The Washington Post
Revamped secondary shows off its promise
On second day of camp, Commanders DBS keep team’s offense in check
His burgundy shirt was already drenched with sweat from sprinting up and down the field, but Chris Harris couldn’t contain his enthusiasm, so he again highstepped it another 40 yards toward the line of scrimmage. The Washington Commanders defensive backs coach, a solo entertainment crew and hype man during practices, watched yet another one of his players deflect a pass, then declared for much of Ashburn to hear, “We own this s---!”
Turns out, Harris was not wrong.
The Commanders’ defense — notably the secondary — owned the second day of training camp, even if only a sparse crowd was there to witness it.
Throughout the nearly twohour practice, Washington’s defensive backs disrupted Carson Wentz’s passing game, helped
create trouble in the run and stymied an offense that, on paper, has the potential to be a dynamic improvement over that of last season.
If the secondary’s success lasts when the pads come on, it will be apparent that the group has changed drastically. According to Coach Ron Rivera and multiple players who took part in the skewed workout, the change is already obvious.
“There’s not really a lot of blown assignments,” wide receiver Terry Mclaurin said. “That’s a surefire sign of communication, and those guys know what they’re doing out there. They’re a confident group, but they put the work in, and I think that’s a testament to Coach Harris and the way he’s coaching those guys in that room.”
Added safety Bobby Mccain: “We know our roles. We know who we are. We know how to talk to each other. We know how to communicate.”
For the past two seasons, Washington has preached the need for better communication in its secondary, but aside from a few brief winning streaks late in the schedule, it never appeared on the same page consistently.
In 2020, Washington allowed opponents nine plays of 50 yards or more, the second most in the NFL that season.
In 2021, it gave up 7.6 yards per opponent pass attempt, the sixth most in the league.
“That’s one thing we’re preaching in the room, man, just communicating,” Mccain said. “. . . A lot of times you get in the room and you see bad plays, and it’s not necessarily the guy just making a crazy play. It’s more or less: ‘Oh, I didn’t know I had help. Oh, I didn’t get that call. Oh, I didn’t know this.’ So that’s all on communication. That’s all everybody doing just their piece to let the next guy know, like: ‘Hey, this is where I’m at. This is where your help is. And this is where the weaknesses are.’ ”
Unlike the past two seasons, the Commanders kept most of their defensive core intact, especially in the backfield. Among the leaders of the group is veteran cornerback Kendall Fuller, who’s beginning his seventh NFL season and his third in this latest go-round with Washington.
Despite no game-planning, Fuller was able to anticipate and quickly read the offense to fly all over the field Thursday and deflect multiple passes — including one that landed in the arms of linebacker Cole Holcomb, who ran it back for a touchdown.
Harris went nuts over that one.
“One of the smarter corners in this entire league, not just with his ability but his way to break down your splits, his ability to tell when you’re maybe tipping off your routes,” Mclaurin said of Fuller. “I tell a lot of our receivers, myself included, [it] could be kind of frustrating because it seems like he’s jumping everything, but that just forces us to be more clean in our footwork, in our routes and in our body demeanor.”
Fellow outside corner William Jackson is back for a second season, and he caught Mclaurin’s eye, too, for his explosiveness. And third-year player Kam Curl has picked up where he left off, using his versatility to play the Buffalo nickel, drop down in the box, stay deep as a safety and even move in the slot. He gives the defense options, and he gives Harris plenty more reasons to sprint, scream and high-five his players.
And Mccain, in his second season with Washington, has developed as a quick leader of the group. He has experience at both corner and safety and has taken on the role of mentor for the young defensive backs.
“I’ve seen it all,” he said. “I’ve played all five spots in the back end, so understanding football, it’s like ‘ one, two, three’ to me. You can always learn. You can always be better. I can always be better, and I can always learn. But anytime they have a question, and they can come to me, they know that.”
Acclimating to the team is a group of new and younger players — players with versatility and athleticism whose roles are hardly solidified for the season. The Commanders released Landon Collins in June, saving a sizable amount of salary cap space but leaving a void at safety and linebacker, where Collins played almost interchangeably in the latter half of the 2021 season.
Rivera noted this year’s secondary will appear much different, largely because of its personnel. In Collins’s absence, the team brought in rookies Percy Butler, Christian Holmes, Ferrod Gardner and Josh Drayden. It also retained second-year defensive backs Darrick Forrest and Benjamin St-juste while adding DeJuan Neal.
Washington has used St-juste, a lengthy corner whose first season was limited by concussions, in the nickel position, and the competition at the Buffalo spot, a key role in Jack Del Rio’s defense when it opts for a bigger nickel look, is brewing by the day.
“The guys that were given opportunities at the Buffalo and at the nickel position, I think those guys have really stepped up,” Rivera said. “Benjamin coming back and right now getting the first shot at the Buffalo seems to really be fitting and adapting to it nicely. Danny [Johnson’s] a guy that’s very consistent. We know who Danny is for us. Then we got a couple of young guys — I’m not going to name them. The less people know about them the better — but they’ve done a nice job.”
But Rivera didn’t need to say their names. Harris said them repeatedly as he sprinted up and down the field in celebration.