ASHBURN — The Redskins may have inadvertently come up with a good rule of thumb for NFL defenses: if at least one of your position groups can’t feel the breath of the guys they’re lined up against, get closer.
Wouldn’t newly-appointed defensive coordinator Greg Manusky love that one? He’s essentially said as much.
“From our defensive line, it’s like they’re right here,” Manusky said on May 15 at Ryan Kerrigan’s charity golf tournament. He pulled his face in very close.
“It makes you feel uncomfortable, you know?” he joked. “Don’t punch me.”
Manusky was singling out the defensive line as the unit he wanted playing at close range. Working backwards, he said he wants his defensive backs playing “from distance and vision.”
During the Redskins’ first week of organized team activities, cornerback Josh Norman said that one of his top priorities was adjusting to that. He expects to play more off the line in 2017 than he did last season, as Manusky wants his secondary to work with a bit of a cushion and be reactive in case plays get by a defensive front expected to be more aggressive.
On the surface, it seems like a lesser challenge than playing with a heavy diet of press man corner. In some ways, Norman said, it is.
“I would say it’s a lot more room for error. Instead of being in somebody’s face and smelling what he ate for that morning,” Norman said.
That doesn’t have to be true, though. A coach can tell a corner to play with a significant cushion because he doesn’t think he can hang man-to-man with his assignment. Or, particularly in zone-coverage schemes, a coach can ask a player to use his understanding of formations and ability to key in on a quarterback as he goes through his progressions ability to jump routes, leading to big plays. Norman is particularly good at this.
“I can play with [that] a little bit more than I was last year,” Norman said. “I was more so in a press, dominant position than playing off where I was before. Now playing off, I can give you so [many] different things and I’m looking forward to that.”
Norman was just fine playing in Joe Barry’s scheme last season. He made three interceptions, defensed 19 passes and made 67 combined tackles. The Washington defense overall made 13 interceptions last season, tied for 15th in the league with New England and Pittsburgh.
It’s possible, though, that Norman could flourish in a defense more similar to the one he had his Pro Bowl 2015 season with in Carolina. That year the Panthers, with a defensive front seven that included Kawann Short, Thomas Davis, Kony Ealy and Luke Kuechly, ranked sixth in the NFL with 44 sacks. The Redskins defense had 39 total sacks last season despite spending considerably more time on the field than the Carolina group from 2015.
Manusky coached the Redskins outside linebackers before his promotion to defensive coordinator and brought in former colleague Jim Tomusla to coach the defensive line. The Redskins prioritized pass rushers and their defensive front during the offseason. Torrian Gray was hired as defensive backs coach but hasn’t gotten as much attention as the expressive Tomsula.
The secondary, though, isn’t an afterthought. If Manusky and Tomsula get their way and can help the Redskins defense be more aggressive up front, the defensive backs may benefit most.
“He’s a great coach, great motivator and understands the game not just from a defensive line standpoint, like a lot of defensive line coaches are just ‘in the box.’ This guy understands the entire defense — coverages, linebacker play, fronts, all that stuff,” Gruden said, speaking of Tomsula. “So he’s a very good add for Coach Manusky. They work well together, they bounce things off of each other. It’s a good team.”
During OTA’s, Norman said he’s working on getting the fundamentals of the new defense down. It seems to be going fine — Gruden said Norman had a nice pick on day one of the practices. Picks keep Norman happy, and he also enjoys the back-to-school element of it all.
“Being in off coverages, what we’re going to be playing pretty much a lot of this season going in with the new philosophy of the defense, I want to get that down pat and I want to be a master of being off instead of you know, going in and press a guy,” Norman said. “Because, like I said, I can do that all day and take you out of this game.”
Well, OK. With Norman in at cornerback the secondary was never going to be an afterthought, anyway. In Manusky’s scheme, though, players there may just have a bit more room to make an impression.