- John Keim, ESPN Staff Writer
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What we learned after watching the Washington Redskins' defense in Richmond:
Based on one preseason game, they benefited from the more physical camp run by coach Jay Gruden. It’s a small sample size, but the Redskins tackled better against the Patriots in the preseason opener. If that continues, then you can perhaps thank Gruden. The Redskins barely hit in practice the past four years and routinely struggled to tackle early in the preseason, and that carried into the regular season. They always were among the worst in yards after contact and yards per pass attempt. Broken tackles.
If the Redskins tackle well, the defense will be better. Of course, sometimes that also stems from having the right guys trying to make those tackles or putting them in the right spots. But the extra yards allowed killed them (as did big plays, which were not just a result of missed tackles). It was a point of emphasis in camp and, to date, it's been better.
They are optimistic, but they were a year ago, too. A lot was out of their control: turnovers by the offense, bad special teams play. But they didn’t exactly lift the rest of the team with their play either. Still, they've shown more energy and that's a start.
They truly believe they will be more aggressive in terms of play calls and schemes. Doesn’t always mean sending more than four rushers -- the coaches believe they have more versatility and flexibility. It also means freeing up the rushers -- Ryan Kerrigan and Brian Orakpo -- to focus more on the rush and not just rushing to contain the quarterback. It is why they can have a better pass rush, but even then a key will be how sound the secondary plays. Tough to know based on camp how that will unfold.
The defense has been freed to play the way it wants. Now it’s time to prove what they can do. No more excuses.
Keenan Robinson has a chance to be good. He is not there yet; there are times when Robinson is fooled or must pause because of his inexperience. But Robinson will help: as a blitzer, in coverage. He has the speed and size to take plays away in the pass game that would have been completed in the past.
Perry Riley could have a good season, more similar to 2012 than ’13.
With Robinson and Riley, the Redskins have solid speed inside. They like to put Robinson next to rookie Trent Murphy in their fast nickel -- it creates a one-on-one for Robinson.
The safety position remains an issue. We still don’t know what Ryan Clark still has left (he is a terrific communicator -- he constantly talks to the cornerbacks about what he is reading from the offense -- and you can’t underestimate that) or if he can last 16 games. The depth remains questionable. Bacarri Rambo was better in the first preseason game, but that is a far cry from being ready to be a consistent quality player or backup. And Phillip Thomas has yet to prove what he can do. The starters need to stay healthy.
Trenton Robinson likes contact.
Darryl Sharpton likes contact.
Both players need to be more disciplined with their assignments.
Clark is a celebrity, his profile raised by analyst work and also having played with some fantastic defenses in Pittsburgh. He is one of the few on the defense who understands what it takes for a unit to play at a certain level.
David Amerson is a skilled player. He has improved over last year, too, thanks to a strong offseason. But can he become a quality No. 1 cornerback? Not sold on that yet.
Brian Baker is a passionate coach who is a stickler for details when it comes to fundamentals. He is huge on talking about the hips and explosiveness. And he even has a drill in which the outside linebackers rush with their eyes closed, keeping a hand on the lineman’s chest so they can feel where the blocker is putting his weight and adjust accordingly. Both Kerrigan and Orakpo say they love drills like this.
Jason Hatcher needs to provide an interior push. Alas, we have no idea how he will fit in yet because he hasn’t done much. Despite a good camp for Jarvis Jenkins, there is no one else who can provide pressure inside like Hatcher.
The line could be a help or an issue. How is that for decisiveness? Barry Cofield looked terrific last summer; haven’t seen that same level of play this summer, though it’s not like he’s getting pushed around, either. If Hatcher helps, Cofield will benefit -- from less responsibility and also from having more help alongside him at times. Still have no idea when Stephen Bowen will return or what his level will be. Will Jenkins carry his good camp into the season? Even still, will he provide the sort of push they need?
Tracy Porter is still showing rust from missing the offseason after shoulder surgery. Richard Crawford is showing the same after his recovery from last summer’s knee surgery. But Porter was signed to play the slot; Crawford is in a fight just to make the roster. The Redskins need Porter to help.
Bashaud Breeland is a good-looking rookie. He is not ready to start by any means, but the Redskins feel he can develop into one in the future. I like his instincts and toughness. The Redskins needed more of the latter among the young backup defensive backs.
Murphy is the first to point out what he must work on in his game. Never seems to be satisfied. Murphy understands how he must play and where his eyes must be. He has applied more pressure when rushing inside than off the edge -- or when angling underneath the tackle. He plays low for a big man. He also needs more work in coverage.