New­com­ers turn ‘D’ into D.C. force

Re­vamped unit helps Red­skins change iden­tity

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - SPORTS - By Stephen Whyno

ASH­BURN, VA. — When the Wash­ing­ton Red­skins turned over al­most half their start­ing de­fense from last season, coach Jay Gru­den didn’t know how it would go.

“You’re never quite sure un­til they get here,” Gru­den said.

The Red­skins’ de­fen­sive new­com­ers are here, and so far they’re spec­tac­u­lar.

After adding safety D.J. Swearinger, line­backer Zach Brown and de­fen­sive line­men Stacy McGee and Ter­rell McClain in free agency, draft­ing line­man Jonathan Allen, line­backer Ryan An­der­son, safety Mon­tae Ni­chol­son and cor­ner­back Fabian Moreau and wel­com­ing line­backer Ju­nior Galette back from in­jury, Wash­ing­ton’s de­fense is ranked fifth in the NFL going into a Week 4 show­down at the un­de­feated Kansas City Chiefs on Mon­day night.

Gru­den said the im­proved de­fen­sive per­for­mance has a lot to do with the Red­skins up­grad­ing their ta­lent on that side of the ball.

“When you talk about why we’re bet­ter, we have bet­ter play­ers,” Gru­den said. “Guys are buy­ing in, but most im­por­tantly they’re play­ing hard, they’re play­ing fast and they’re play­ing phys­i­cal.”

It has only been three games, but after al­low­ing al­most 378 yards a game last season as the fourth-worst team in the league, the Red­skins are sur­ren­der­ing 272 a game. Op­po­nents’ 62.3 yards a game on the ground are the sec­ond-fewest in the league.

“That’s the iden­tity as a great de­fense,” Swearinger said. “You’ve got to stop the run, first and fore­most, and make teams one-di­men­sional and that’s what we’re going to try to con­tinue to do.”

Kansas City’s Ka­reem Hunt, who’s av­er­ag­ing 8.5 yards a carry and has four rush­ing touch­downs, is the next chal­lenge for this de­fense, which is deal­ing with a ham­string in­jury to Swearinger and shoul­der in­juries to Allen and line­backer Ma­son Fos­ter. Of course Wash­ing­ton has al­ready TV: Ra­dio: dealt with miss­ing pieces on de­fense after sec­ond-year safety Su’a Cravens left the team to con­tem­plate re­tire­ment and Fos­ter missed its Week 3 game against Oak­land.

De­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Greg Manusky has been able to mix and match all over as the unit has co­a­lesced ear­lier than ex­pected. Play­ing the high-oc­tane Raiders so early had a sil­ver lin­ing.

“With the per­fect prepa­ra­tion, any­thing can hap­pen,” Swearinger said. “I think with the stakes, with us hav­ing to play a big game so early, I think it was manda­tory that it came early.”

Gru­den hoped Allen, a first-round pick, would be able to con­trib­ute right away, though Moreau (third round) and Ni­chol­son (fourth) have ex­ceeded ex­pec­ta­tions. Sec­ond-year de­fen­sive line­man Matt Ioan­ni­dis, a 2016 fifth-round pick, has also made im­pres­sive strides.

The Red­skins’ free-agent sign­ings have also de­liv­ered, and Gru­den thinks there’s a com­mon theme.

“The good thing is that they all played,” Gru­den said about McGee, McClain, Brown and Swearinger. “Those guys aren’t like they are brand-new guys who haven’t played a lot of football. These guys have played a lot of football. It is just a mat­ter of get­ting to­gether with the ter­mi­nol­ogy and play­ing well with your team­mates. What drew us to those guys was their work ethic, how hard they played. They all seemed like smart guys, and they fit in well.”

Brown, who made the Pro Bowl last year with the Buf­falo Bills, has been as ad­ver­tised as a fun­da­men­tally sound tack­ler and has the sec­ond-most tack­les in the league. Cor­ner­back Josh Nor­man said Brown re­minds him of Carolina Pan­thers line­backer Luke Kuechly.

“ZB, he’s an awe­some guy in the mid­dle,” Nor­man said. “It makes a world of difference if you’ve got a line­backer.”

Mak­ing as big an im­pact as Brown is Swearinger, who quickly be­came the emo­tional leader of the de­fense and the en­tire team, as­sum­ing the role of giv­ing preprac­tice speeches in the huddle and serv­ing as a cap­tain. Swearinger is part of the up­graded safety play that has made a sub­stan­tial difference for the Red­skins.

RED­SKINS (2-1) AT CHIEFS (3-0)

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