ASHBURN, Va. -- The Washington Redskins’ defense exhibits the summertime optimism that accompanies change: The new safety (D.J. Swearinger) looks like he’ll help; the rookies up front (end Jonathan Allen, linebacker Ryan Anderson) appear to be good picks and the free agent linebacker (Zach Brown) has started to emerge.
But this group might not receive a good test for a second consecutive preseason game. There’s a chance Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers won’t play Saturday, with coach Mike McCarthy holding him out for a second consecutive preseason game, just like last summer. If that happens, then the Redskins defense will have missed another starting quarterback -- and a chance to see how much they’ve truly improved. Baltimore’s Joe Flacco did not play in the opener because of a back injury.
The Redskins’ defense did play well along the front against the Ravens, a good sign regardless of the quarterback. Last week, they started ends Ziggy Hood and Stacy McGee and nose Phil Taylor in their base front. It’s possible that Saturday, Hood will start at nose tackle, flanked by McGee and Terrell McClain. Matt Ioannidis and Allen opened as the tackles in nickel and could do so again Saturday. The Redskins’ defense was physical in the opener.
The Redskins sat quarterback Kirk Cousins for the second game last summer, but he’s expected to play Saturday. Still, how much work he gets remains uncertain. Last year, he was working with a veteran group of receivers with whom he had experience. That’s not the case this summer, at least when it comes to Terrelle Pryor.
They’ve connected quite often in practice, but missed on Cousins’ one attempt to him last week -- a high and wide throw that forced the 6-foot-4 Pryor to reach high. It would have caused Pryor to be hit hard after the play as well. They need more game experience together. Coach Jay Gruden said they have a “lot of work to do” in getting their on-field relationship perfected.
“But they’ve come a long way from when he first got here,” Gruden said. “Getting to know each other and the type of balls that, you know, Terrelle can handle in the red zone and all that stuff, they’re still working through that. But, I like where they’re going. I like their progress. I like both of them communicating and working well together.”
Other aspects to monitor vs. Green Bay:
Better blocking: Whether you want to say they must be more physical, better prepared or whatever, they need to do a better job run blocking. Last week’s failure wasn’t just a matter of preparation, something that was obvious when re-watching the game. On some plays the Redskins fared well, aside from longtime veterans (Trent Williams, Vernon Davis, Chris Thompson) either losing or missing their assignments. Regardless, as a group they absolutely must play more physical and at least generate some success running the ball. It’s not about being a run team vs. a pass team, but it is about establishing a mindset -- and needing to be a team that can run when needed. Too often last year they struggled vs. the better run defenses, such as Baltimore. Green Bay was not as good vs. the run in 2016 and struggled with tackling in its preseason opener.
Linebacker duo: The Redskins will start Zach Brown and Mason Foster in the middle. A big key will be how they believe Foster handles calling the signals and audibilizing -- and then, of course, playing. Foster played well at the end of last season. Brown’s speed and athleticism were evident in the preseason opener; he’ll have to be more consistent in coverage, but he can go sideline to sideline well and is tough to handle on blitzes.
Backup offensive linemen: Arie Kouandjio has mostly worked with the third line for a week, putting him behind undrafted free agent rookie Kyle Kalis. Another undrafted free agent, Tyler Catalina, has worked as the No. 2 right guard. If Kouandjio showed he also could play tackle, it would help his cause. That’s going to be difficult. There’s a chance the Redskins will keep only three reserve offensive linemen – and only tackle Ty Nsekhe would have any experience. Rookie center Chase Roullier has consistently backed up starter Spencer Long. Tackle Vinston Painter has worked as the No. 2 right tackle. But the Redskins need their backups to be able to play another line spot in a pinch.
Defensive backs: Rookie Fabian Moreau (corner) and Montae Nicholson (safety) both are available after missing the first preseason game while recovering from offseason injuries. Moreau plays an aggressive corner and has bit hard on some fakes in practice. He has starting capabilities, though when those emerge is anyone’s guess. With Su'a Cravens out, Deshazor Everett will start. He’s progressed nicely after switching from corner in the 2016 offseason but to this point has been viewed mostly as a backup and special-teamer.
Special teams: Specifically, the receivers. Rookie Brian Davis made a stop in coverage, a good sign for him as he tries to win a roster spot. But that also means a lot someone such as veteran Brian Quick. The Redskins have worked him as a gunner in practices; handling that role would help him quite a bit.
“He’s done a nice job [at receiver] when given those opportunities,” Redskins receivers coach Ike Hilliard said of Quick. “He has to clean up the mental mistakes that come with the progression of the offense. That’s his biggest challenge, limiting those mistakes.”