- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Before he participated in MLB’s celebrity softball game Sunday, the last thing Redskins cornerback Josh Norman wanted to do was discuss training camp.

“We got some time still left,” Norman said. “Stop trying to end my little offseason yet, buddy. What are you doing? In hot Richmond, Virginia. Are you looking forward to that? I’m not. Oh my God.”

As much as Norman would prefer to avoid those hot summer days, the Redskins’ training camp is fast approaching — with the team set to practice July 26.

And when Washington returns to the field, Norman and the rest of the secondary will be one of the team’s bigger question marks heading into next season.

Last year, the Redskins were surprisingly effective in stopping the pass. They ranked sixth in pass defense DVOA, a metric that measures efficiency. In pure numbers, Washington ranked ninth in fewest passing yards allowed per game with 213.8.

That was a drastic improvement from 2016, when Washington finished 24th in pass DVOA and 25th in passing yards allowed.

Is it sustainable?

The Redskins had turnover in the secondary this offseason. Promising corner Kendall Fuller was traded to the Kansas City Chiefs for quarterback Alex Smith. Bashaud Breeland, the starter opposite of Norman, was not brought back in free agency.

Instead, the Redskins added veteran Orlando Scandrick and drafted a pair of Virginia Tech corners in Greg Stroman and Adonis Alexander. The Redskins are banking on that Scandrick will still be an effective player at age 31 despite numerous injuries, and that Quinton Dunbar and Fabian Moreau will further improve.

Dunbar, specifically, had an encouraging 2017. According to Pro Football Focus, the 25-year-old faced the highest amount of targets in his career, but went the whole season without giving up a touchdown for the first time.

Washington also improved last year, in part, because they made significant upgrades at safety. D.J. Swearinger was signed in free agency and went on to play 99.6 percent of the Redskins’ defensive snaps — by far the most on the team. The Redskins also drafted Montae Nicholson, whose athleticism proved to be valuable.

The Redskins, though, have talent.

For Norman’s lack of interceptions since joining the Redskins in 2016, quarterbacks still avoid throwing his way. Norman, per Pro Football Focus, ranked first in most coverage snaps per target with 10 — meaning the corner went an average of 10 coverage plays between being targeted.

Nicholson, too, has promising potential. Coach Jay Gruden likened the safety to tight end Jordan Reed in terms of importance for the unit. Like Reed, Nicholson will have to stay healthy after missing half the season with injuries as a rookie. 

But year-to-year improvement isn’t a guarantee in the NFL. Just because a team is good in one area doesn’t mean it will automatically carry over the next.

If the Redskins can truly repeat their success in stopping the pass, it will most likely come down to the pass rush — the best aspect of the team’s defense in 2017.

Last year, the Redskins led the entire NFL in pressure rate — earning pressure on 38.3 percent of quarterback dropbacks. Washington’s all-out philosophy was designed by defensive coordinator Greg Manusky, and the team had the personnel to match.

Linebacker Preston Smith led the league in pressure rate among defenders, while Ryan Kerrigan also landed in the top ten. Both were rewarded with plenty of sacks: Smith with a career-high eight and Kerrigan with 13, a half sack away from tying his career-high.

When quarterbacks don’t have time to throw, they become less accurate. When they become less accurate, the secondary can make stops.

That’s what happened for the 2017 Redskins. They’ll have to do the same next season.

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