- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 27, 2021

ASHBURN — When it comes to playing cornerback, Kendall Fuller describes the process as “trial by error.” The repetition of training camp can only help a player prepare so far, he says. But come the regular season, teams start attacking matchups in different ways — and it takes time to settle into a rhythm. 

Sometimes, mistakes are made along the way.

“Trial by fire,” he said. 

Through seven games, Washington’s secondary — Fuller included — has made a lot of mistakes. But as the unit prepares for Sunday’s game against the Denver Broncos, Washington’s defense is finally starting to show signs of life in the secondary.

During Sunday’s loss to the Green Bay Packers, Washington severely cut down on the number of big plays allowed. Green Bay’s longest play, for instance, went for only 26 yards. And while that might be lowering the bar for a defense that gave up the second-fewest amount of passing yards in 2020, consider this: This year, Washington had given up plays of at least 40 yards in every game but the season opener before Sunday’s loss to the Packers.

In total, seven plays have gone for longer than 40 yards against Washington’s defense — third-most in the NFL.

So, yeah. Progress.

“It’s starting to show,” Fuller said. “Slowly but surely.” 

It might not be a coincidence that Washington’s best defensive performance of the season came without William Jackson III, who missed Sunday’s outing with a knee injury. So far, the former Bengal’s transition to Washington has been rough since he signed a three-year, $42 million deal in the offseason — struggling to adapt to the team’s zone-based scheme as a primary man corner. 

According to Pro Football Focus, Jackson has given up 14.3 yards per reception this season — behind only reserve Torry McTyer, who played sparingly before blowing out his knee in Week 4 against the Atlanta Falcons. 

Washington adapted to Jackson’s injury by moving Fuller to the outside — the spot he spent most of the time last year — and inserting veteran Danny Johnson in the slot. Johnson, an undrafted free agent from 2018, had yet to play a snap in 2021, but held his own. 

“He’s a very reliable guy,” Washington coach Ron Rivera said. “He’s a very smart football player. What he lacks in certain athletic abilities, he makes up in his football intelligence, which is very high.”

Still, Washington had already started to show brief flashes of solid play — even before Jackson’s injury. And Jackson will almost assuredly be in the lineup when healthy.  Coaches had maintained that Jackson was improving as he started to grasp the ins and outs of the team’s scheme. 

Washington’s improved play in the secondary can also be linked to better play from the defensive line. The line has appeared to play better of late — Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers was sacked three times — and as a result, the secondary has been able to stick to their assignments. 

“Throughout the entire defense rush and coverage works together,” defensive backs coach Chris Harris said. “So the rush has to be on point and the coverage needs. If the coverage is on point, it allows the rush to get there. The rush is on point, it allows the guy in the back end to be able to break up and play. 

“So they go hand in hand. You can’t have one without the other.”

Harris said growing pains were to be expected given that the team tweaked all five spots on the back end this offseason. Jackson was signed to replace Ronald Darby (now with the Broncos), rookie Benjamin St-Juste was drafted to play on the outside — thus kicking Fuller in the slot, replacing Jimmy Moreland (cut). At safety, Bobby McCain was a free agent signing and Kam Curl alternated playing time with Landon Collins (coming off a torn Achilles). 

Coaches have received some clarity in the back end as the season has progressed. Rivera made the decision to play Collins at linebacker — freeing up more playing time for Curl, Washington’s talented second-year safety.  

Washington, of course, gave up 24 points to Green Bay and lost. So it would be foolish to suggest that the team’s problems have been resolved. Issues that remain include the team’s poor defensive starts (five opening drive touchdowns in seven games) and horrendous third-down percentage (56%, ranking last). 

But when Rivera has watched film of his team’s performance lately, he said he sees the pass rush and secondary coordinated together.

“One thing that losing does, it shows you the truth,” Rivera said. “And so as you watch it and you look at it, you can feel good about some of the things that have happened when we build on those things.” 

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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