ASHBURN, Virginia -- The Washington Redskins have opted for versatility over girth along the defensive line. It’s where the game is headed, but will it be enough to elevate their defense? They clearly believe it will; only time will reveal the answer.
But it’s why they didn’t sign another nose tackle after Terrance Knighton left in free agency. In the end, they would have welcomed him back, but New England was more serious about signing him. For the Redskins, he wasn’t versatile enough.
So if they’re going to improve up front, it will be because they believe in their versatility. And because they think veteran Kedric Golston can give them what Knighton did in their base 3-4 front as a nose tackle.
"Versatile is a good word," Redskins defensive coordinator Joe Barry said. "The way the NFL is going, that traditional nose guard, he only plays 10-15 snaps a game. This is becoming such a throwing league… The fullback position, for example, it’s almost extinct. ... Going into this season, I think we can almost feel comfortable without having one of those traditional nose guards."
This isn’t just about having a traditional nose tackle. The problem is, the Redskins still must stop the run and they failed to do so at a high rate last season. They ranked 31st against the run, allowing 4.83 yards per carry. They ranked last in defending first-down runs, allowing 5.01 per carry. So, while it’s a passing league, if you allow such numbers you likely will struggle defensively. The Redskins know this. Of the bottom 10 teams defending first-down runs last last season, only two had winning records (Minnesota and Washington), according to ESPN Stats & Information. An important point: Stopping the run is far from the line’s responsibility alone.
The Redskins must tout their versatility, because they do have some. Mostly, it’s about having players who can help whether at end or at tackle in their nickel package. Defending the run out of the nickel was a big issue, partly because for part of the season the inside linebackers were inconsistent hitting their gaps, and partly because they needed more tackles who could move laterally. They hope that rookie Matt Ioannidis can do so. If Trent Murphy can contribute along the front in his first year as a lineman, it would give them someone with a little more quickness than traditional tackles (where he will sometimes align in the nickel). But how long will it be before he’s able to play without thinking?
End Chris Baker is versatile. End Stephen Paea was versatile in Chicago before signing with Washington. If he returns to his 2014 level, it would help in a big way. They have versatility; they need it to be effective.
The Redskins’ defensive versatility likely will be felt more on pass downs, because of the potential of the outside linebackers -- Ryan Kerrigan, Preston Smith and Junior Galette. They can be used in different ways as each offers unique skills. The secondary has some as well, though that depends on the transition of DeAngelo Hall and Will Blackmon to safety. Hall will start, but if Blackmon shows he can play it, their dime packages would be helped with players who can cover more ground -- and still perhaps cover certain receivers one-on-one. Rookie Su'a Cravens offers versatility: he’s big enough to play near the line and defend the run, but faster than a typical linebacker. And cornerback Josh Norman can be a playmaker.
I also love the mindset of the defense; they have players with attitudes and passion -- both traits matter.
The Redskins just won’t have that massive man in the middle this season (they had it last season and it didn’t matter).
"We’re going to be able to have multiple different guys to play that position. So I think it’s a nice advantage," Barry said. "We have a bunch of guys that can be in that position, not just the old-fashioned, traditional 360-pound nose guard."
So, yes, versatility will be the buzzword this season. Opposing offenses demand you have some. But that leaves us with one question impossible to answer now: Will that be enough?