NEW ORLEANS -- The Washington Redskins’ defensive backs had a rough night Monday, and it had nothing to do with anything New Orleans Saints receiver Michael Thomas was doing after the snap. It had everything to do with what the Redskins failed to do.
And their problems go beyond just a few coverage breakdowns.
And some of that fell on cornerback Josh Norman, who was benched for the first series of the second half, a move that isn’t so shocking when you strip away last names and reputations. The bottom line: Norman has misplayed a coverage that resulted in a long touchdown in each of the past two games.
For a corner who has the highest salary-cap figure in the NFL, more is definitely expected. Losing a matchup is one thing; playing the wrong coverage is another.
Norman handled his one-series benching well, not spouting off after the game. He got into a back-and-forth battle with the Saints' Thomas on Twitter in the wee hours Tuesday morning.
“We want to be making plays. I want to be doing more,” Norman said. “I’m doing what I’m asked to do. You have to take solace in that and understand what is asked of you and try your hardest to be 110 percent on target. Sometimes you’re just not. It’s human nature.”
Against Green Bay, Norman failed to fully execute a quarters coverage call in which the safety drives on any sort of in route. So when his receiver faked an in route, causing safety D.J. Swearinger to race forward, Norman needed to stay with the man rather than anticipate inside help.
Monday night, the Saints used a formation that called for the Redskins to go with a Cover-3 zone. Norman, though, stayed in a Cover 2 -- the look the Redskins had shown pre-snap. That left the receiver, Tre'Quan Smith, all sorts of room to sprint downfield for one of the easiest 62-yard touchdowns he’ll ever have.
“We all know what happened,” Dunbar said, without wanting to say exactly who was at fault. “We just have to communicate. Different formations, we play different schemes and coverages. It’s our job; we get paid well enough to know the scheme and what we should be in on every scenario.”
Even had Norman played it properly, the Saints would have had a big play, as others did not seem to be on that so-called same page. A tight end was wide open underneath in a linebacker coverage area. But that wouldn’t have resulted in a touchdown, just a first down.
Earlier in the game, Washington had another coverage gaffe that led to a 46-yard gain on a second-and-17. On the play, there was clearly a breakdown: Swearinger sprints from what looked like a two-deep look into the box. But the slot corner to that side, Fabian Moreau, did not carry receiver Cameron Meredith down the field. There was no safety rotating to the deep middle and the linebacker was in one-on-one coverage with the tight end. The outside corner was occupied.
Regardless of blame or fault, the bottom line is that it happened too often. Some of that is to be expected, given the inexperience in the secondary. Nicholson made his 10th start Monday night, Moreau played 58 snaps last season and Dunbar is in his first season as a full-time starter. He’s also probably considered the most intense studier of the group.
When the Legion of Boom was in its heyday in Seattle, the defensive backs were known for studying all the time. Safety Earl Thomas once had a game in which he finished with a pick-6, yet made what he considered three mental mistakes. He didn’t waste time after the game with a shower, instead getting dressed, grabbing his tablet and watching those three plays in detail as he got to his car. That mindset was indicative of the group. There's a reason they excelled.
“Certain formations call for different coverages and we all have to be on one accord,” Dunbar said. “It don’t change only one person’s assignment; it changes everyone’s on the back end.”
Norman and Dunbar were also flagged for holding penalties. Worse, safety Montae Nicholson was called for unsportsmanlike conduct when he shoved a Saints player after a third-down sack. It eventually led to a touchdown. Greg Stroman, who replaced Norman, was beaten for a 35-yard touchdown.
The Redskins’ issues go beyond the secondary. At some point, when you’re stuck in the same spot for several years, it speaks to larger talking points. Swearinger touched on a theme after the game, saying how he’s “preaching, trying to change the culture.” And that “coaches and players have to have the same mindset that we’ve got a championship team.”
“We go to practice, there shouldn’t be any joking around,” he said. “Shouldn’t be any more joking around from nobody. We got blew out. Shouldn’t have any more playing or joking around. When it comes to work tomorrow, we need to be all business.”