- The Washington Times - Monday, September 4, 2017

Fifty-three will be seeing you.

That was the kicker to the message Redskins inside linebacker Zach Brown tweeted in response to Eagles tackle Lane Johnson, who wrote in the Players’ Tribune that he and the rest of his team were going to “whoop” Washington in Week 1.

The tweet references Brown’s jersey number, 53. (Brown’s handle is overdue for a change. It’s @ZachBrown_55, referencing his old jersey number in Buffalo)

The Eagles, and anyone watching the game, will be seeing plenty of No. 53 on Sunday in the Redskins season opener at FedEx Field. Signed this offseason to a one-year deal worth up to $2.3 million, Brown has earned a starting role alongside Mason Foster.

Last year, Foster played the weakside ‘Mo’ linebacker spot and Will Compton started as the ‘Mike’ — the inside linebacker charged with calling defensive signals. Brown’s athleticism and coverage abilities, however, pushed him into the starting Mo spot, and the Redskins chose to move Foster to play the Mike.

“Obviously Will Compton’s very smart and has been a great leader for us. He’s a great communicator, which you have to have at Mike linebacker,” coach Jay Gruden said during the preseason. “I think Mason Foster can play both positions equally as well – Mike and what we call Mo — and he’s a good communicator. Obviously Zach Brown has a great skill set for playing linebacker. He can go sideline to sideline probably athletically faster than the majority of the linebackers we have.”

Brown draws attention because he’s new and outspoken. The change is more about Foster than it is about Brown, though. Brown went to the Pro Bowl a season ago when his 149 tackles were second-most in the NFL. The Redskins assumed he would start when they signed him as a free agent. Compton and Foster were the first-team pair at the start of offseason workouts and the beginning of training camp, which gave the impression that those jobs were theirs to lose, but Brown starting was always the expectation.

Because Brown is new in the defense, doesn’t have experience making the calls and excels in coverage, he plays the Mo position. The Redskins decision was really whether to go with Foster or Compton at Mike. The Mike linebacker needs to be good against the run and Foster, who led the Redskins in tackles last season, is the more physical of the two. He’s happy to play either spot, he says, but he likes Mike.

“You get to fly around inside-out on a lot of stuff so it’s fun, man,” Foster said.

More importantly, defensive coordinator Greg Manusky likes him at Mike.

“I think he is just a physical cat in there,” Manusky said. “From a mental standpoint, he is starting to adjust to it. Over the course of training camp and then OTAs trying to learn it a little bit more in depth, but overall he has been doing a great job with communication, a great job stuffing the runs and hitting the holes that we are supposed to hit.”

There are two real questions remaining. First, can Foster call plays as effectively as Compton? Foster says he’s comfortable wearing the green dot on his helmet (he also thinks it looks cool) as he did in Tampa, where teammates Ronde Barber, Aqib Talib and Michael Bennett held him accountable for getting the calls right.

“They’re looking at you, you better make the call,” Foster said. “Right or wrong you better be loud and get everybody on the same page and play from there, you know what I mean?

“You don’t want to be timid or shy or second guess yourself, just let it flow. Those guys will have your back so it’s exciting, man. Just getting out there. It’s like having keys to a Ferrari.”

Second, what happens to Compton? He’s smart, fast and a valuable leader on the team. Role players can still lead, but it’s best when the guys who are most vocal are also the ones making the big plays. It’s not unheard of for the Redskins to put three inside linebackers on the field together in certain packages; they did so at times last season with Su’a Cravens as the third ‘backer. Rotations will be frequent, but Compton’s snaps will almost certainly go down.

“That’s when you know you have a lot of depth,” Compton said. “You can rotate guys in, maybe somebody’s not getting a certain amount of plays a game or something like that, but it’s crucial. Especially when you get toward the end of the year.”

It’s a good problem to have, caused by the addition of Brown. No. 53 will be seeing you. Nos. 54 and 51 will too, but how much remains to be seen.

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