ASHBURN, Va. -- The lineup doesn't look anything like what the Washington Redskins wanted -- or hoped -- to see this season. They anticipated a pass-rushing force at one linebacker spot, and a Pro Bowl cornerback on the outside. And a group that would improve in part because of those additions.
What they have instead is a group that somehow has survived despite numerous changes. That potential Pro Bowl corner, Chris Culliver, tore his ACL on Thanksgiving Day and was replaced by a player sitting at home in Week 1. Their starting inside linebackers include a former undrafted player and another who was at home the first two weeks of the season.
It’s not ideal. Yet the Redskins are still alive.
“If you told me in [training camp], the group that’s playing would be playing, I’d probably say, ‘Heck, no,’" coach Jay Gruden said.
The Redskins’ defense has five players sidelined who were expected to be key components: Cuulliver, linebackers Junior Galette, Keenan Robinson and Perry Riley Jr., and safety Duke Ihenacho. Robinson is now almost healthy but might not start regardless, and Riley is another week away -- at least -- from returning.
They have former undrafted free agents such as end Chris Baker and linebacker Will Compton starting. They have a rookie undrafted receiver-turned-corner serving as their No. 3 corner (Quinton Dunbar). They have a former Pro Bowl corner who switched to safety (DeAngelo Hall), and two other starters who were at home the first week of the season (corner Will Blackmon and linebacker Mason Foster).
In Sunday’s starting lineup, they’ll have one former first-round pick (Ryan Kerrigan), a second-round pick, three third-rounders, three fourth-rounders, a sixth-rounder and two undrafteds -- with a third possible if the Bills force them into a nickel package from the get-go.
But that mish-mash unit has done OK. In the past three weeks, the Redskins rank 10th in the NFL in points allowed per game, 15th in yards allowed, and second in turnovers forced (seven).
“Sometimes players do get that opportunity and they don’t take advantage of it,” Gruden said. “Fortunately for us, we’ve had a lot of guys that have had the opportunity and taken advantage of it.”
That’s part of why it’s worked. Another part is having the right mix. Blackmon and Foster have been praised for their preparation and readiness. They were hungry as well.
“Imagine you’re a player sitting on the couch and you don’t do anything and you get that call,” Redskins end Ricky Jean Francois said. “The last thing in the back of your mind is returning to that couch. So when those guys came in, they don’t want to return to that couch. They want to make a name for themselves.”
“After missing the first couple weeks of the season, I enjoy every little thing,” Foster said. “Little stuff like being sore and lifting weights, stuff that people don’t think you would enjoy. You enjoy being tired because before you were sitting at home. You never want to have that feeling again. I’ll do what I have to do to make sure I’m not at home watching when I feel I can still play.”
The Redskins’ defensive leadership is strong, which has helped. They have strong leaders in every meeting room, and young players willing to follow. But Compton said it’s about being ready for your opportunity. When he talks to NFL alumni who played at Nebraska (where he played as well), one theme always comes up: The NFL Is about taking advantage of your opportunity. So, in other words, be ready.
“Some people might have better measurements or better times,” Compton said, “but when you’re inside the lines you can have a tremendous first-rounder running all around and you might have someone else without those measurements but who takes a better angle or maybe is into the details and gets the same job done. It comes down to preparing. If you’re not prepared, you’ll be humbled no matter how highly touted you were.”
Compton said a certain spirit has ensued because so many former backups are now playing. He’s noticed that some rookies have noticed how others, such as safety Kyshoen Jarrett, have been praised for their performance. So they want to raise their level of play, and expectations are raised as well. If one young player is doing it, then why not another?
“When you see energy and guys playing well and being encouraged and compliments are being thrown,” Compton said, “you want to join in. ... For me, it’s making sure there’s always energy. Some of the older guys might need a day of rest so I’ll tell Mason all the time, ‘I know we’re hurting right now, but we have to bring energy in practice. We have to talk, talk, talk until people get annoyed by it.’ We’re just coming together with a lot of guys who just understand.”