Sec­ondary has miles to go be­fore be­ing among elite

The Washington Times Daily - - SPORTS - BY MATTHEW PARAS

ASHBURN | Josh Nor­man laughed when asked about the nick­name D.J. Swearinger gave the Red­skins sec­ondary. He didn’t give it up a thumbs up or a thumbs down, in­stead opt­ing to stick his thumb out side­ways.

Nor­man isn’t sold yet on “The Flight Mar­shals.”

“We can work on a few things,” Nor­man said with a laugh. “... We have to pass our own test. We’ve got to go to camp first. So far, so good.”

Nick­names are usu­ally given to the NFL’s elite sec­on­daries. There’s the “Le­gion of Boom” in Seat­tle and the “No Fly Zone” in Den­ver. But the Red­skins’ pass cov­er­age has miles to go be­fore any­one would say it’s among the NFL’s best.

In what feels like an an­nual tra­di­tion, the Red­skins have re­tooled their sec­ondary and changed the de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor. Swearinger and Su’a Cravens have been run­ning with the first unit at safety, both of whom weren’t in those spots for the Red­skins last year. Swearinger was signed from Ari­zona in March and Cravens played mostly line­backer as a rookie.

For­mer lineback­ers coach Greg Manusky was pro­moted to de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor af­ter Joe Barry was fired. Tor­rian Gray was hired as the team’s de­fen­sive backs coach.

“Tal­ent can look great on pa­per, but if you don’t put in the work and the ef­fort to be the best, you won’t be the best,” Swearinger said. “So the good thing is, all four of us (starters) are putting in that work to el­e­vate our games to be the best.”

The re­sults weren’t pretty for the Red­skins de­fense last year. They ranked 25th in DVOA, a Foot­ball Out­siders met­ric which mea­sures ef­fi­ciency against a league base­line. In pass de­fense, they ranked 24th. They were poor on third down as well, al­low­ing teams to con­vert at a league-worst 46.6 per­cent.

Nor­man, who signed a 5-year, $75 mil­lion con­tract last year, was get­ting used to a new team af­ter hav­ing his fran­chise tag re­voked by the Carolina Pan­thers. De­spite the poor team re­sults, Nor­man said he was able to prove his worth on the field.

He took the la­bels of be­ing a “sys­tem player” per­son­ally and spent most of the time with the Red­skins in press cov­er­age and man-to-man com­pared to the Pan­thers’ zone-based scheme. Nor­man had three in­ter­cep­tions and 18 passes de­fended last sea­son.

Ac­cord­ing to Pro Foot­ball Fo­cus, Nor­man only al­lowed a catch ev­ery 13.5 cover snaps, which ranked fifth-best in the NFL.

“Last year was the year, I could ac­tu­ally stand in my own and say ‘OK, I can play what­ever you want me to play, coach. Put me in,’” Nor­man said. “I can go in nickel. I can come off the edge. I come sag, have a big play and smack a run­ning back in the back field. What­ever you need me to do. I’ll be the ham­mer and I’ll be the force.”

But there are ad­just­ments the Red­skins will make for Nor­man to be more ef­fec­tive. The cor­ner­back has dis­cussed play­ing more off the line of scrim­mage, which he said will al­low him to use his “reper­toire of tools.”

Red­skins coach Jay Gru­den said the change will al­low Nor­man to see the quar­ter­back.

“He is a route-read­ing ma­chine, so there are dif­fer­ent cov­er­ages where he can play off and see the quar­ter­back and he can break on the ball as good as any­body,” Gru­den said.

But as a unit, the de­fense ul­ti­mately failed last sea­son. The Red­skins missed the play­offs with an 8-7-1 record and lost a cru­cial Week 17 matchup to the New York Gi­ants. If the de­fense could have played more con­sis­tently, the Red­skins might have made the play­offs.

“We haven’t played this sea­son or a game yet, so it’s still fresh in our minds,” Nor­man said of the de­fense’s per­for­mance. “I think we still got a sour taste in our mouth. If we don’t, then I don’t know what you’re do­ing here.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Cor­ner­back Josh Nor­man said a re­vamped Wash­ing­ton Red­skins sec­ondary “can work on a few things. We have to pass our own test.”

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