As the Washington Redskins report to training camp Wednesday, they face a question no one anticipated asking a week ago: How can they generate a pass rush without linebacker Junior Galette? After all, if he was healthy the Redskins anticipated an improved rush that could take them further than the first round of the playoffs. Here's a look at some places they will turn to for help, or some options to consider:
Preston Smith's improvement: Just because someone records eight sacks as a rookie does not mean he will automatically become a double-digit guy the next season. Sacks are tough to get and, really, it’s as much about generating consistent pressure. Smith will have to show he can do that in his second year. But the good news for Washington is that he received the message about needing to be a better professional in terms of his approach and work habits. He was called out by teammates last season for not finishing on certain plays and he adjusted. His long arms and strength will help. The Redskins can still tap into his versatility in rush situations, and his length and quickness inside can be a problem for offenses. We know what Ryan Kerrigan will bring on the left side.
Su'a Cravens: Playing inside in nickel situations, Cravens offers more quickness/speed at linebacker than most. They have to hope that leads to some strong A-gap rushes, or occasional ones to the outside. They could run some games with Cravens and Smith, for example, as well. Cravens has plenty to learn, though. It’s not as if his primary job will be to rush the passer, but it provides another way to possibly help.
The front: For starters, and in case anyone’s wondering, Trent Murphy needs to remain along the defensive line. You can’t ask a guy to gain 20-plus pounds in the offseason and then, because of an injury right before camp opens, ask him to shed all that weight to play his old spot. He’s now a defensive end. Murphy does have length, and perhaps moving inside on rush downs will help. The Redskins also have to hope Stephen Paea returns to being the player he was in 2014 with Chicago when he recorded six sacks, leading to a good contract with Washington. Chris Baker is coming off a solid season with six sacks and, in a contract year, has plenty of motivation. Without Galette, the Redskins will need more from their interior rush. But, in reality, the front seven -- and defense overall -- must do a better job stopping the run and put offenses in worse positions to pass. If they allow 4.8 yards per carry as in 2015, offenses will again be in favorable spots and it will be tough to apply pressure, no matter who's rushing.
Better coverage: In theory, if you can cover a half-second longer, that could make the difference between a sack (or hurried throw) and a completion. The Redskins signed free agent cornerback Josh Norman and drafted Kendall Fuller in the third round. Both have helped make cornerback a position of defensive strength, paired with consistently ascending Bashaud Breeland and improving Quinton Dunbar. They have to hope their safety play, with DeAngelo Hall and David Bruton Jr., is consistent as well. Hall looked faster in the spring than he did last season coming off multiple leg issues (including an Achilles tear). That should enable the Redskins do disguise coverages a little better or have him rotate in ways they couldn’t in the past. This is a smart defense, so that could help with disguises, too, or at least with being more creative. They need to create a little extra confusion for quarterbacks.
Blitz more: This hasn’t been a staple of defensive coordinator Joe Barry's and, in fact, the Redskins only blitzed on 133 snaps, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Only four teams had fewer blitzes. The Redskins did produce 12 sacks off blitzes, but also allowed 14 touchdowns. By comparison, Seattle also only blitzed on 133 snaps and recorded 11 sacks -- but allowed just two touchdowns. The Seahawks’ coverage is excellent. Blitzing can stress secondaries, but the three defenses that blitzed most: the New York Jets, Arizona and Denver. All had excellent defenses, but also talented ones. If the Redskins’ secondary is more consistent in coverage, as they hope, then it could lead to a few more effective extra-man rushes.
Sign a veteran: One source said the Redskins will not be signing Dwight Freeney or Greg Hardy and, for now, did not have much interest in Mike Neal or O'Brien Schofield. But, as former Redskins beat reporter and current 106.7 The Fan personality Chris Russell rightly pointed out Wednesday on Twitter, teams often wait to sign veterans until after Week 1 -- so they don’t have to guarantee their salaries. It could be the Redskins eventually have to sign someone, but they also could wait and see if one of the young kids -- Willie Jefferson, Houston Bates among others -- looks like they can help. But remember this: Because we're talking about a third outside linebacker, they'll have to be someone who can do more than just rush the passer. If something happens to one of the starters, they'll need more than just a pass-rush specialist.