- John Keim, ESPN Staff Writer
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ASHBURN, Va. -- The indecision led to mistakes, which led to criticism and a questionable future. Washington Redskins safety Bacarri Rambo missed too many tackles, starting in the preseason and continuing into the season. He went from a good story -- sixth-round draft pick starting -- to a negative one.
It’s too early to say he’s completely turned his game around. Two preseason games do not reveal that much -- and no one knows this better than the coaches, who urge caution. But Rambo does look like a different player, one who appears worthy of a spot on the 53-man roster. That is not how he looked at the end of last season.
“He’s gotten a hell of a lot better all around,” Redskins corner DeAngelo Hall said. “He’s been probably the best player on our team over the first two preseason games. He graded out great. He made plays we’ve asked him to make. He’s come up and tackled. He’s night and day from last year.”
Again, a word of caution: There’s a ways to go. Rambo’s on-field communication skills are not where they need to be (more on that in a moment). But there’s no doubt he’s playing more physical, more confident and more decisive.
In the preseason opener, he fought off a blocker to make a play, taking on a tight end, shedding him and then getting to the ball. Against Cleveland, he sprinted up to the ball carrier, drilled him low and the ball popped free. Rambo said that play was the result of tips he’s picked up from fellow safeties Ryan Clark and Brandon Meriweather, as well as secondary coach Raheem Morris.
“It allowed me to make a good tackle and force a fumble,” Rambo said.
Rambo’s angle was solid: Had he missed the tackle, the ball carrier would have been forced back inside to other defenders. That’s what the Redskins want. If you miss a tackle, at least force the runner back inside where there should be help.
“He’s starting to understand angles, leverage,” Redskins defensive coordinator Jim Haslett said. “Sometimes [in the past] he’d get too much space between him and the ball carrier. He just has a lot more confidence.”
“It’s knowing the scheme, knowing the coverages,” he said, “knowing where my help is at, knowing the depth I’m supposed to be at. I’m still learning, but it’s only going to get better."
Rambo was not ready to be a starter last season, but the Redskins had injuries at safety and not much depth. So a sixth-round rookie opened camp as the starter. Rambo now admits, “I was kind of nervous. Now I’m not. I’m ready to go.
“I was thinking too much,” Rambo said of 2013. “I have to just get out there and play and have fun and make everything simple and comfortable for me to play full speed. I was too worried about tackling and taking angles. Now I just find an angle and go. I don’t hesitate.
“I just have to go out and have fun and don’t worry about it. I start to talking and run around and laughing and enjoying the game. That’s what I wasn’t bringing to the game last year.”
The separator between Rambo and a player such as Clark is communication. Not to mention Clark has played with a certain toughness for a long time. Rambo must prove he can play a certain way against top quarterbacks -- Tom Brady picked on him a little bit in their dual practices.
But in practices there’s a difference with Clark on the field. He’s constantly telling the secondary what to look for, what’s coming and where the help is on the field. It’s a lot quieter when Rambo is deep.
“That’s the part he has to keep working at,” Haslett said. “He has to understand the free safety runs the back end. He’s getting better at it, but he’s not there yet. He’s concentrating on the other issues now. If he gets better at that other stuff, then this will come. It comes with confidence. The ball skills? He has those. He has good range and understands the scheme. It’s just having confidence and going out and doing it.”