John Keim, ESPN Staff Writer 324d

Redskins' strong start on defense helped by talent addition, coaching changes

ASHBURN, Virginia -- The Washington Redskins' defense gets rewarded for its effort in shutting down a good offense by ... facing an even better one. But, regardless, the Redskins should feel good about what they're starting to build defensively. And, yes, their defense was a big topic in the mailbag questions. Is it scheme or talent? Let's take a look.

John Keim: I’m going to start with the defensive line because to me that’s the reason they’re playing well. And, yes, they have more talent. But when I ask some defensive players, the name they mention most: line coach Jim Tomsula. He’s an upbeat, energetic guy and that matters. Think of bosses you’ve had; that’s what you’d want, right? But along with that, he’s so detailed and has them playing technically sound. I’ve watched him work with his linemen during practice and then seen them use what they’ve been taught in a game, the way to take on certain blocks. He has their attention.

When Greg Manusky was hired, my thought was that if he hired a good staff, he could be a good coordinator. Gregg Williams excelled here because he’s smart but also due to a talented staff. Manusky, I believe, has that as well. So, yeah, his schemes are working and I think he did a nice job with his game plan vs. Oakland and he's proven thus far to be a good hire. But the best thing he and the organization did was hiring Tomsula -- one player called it their most important offseason acquisition. Secondary coach Torrian Gray also has worked out nicely thus far.

The linemen have been excellent and it starts with their mindset. That’s the No. 1 reason they re-signed Ziggy Hood and let others leave. But the addition of rookie Jonathan Allen and the development of Matt Ioannidis have been pivotal. Give the Redskins credit, yes. But Allen fell to them and Ioannidis deserves a huge pat on the back because you can’t develop if the player doesn’t put in the work or isn’t capable. Ioannidis is capable; he was just a rookie playing out of position at nose.

“We’re taking the small things and doing them correctly,” Hood said, “and making sure we’re the reason our outside linebackers or middle linebackers are making the play. If we can get them to the Pro Bowl, then our job is done.”

Another factor? Hood said they're accountable. That can sometimes sound like a football cliché. But he said it's real.

"That means I can have full trust in the guy next to me," Hood said. "If I mess up, I know he'll be there to have my back and vice versa. When guys do that, it can make for a good defense."

Too often in the past, they struggled to defend the run in nickel not because they had fewer linemen, but because not everyone did their job -- creating large cutback lanes. The linebackers were blamed, but it started with the front.

Then you go to safety D.J. Swearinger. Yes, linebacker Zach Brown's addition has been beneficial. But having the line they do and then someone in the back end who communicates and leads the way Swearinger does makes it easier on the linebackers as well as the other safeties. The linemen are doing an excellent job taking on blockers and letting the linebackers make plays. Couple that with Brown’s speed? A winning combination.

Finally, the outside linebackers have been excellent. The corners are playing well.

It’s an odd spot to be in after so many years of bad defenses, but the Redskins deserve praise -- so far -- for how this defense has been built. The draft and free agency yielded major contributors (I haven’t even mentioned Montae Nicholson until now). It’s the best spot they’ve been at in years. Now they just have to prove themselves, once more, Monday night.

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