4 Downs: Redskins @ Titans
This inaugurates a new article here at DC Pro Sports Report, 4 Downs. I’ll be doing it before each game to examine the four issues that are most important to the Redskins. You’ll get only unvarnished truth and opinion here, no punting allowed.
1st Down: ROOKIE DEFENSIVE BACKS
The Redskins are going to start three rookie defensive backs in this game — safeties Bacarri Rambo and Phillip Thomas and cornerback David Amerson. Rambo and Thomas are 4th and 6th round draft picks, respectively, while Amerson was drafted in the second round, Washington’s first pick overall. Due to injuries to starters Josh Wilson, DeAngelo Hall and Brandon Meriweather, all three rookies have gotten plenty of reps in training camp, including with the first team. Thomas and Amerson are not expected to be starters when the season begins, but injuries happen. Rambo is the favorite to start at free safety and tonight is his first chance to show the coaching staff that their confidence in him is not misplaced. In Rambo’s case the competition is weak enough that a decent showing in the preseason is probably enough to get him the starting job. He needs to prevent big passing plays, but also show he can bang near the line of scrimmage, since Washington’s defensive schemes frequently require the safeties to share roles and be interchangeable.
Thomas will be the backup to Brandon Meriweather, but Meriweather has never been healthy in a Redskins uniform so it would surprise no one if Thomas played a lot this year, including as a starter. Thomas needs to show he can hit receivers hard, stuff the run, but still keep up with tight ends and handle deep zone defenses.
There’s a very good chance Amerson will be starting in 2014, if not earlier, since both Wilson and Hall will be unrestricted free agents next season. Like Rambo, Amerson had a penchant for making big plays and turnovers in college, but he also had a reputation for giving up long completions, as well. He needs to show he can play smarter, while also supporting the run the way Hall and Wilson do.
2nd Down: RETURN SPECIALISTS
Last year’s incumbents, TE/KR Niles Paul and CB/PR Richard Crawford, both took over from Brandon Banks when he consistently failed to make big plays despite his incredible speed. Paul is the slowest competitor for the KR job, but he averaged almost 25 yards per return last year, which is perfectly respectable. And considering how many kickoffs result in touchbacks under the 35-yard-line kickoff rule, the KR duties are no longer as important as they once were. The kickoff return has been eliminated from the Pro Bowl, starting this season, and I regard that as a precursor to eliminating it from football altogether. [My view is that a team that scores should get the ball at their own 35-yard line with the play from scrimmage being 4th and 15, or the team that got scored on gets the ball at their own 25-yard line. This would make comebacks more possible and, thus, make the game more exciting. But that's for a different article.]
Crawford took over PR duties late last year and it was his 64-yard return in overtime against the Ravens that sealed the victory for the Redskins. Most of his punt returns were considerably less dramatic, but that’s usually the case with punt returners — they go weeks doing relatively little and then they explode with a big play that alters the outcome of a game. The fact that Crawford, like Paul, serves another role on the team should help his cause because it allows the coaches to economize here while adding another roster player somewhere else. The competition for Crawford and Paul is mostly the same — rookies like RB Chris Thompson, WR Skye Dawson and WR Nick Williams. It is Williams who has the college pedigree, but unless he will need to turn in a big play or two to justify a spot on the roster when he probably can’t win one outright as a wide receiver. Thompson is very, very fast and likely to make the team anyway, so he could be a real threat to Paul and Crawford, but Thompson must first prove he can stay healthy. The early returns from training camp are not encouraging.
3rd Down: WIDE RECEIVER
We know Pierre Garcon, Josh Morgan, Santana Moss, Leonard Hankerson and Aldrick Robinson are all locks or very likely to make the team. What we don’t know is if one of the veterans — Donte’ Stallworth or Devery Henderson — will make a case for keeping a sixth wideout who probably doesn’t play special teams. Or will one of the younger guys — Skye Dawson, Nick Williams, Chip Reeves — make their own case for the final roster by creating some big plays from scrimmage and in the return game [see above].
Another question is where the more established wideouts will fall in the pecking order. Garcon is in a class by himself and will be one starter. Moss is having another great camp and will be the team’s slot receiver despite his 34 years of age. Josh Morgan was not healthy last year, still recovering from an injury suffered with the 49ers, and probably didn’t show his best in 2012. He’s healthy now and should have the ability to win the other wideout spot. Morgan is certainly the favorite, but Robinson is having a big camp and the fact that he’s easily the fastest of the receivers gives him an edge in an offense built around the big play in the passing game. Robinson caught long touchdown passes against the Eagles and Cowboys last year, but then disappeared from the offense over the final five weeks of the season. Does he have the consistency now to stay on the field and be more than a guy who catches a couple of 55-yard TD passes all season?
Finally, there is Leonard Hankerson. He’s struggled with his hands, his route-running and overall consistency. He seems to be fully recovered from the knee injury that ended his rookie season, but, like Robinson, he’s now in year three and this is the time promising wideout talents are supposed to break out. Hankerson was a third round pick in 2011 and was not supposed to be fighting for playing time by now, he was supposed to be guaranteed of it. He’s clearly underachieved to this point of his career, but the Redskins invested a lot in him and will give him every opportunity to justify their original confidence. Hankerson’s campaign for more playing time and more passes thrown his way should start tonight, against the Titans.
4th Down: RIGHT TACKLE
Right tackle has been a problem for the Redskins since Jon Jansen was let go and the team has failed to do anything about it since. Mike Shanahan traded valuable draft picks to get Jammal Brown from the Saints even though his injury history was problematic. Right on cue, Brown repeatedly demonstrated that he couldn’t overcome his hip problems, which were now chronic and virtually untreatable in any way that would be useful on a football field. Despite clear signs Brown’s career was in a death spiral, Shanahan continued to rely on him and eventually, at the last moment, had to turn to Tyler Polumbus to take over the job of protecting Robert Griffin III from the right side of the line. He couldn’t do it. Polumbus was easily the worst offensive lineman on the starting unit for the Redskins last year and, in fact, was one of the worst starting right tackles in the league in 2012.
With an unjust $18 million salary cap penalty hanging around their necks, Washington was unable to aggressively address right tackle in free agency and had to settle for bringing in a few retreads to challenge Polumbus. Tony Pashos is a decent starting right tackle — or, at least, he was. Pashos missed all of 2012 to injury, but is allegedly healthy now. We’ll find out soon enough. Jeremy Trueblood is another free agent acquisition and he’s healthy, but just not very good. He got benched in Tampa Bay early in the 2012 season and has looked poor in camp so far. His height [6'8"] makes it hard for him to hold his position and his center of gravity is too high. He also doesn’t move well enough for the position. I doubt he makes the team, but he’s got a chance to prove me wrong, beginning tonight.