- John Keim, ESPN Washington Redskins reporter
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RICHMOND, VA -- The focus is on the right knee of a certain quarterback. Every day, there’s an update. Every day, there are questions about when Robert Griffin III will do more. And his health is often listed one through five as keys to the Washington Redskins season.
Except that the Redskins are confident in backup Kirk Cousins. And even if Griffin is healthy and productive, there’s another massive key to the season: the development, and success, of the defense.
So it’s good news for the Redskins that Brian Orakpo is back and, for now at least, spry and healthy. His impact on the pass rush is dramatic. The Redskins struggled to generate a consistent four-man rush in 2012 minus Orakpo, who was lost in Week 2 to a torn pectoral muscle.
And it’s good news for them that their rookie defensive backs show promise, with at least one likely to emerge as a starter and a second who could join that group by season’s end. Safety Bacarri Rambo learned in the preseason opener versus Tennessee the need to take proper angles to the ball carrier, but a strength in practice has been his ability to quickly learn -- and to not get beaten deep. Corner David Amerson’s skills are impressive and he fared well in his debut, playing more physically than he did at North Carolina State. Safety Phillip Thomas hurt his foot in the opener and is day-to-day; he, too, needs to learn what angles he must take and how to tackle in the NFL, but the coaches like his progress.
“They’ve been better than advertised,” corner DeAngelo Hall said before the preseason win over Tennessee.
“They all look the part,” Cofield said. “Our future is bright."
It’s also good they can be creative with their linebackers, thanks to depth on the outside. Eventually, their secondary could offer versatility as well. And it’s good news that nine projected starters will enter their third season in Jim Haslett’s system.
But hold on.
It’s not good news that the secondary needed such a youthful infusion or that the team doesn’t have a full-time slot corner (though the flip side is they feel they have a few who can play here). Nor is it good news that defensive end Jarvis Jenkins will miss the first four games. Or the starting defense has rarely worked together because of a secondary that has players who are either returning from surgeries or getting nicked in practice.
Having two rookies, minimum, playing key roles in the secondary equates to many lessons learned. It could pay off in the future, but what will be the impact in the present? There is, after all, a natural learning curve in the NFL.
The defense ranked 22nd in points allowed last season, 28th in yards allowed and 30th versus the pass. But their regular-season performance must be broken down by their performance in the first nine games (a 3-6 record) and the last seven (all wins). The first nine games: 27.6 points per game (27th in the NFL) and 397.9 yards (28th). The final seven games: 20 PPG (ninth), 351.7 yards (19th).
“Guys really honed into the details of the game plan a lot better, understood situational football a lot better,” linebacker London Fletcher said.
Considering the young players in the secondary, another split of first-half and second-half success could be in store this season.
If the Redskins want to return to the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1991-92 -- and become a legitimate postseason threat -- the defense must build off those last seven games of 2012.
THREE HOT ISSUES
1. RG III’s health. As a rookie, Griffin was knocked from one game with a concussion, and his knee caused him to exit two games early and miss one full one. And because of his knee, he couldn’t practice in the spring and hasn’t yet worked in 11-on-11 work this summer. He’s a smart and talented player, but missing a full offseason isn’t the best way to progress. And Griffin’s improvement as a passer -- in terms of reading defenses, etc. -- will help propel this offense further. He also needs to be smarter when he runs; many times last season he ran and took hits when he had an open target. He can’t tuck the ball 10 yards behind the line as he did at times last season and take off running. With a healthy Griffin, the Redskins can rightly call themselves Super Bowl contenders. Without him? There are more question marks. Also, will he bristle if the Redskins continue to call designed quarterback runs, as they will do?
2. Defensive backfield. The Redskins will start a rookie safety as much for what they don’t have as for what Rambo offers. It’s a tough spot to place a rookie sixth-round pick, even if his college production warranted him going higher. The corner play was inconsistent last season, to say the least; how much will Amerson help as a rookie? Brandon Meriweather hasn’t been healthy with Washington and has been in and out of practice this summer. There are equal amounts of promise and question marks in the secondary.
3. The pass rush. The Redskins’ secondary struggled in part because of the inability to mount a consistent pass rush in 2012, minus their best pass-rusher, Orakpo, as well as improving end Adam Carriker. Orakpo is back, and his impact should be noticeable in the way he sets up others, even when he doesn’t get a sack. Without him, the Redskins resorted to more blitzes and other tactics, often leaving the secondary more exposed. For the defense to improve, the rush must be more like in 2011 (41 sacks).
REASON FOR OPTIMISM
The offense. The Redskins averaged 6.2 yards per play, the best for a Mike Shanahan-coached team, a season ago. It’s not just Griffin; it’s also running back Alfred Morris. Both had standout rookie seasons while still learning the NFL and their own offense. The (so far) healthy return of receiver Pierre Garcon and tight end Fred Davis is also important. If Griffin is healthy, the Redskins have a dynamic quarterback. Griffin was raw as a passer in 2012 in terms of reading coverages and going through progressions. Yet he only tossed five interceptions because he’s a smart player and rarely threw into danger. As he improves as a passer, he’ll rely less on his legs, and the offense will evolve. Even if Griffin must sit out, second-year quarterback Cousins has shown good signs of being able to take over for stretches. Morris is not just a product of the zone read. His patience and vision are outstanding, and his strong legs lead to broken tackles.
REASON FOR PESSIMISM
Griffin’s health/defensive depth. Yes, the coaches are confident in Cousins, and he’s shown little reason to have them feel otherwise. He tosses more picks in practice than, say, Griffin did a season ago. But Cousins is smart, understands the offense and is progressing in the pocket, though he only threw 48 passes as a rookie (four touchdowns, three interceptions). Could he, like Griffin a season ago, avoid the back-breaking turnovers? He’ll have to prove that’s the case. Meanwhile, the defensive depth is thin at inside linebacker and now along the line for the first four games because of Jenkins’ suspension and Carriker’s injury. If everyone stays healthy, the Redskins could have solid depth at corner, but they still have inexperience here. Safety is thin, too, because of injury concerns and/or talent level.
Roy Helu has looked like he’ll help in a big way on third downs. There was some rust in the preseason opener. He was too fast to the hole at times; he failed to lower his shoulder at times. But his skills as a runner in the open field were evident. He can make quicker cuts than the other veteran backs on the roster, which will make him dangerous in space. He had two cuts versus the Titans that showed his quick feet. The screen game could be more interesting for Washington this season. The Redskins lacked such a runner last season, but Helu needs to prove he’s durable. If he is, the Redskins will benefit. They point to his 28-yard touchdown run versus Seattle two seasons ago as proof. To refresh, he hopped over a Seahawk at the line en route to a score.
Linebacker Kerrigan took too wide a path to the quarterback last season, going too much upfield rather than taking a more direct route to the passer (something Orakpo does). But Kerrigan continues to work on his game, and it shows. He’s made it a point to use his hands even more -- especially his left hand on inside counter moves. Kerrigan has shown quick hands in rushes versus right tackle Tyler Polumbus, enabling him to win to the inside.
The Redskins used Kerrigan in a four-point stance at left tackle in a nickel package versus Tennessee on the play in which he recorded a sack. It helped that rookie Brandon Jenkins was next to him and Orakpo at right outside linebacker. It provides Kerrigan with another pass-rusher on his side to take away a possible double-team and a pass-rusher on the other side who commands offensive attention. Kerrigan was more successful rushing inside, where his quick hands work well versus guards.
Former Tampa Bay starting right tackle Jeremy Trueblood, who was benched by the Bucs last season, has struggled in camp. He’d have to make major strides in order to earn a roster spot. Another veteran former starter, receiver Devery Henderson, is in the same spot. Henderson, once known for his speed, isn’t getting much separation in camp.
The Redskins will have some issues at inside linebacker if veteran Nick Barnett doesn’t have much left. Roddrick Muckelroy struggled against Tennessee and worked with the third unit. Bryan Kehl didn’t do much in that game, either, and too often looked a step slow. He looked better last summer, but it’s clear they could be in trouble here if something happens to starters Fletcher or Perry Riley.
The Redskins like rookie running back Chris Thompson’s explosiveness, but it’s tough to see it on the sideline, where he’s spent most of camp while still recovering from last fall's ACL surgery. Thompson, a fifth-round pick, did not practice during the spring, either, so he’s far behind when it comes to working in this offense. But former Florida State teammate Jenkins continues to flash as a pass-rusher. The Redskins are already working him in with the first defense in various nickel packages.
Tight end Niles Paul is catching the ball much better this season than last. An underrated part of switching from receiver to tight end was that he’d be running routes from different areas and often shorter routes -- so he’d need to turn and catch a harder-thrown pass. Not every pass he dropped last season can be blamed on that, but it was something Paul had to adjust to and, based on camp, he’s done so. Paul has rarely dropped a pass this summer, if at all. He also played fullback with the second and third string against Tennessee. If the Redskins keep only one fullback, as expected, they would need one of their tight ends to play the spot in a pinch.
Whether Fletcher can still play at a high level remains to be seen, but there’s no doubt about his desire to compete, especially if you just watch him in practice. When it’s a competitive team portion, Fletcher is vocal and demanding. He even chastised the third unit once for a coverage breakdown during 11-on-11 work. He is not coasting to the end of his career.
Don’t be fooled by the numbers Griffin is posting in 7-on-7 work, when he routinely completes at least 13 or 14 passes out of 17. Most of the throws are shorter or checkdowns. When he throws downfield, his accuracy has been spotty. There has to be an impact on missing so many workouts, and this is one of them. He’ll occasionally launch a beautiful deep ball, but it’s the 20- to 25-yard throws on which he’s still shaking off the rust.
Morris has had a quiet camp, but don’t read that as him not doing as well. He shows all the same skills. And if Morris weren’t so humble, perhaps there would be concerns about his ability to sustain success. But those who trained with him in the offseason rave about his work ethic (and leg strength). Morris is one of the more in-demand interviews, yet continues to constantly stop and answer questions -- often for 10-15 minutes at a time. When Morris says things like “I’m just Alfred,” it’s not an act. He hasn’t allowed himself to bask in his rookie-year glory.
There are still question marks along the offensive line, with Polumbus still needing to prove he can be an effective pass-blocker at right tackle. He needs to do a better job with his hands. He’s not a long-armed tackle, so he can’t bail himself out of trouble if he’s a little off with his technique. His margin for error is smaller. It’s something he worked on in the offseason, but it needs to show up more consistently. Behind him, veteran Tony Pashos has the most aggressive punches of the right tackles, and it’s helped him versus the backup rushers. But after not playing last season and playing hurt the previous, he still needs to become more consistent. The Redskins say they have more depth along the line in general, but it’s young and unproven.
RICHMOND, VA -- The focus is on the right knee of a certain quarterback. Every day, there’s an update. Every day, there are questions about when Robert Griffin III will do more.