- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 3, 2019

ASHBURN — The talent up and down the Washington Redskins’ defense had fans excited about last season. But as the year unfolded, with the team fighting to remain in the thick of the fight for a playoff berth, it was clear something was missing.

There were certainly standout games, but there was also Drew Brees and New Orleans torching the defense on “Monday Night Football”; the 491 yards and 38 points allowed to Atlanta; a 90-yard Amari Cooper touchdown that let Dallas get away on Thanksgiving; and the forgettable blowout loss to the Giants in December where the Redskins fell behind 40-0 after three quarters.

At times when the defense showed out, coach Jay Gruden praised the unit’s communication; when it failed to contain opposing offenses, players often said it was breakdowns in coverage or not knowing what other teammates were doing. There’s little wonder why a major theme prevailed among Washington’s defensive stars, returning and new, over the summer.

“Communication is the biggest key within the defense,” safety Landon Collins said last month. “On that part we just stay on the same page, making sure what we got to do, and how we got to play it.”

Collins, the Redskins’ marquee signing in free agency, will be leaned upon to shore up the final layer of the defense that was often torched by receivers in 2018. The 2016 All-Pro has helped Montae Nicholson, Washington’s other projected starter at safety, to pick up ways to disguise coverages.

Nicholson was happy with their progress after the Redskins’ Week 2 preseason loss to the Bengals — during which the first-string defense tormented Andy Dalton into a pick-six and two three-and-outs.

“We want to get better at (disguises and) communication across the board, from Landon and myself to our corners to our ‘backers,” Nicholson said. “There can always be something to improve, but I think for the first time we were gonna be out there all together, I think it was pretty good.”

Collins isn’t the only new arrival expected to play a crucial role in the communication department.

The Redskins signed inside linebacker Jon Bostic after Reuben Foster tore his ACL at OTAs, and soon he earned the starting middle inside linebacker job, which includes calling the defense’s plays. That duty suits a player like Bostic, who values knowledge and communication and is a self-described perfectionist.

“Sometimes coach may say something to a guy and I’ll be all in their conversation, like, ‘What does that mean?’ They’re like, ‘Oh, it’s just for the D-line.’ No, I need to know that,” Bostic said, “because pretty soon I’m gonna be giving the call instead of him giving the call, because it’s how I’m wired. It’s how I was raised.”

Last winter, the Redskins reportedly had discussions with the likes of Todd Bowles and Gregg Williams to get “different perspectives” on their defense, though some in the media said it looked more like informal interviews to replace defensive coordinator Greg Manusky.

But with Manusky still on board, Washington hired two position coaches who have coordinator experience — Ray Horton, coaching the secondary, and Rob Ryan, in charge of inside linebackers. So the desire for smooth and constant communication applies not only to players, but to this conglomerate of coaches as well.

“You get insights from all three of those guys,” cornerback Quinton Dunbar said during training camp. “And like I said, between those three guys, there’s no one better than the other. They’re all willing to learn from each other to make our defense great.”

While that much has changed, the rest of the core has stayed the same. The No. 1 corner is still Josh Norman; coach Jay Gruden has high hopes he will play at the “superstar” level that aligns with his reputation. The front seven is led by Ryan Kerrigan, who posted 13 sacks last year for the second straight season, and recent first-round picks Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne.

Bostic feels the front seven’s biggest strength might be its versatility due to the starters’ array of skills.

“We’ve got speed inside, that’s one thing. We can run,” he said. “Really you don’t see that. Look at (Josh Harvey-Clemons), Harvey’s a long linebacker. So we can do a lot of different things whether we’re blitzing, whether we’re coming off the edge.”

So how good could this defense become? Norman believes it’s already the best defense he’s been a part of in Washington, adding, “we’ll get to the point where it could be all-time” great. But viewed another way, the Redskins finished 20th in the NFL in defensive DVOA just a year ago and only made a few personnel changes besides Collins and Bostic.

It could land somewhere in between all-time great and same-old, same-old. But after the defense’s dominant performance against Cincinnati, Nicholson lauded the unit and was the latest to mention its strong communication.

“This is a little test, just to show everybody that it is real,” he said. “We’re here, and we’re here to cause problems.”

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