ASHBURN, Va. -- Washington Redskins safety D.J. Swearinger sat on the couch for nearly a half hour, going over his NFL story. Then he sat for another 15 doing the same with another reporter. Then he headed to the locker room to greet another round of media questions, about his own play and the arrival of Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.
Yes, Swearinger is a popular player. He also happens to be a story for another reason: how well he’s playing.
“I feel I am the best safety in the league and I’ll continue to prove that,” Swearinger said. “This is the first year I had the opportunity to be the No. 1[-ranked] safety.”
Swearinger was quite proud that Pro Football Focus has rated him as the top safety. Rankings might not always tell the full story, but there’s little doubt that Swearinger, with four interceptions, is playing well and belongs in any discussion of who’s playing best at the position.
Here’s why Swearinger thinks he has gone from a failed second-round pick in Houston to being with his fourth team -- and now a standout. And he’s only 27.
Swearinger has rotated positions, first as a nickel linebacker in Houston and then a safety, both free and strong. When he first started in Houston under coach Gary Kubiak, Swearinger liked his role. He said that changed when Bill O’Brien took over.
“My first year, Kubiak let me be myself,” he said. “Let me do whatever as long as I played ball. The next year, O’Brien was a control guy, ‘You can’t do this; can’t do that.’”
Last season, his first with Washington, he often had to play free safety because of injuries to the starter at that spot, Montae Nicholson. But Nicholson has started all seven games this season, allowing Swearinger to typically play in the box, with occasional drops deep. Nicholson has a sore hip and neck, but if he has to sit out a week, the Redskins can use the newly acquired Clinton-Dix and keep Swearinger in the box. His best grades in the past, he said, came while in the box.
“I told my mom if I play strong safety, I’ll easily be the No. 1 safety,” he said. “I’m smarter and quicker in the box than a lot of cats are. I use my smarts more than a lot of safeties do. Playing in the box in Houston made it easy for me. I played linebacker. I knew how to fit and where to fit [against the run]. I knew pulling linemen. And going back to free, I’d seen the offense from a big-picture standpoint. So when I went back to strong it was easy for me. It was natural.”
Against the New York Giants on Sunday, his preparation paid off in the red zone. He knew that when the Giants were in this area, and aligned the running back to the same side as a three-receiver set, they would run one of two concepts. He was positioned in what appeared to be man coverage over the inside receiver, tight end Evan Engram. Before the snap, Swearinger turned and pointed to others in the secondary to alert them of what he anticipated.
On the snap, based on the tight end’s release, he knew it was the Giants’ "Steeler" concept in which the tight end runs to the corner and the No. 2 receiver to that side -- Odell Beckham Jr. -- runs a slant. Swearinger engaged the tight end, conning quarterback Eli Manning into thinking he was in man coverage. Then he jumped the slant for the pick.
Swearinger said he breaks down plays based on situation: first down, second down, third down, red zone or two-minute. It helps him eliminate unnecessary effort and focus on the expected outcome. In addition to the work the players put in at the facility, he said he watches at least two hours of film on his team-issued iPad every night at home.
“I study the game like no other and try to steal everything I can,” he said. “I eliminate routes and formations and know when I can take chances.”
That’s what happened against Indianapolis in Week 2, when Swearinger intercepted two passes. On the second, the Colts used a three-receiver set to the right, where Swearinger was aligned deep near the hash. He knew when receiver T.Y. Hilton was the middle receiver, he would either run a deep, in-breaking route or go deep. Hilton ran the dig and Swearinger broke hard for the pick.
“That’s one of the ones I saw on film,” he said.
It’s not just about the offseason work he does in Miami, running in the sand or performing agility drills during intense heat. Or the sessions in the boxing ring. It’s also about the details. That’s why, during practice breaks every Thursday and Friday, Swearinger will have someone throw him passes.
“I always get my hand on the ball and I always do late catches. I don’t see the ball thrown,” he said. “I look late and I catch it late.”
After he released the tight end against the Giants, Swearinger turned and took two steps and hit Beckham’s inside shoulder just as the ball arrived. But Swearinger secured the tough grab.
“That’s what helped me on that one,” he said. “If I don’t do that, I probably wouldn’t have caught that ball.”
Three years ago, when he played in Tampa Bay, Swearinger eliminated most meats from his diet, keeping only chicken and fish. Then for two years he cut out chicken and ate only fish. After two years of being pescatarian, Swearinger took another plunge and became a vegan.
“I don’t get tired. I recover faster. Everything is more clear,” Swearinger said. “I was smart before, but it’s way more faster now. I feel like there’s no, ‘uhhhh.’ It’s like a snap of the finger, especially when we’re talking about watching stuff on film and noticing things before other people notice it. My diet has helped me a lot like that.”