Redskins might now have the NFL’s best safety duo; how will the two fit together?
— D.J. Swearinger said felt disrespected last week when the statistics website Pro Football Focus ranked him as the top safety in the league but used a picture of second-ranked Ha Ha Clinton-Dix in a social-media graphic. Now the two will be patrolling the defensive backfield together, after the Redskins sent a fourth-round pick to the Packers for the Pro Bowler in a deal made just ahead of Tuesday’s NFL trade deadline.
Does the move immediately give Washington the top safety tandem in the league?
“Let’s put it this way: They should not take a back seat to anyone,” FOX analyst Charles Davis said.
Washington has been one of the top defenses in the league through eight weeks of the season. It is the No. 2 run defense and the No. 5 scoring defense, giving up just 19.1 points per game. But the Redskins have been a bit more vulnerable through the air, giving up 242.3 yards per game to rank No. 13 in the NFL.
They’ve also had some injuries in the defensive backfield, with starting cornerback Quinton Dunbar missing the last two games with a nerve issue in his leg and rookie safety Troy Apke being placed on injured reserve due to a problematic hamstring. Almost every player is a bit banged up this time of year, and there has been some discussion that Montae Nicholson, who has started at safety alongside Swearinger this season, is among them. Clinton-Dix, who is expected
to start in place of Nicholson, provides some insurance in the form of a former first-round pick who has never missed a game and earned a Pro Bowl appearance in 2016.
Clinton-Dix and Swearinger have the ability to play interchangeable roles, Davis said, but to play to each safety’s greatest strengths, it’s likely that Clinton-Dix will serve as the free safety responsible for deep coverage, with Swearinger playing the strong safety role down in the box.
“I just think that the strengths of the two, Ha Ha a little more center fielder, D.J. [as a] big time hammer,” Davis said. “So, the more active you can have him down in the box playing the run game, the better you are. It doesn’t mean they can’t flip positions, and they probably will in certain situations depending on late adjustments and things of that nature. But if you want to play your best, you play to the strengths of them.”
Swearinger has played 45 percent of his snaps at free safety this season, according to Pro Football Focus, but he has also spent a significant amount of time as a strong safety (28 percent) and in the slot (25 percent).
Davis pointed to plays from the last two games to highlight Swearinger’s playmaking ability near the line of scrimmage. He picked off Giants quarterback Eli Manning in the red zone when he passed off a receiver and jumped a route by Odell Beckham Jr. last week. Against Dallas, Swearinger forced a Dak Prescott fumble on a short run by coming down and exploding into the quarterback. That’s where the sixth-year veteran shines.
A knock on Clinton-Dix has been his physicality, although two seasons of 100-plus tackles and two seasons of 79 tackles show some willingness to bring down the ball carrier. Regardless, playing alongside Swearinger makes that less of a necessity.
Former Redskins general manager Charley Casserly, now an NFL Network analyst, shared a similar opinion in a tweet.
“I like the trade of Ha Ha Clinton Dix @packers to the @Redskins,” he tweeted. “It gives them a true Free Safety. It allows DJ Swearinger to be full time at Strong Safety which is best position.”
There is also the chance that Nicholson could see the field at the same time along with Swearinger and Clinton-Dix. NFL defenses play nickel defense more often than they play base defense in today’s game, given the rise in passing offenses leaguewide. The Redskins have had five defensive backs on the field on 78 percent of snaps so far this season, according to Pro Football Focus, which is well above the league average. That alignment typically includes three cornerbacks and two safeties, but the range of Nicholson and Clinton-Dix could give coaches options.
The reactions from players about the Redskins’ acquisition were largely positive. Swearinger approved with an Instagram post that read, “GET READY!! Bout To Be The Best Safeties You Ever Saw ... They Don’t Know We Got Chemistry Already!!”
Redskins cornerback Josh Norman used several emoji in a tweet that basically said: It’s over with.
There is a decent chance that Clinton-Dix will be a short-term rental for Washington. He is playing out the team-option fifth year of his rookie contract and is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent after the season. The Redskins would then need to decide if they wanted to re-sign him to a long-term contract or allow him to leave in free agency.
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (21), along with D.J. Swearinger, gives the Redskins one of the strongest safety duos in the NFL.