there are adjustments the Redskins will make for Norman to be more effective. The cornerback has discussed playing more off the line of scrimmage, which he said will allow him to use his “repertoire of tools.”

Redskins coach Jay Gruden said the change will allow Norman to see the quarterback.

“He is a route-reading machine, so there are different coverages where he can play off and see the quarterback and he can break on the ball as good as anybody,” Gruden said.

But as a unit, the defense ultimately failed last season. The Redskins missed the playoffs with an 8-7-1 record and lost a crucial Week 17 matchup to the New York Giants. If the defense could have played more consistently, the Redskins might have made the playoffs.

“We haven’t played this season or a game yet, so it’s still fresh in our minds,” Norman said of the defense’s performance. “I think we still got a sour taste in our mouth. If we don’t, then I don’t know what you’re doing here.”

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