When Duke Ihenacho landed on the Redskins inactive report Week 1 against Pittsburgh, many around the league were surprised. That surprise waned as the season progressed. Weeks 2 and 3 Ihenacho was active, yet hardly played.
Now injuries to DeAngelo Hall and Bashaud Breeland are forcing the Redskins to shake up their secondary, though it remains unclear if that means more defensive snaps for Ihenacho. Asked if Hall's torn ACL means Ihenacho will hit the field more on defense, Redskins coach Jay Gruden sounded non-commital.
"Could be," the coach said. "We're gonna dress four safeties most likely and they'll all probably get an opportunity."
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The Redskins will start Will Blackmon and David Bruton at free and strong safety, leaving Ihenacho third on the depth chart and Deshazor Everett fourth. This week in practice, Ihenacho said his workload has increased, albeit slightly.
"I'm getting a little bit more reps at practice," Ihenacho said. "I'm really backing up both the guys. I know both positions."
For the bulk of his career, Ihenacho has dealt with injuries. In five seasons, he only has 15 starts, though his lone healthy season came in Denver in 2013. That Broncos team made it to the Super Bowl with Ihenacho at strong safety, and the five-year veteran out of San Jose State produced. In 14 starts that year, he logged 67 tackles to go with nine passes defensed and three forced fumbles.
Ihenacho has not stayed healthy in his two seasons in Washington, but he is healthy now. Asked why he isn't seeing the field more, the safety was unsure.
"Obviously I want to be out there but I'm not a coach so I just kinda got to deal with the cards that are dealt," he said. "Obviously I want to be out there, I'd like to be out there, I feel I should have been out there."
While Hall was healthy, the Redskins began to substitute Blackmon in for Bruton on longer third downs against the Giants, a nod to Blackmon's coverage skills. With Hall injured, that substitution pattern did not continue. Some fans and media have questioned if there is an issue or injury causing Ihenacho to stay on the bench.
"None of that. I haven't had any off the field issues, haven't had any injury issues. I know the defense, it's not a matter of me not knowing the playbook or anything like that. It's not a matter of me being inexperienced. It's not a matter of the coaches not trusting me."
Like any player, it's natural for Ihenacho to want to be on the field, but he understands what his role is for now.
"I feel like this is a situation where [the coaches] got guys they want to play. That's just what it is. Sometimes it's just as simple as that. They got other guys they just want to give shots to, and that's cool. Obviously I want to be out there but that's part of being a professional, understanding that and just waiting for your time."
Despite not seeing much action on defense, Ihenacho made his presence felt in the win against the Giants. On a long Jamison Crowder punt return, Ihenacho laid out two New York defenders with one block.
"The opportunity presented itself," he said. "I looped back around and I saw Crowder break a lot of tackles and make a couple guys miss. He brought it back around and my eyes kind of lit up when I hit the first guy and then at the last second I see the second guy and I just threw my body into him and it kinda just worked out."
When the team watched the game film, Ihenacho said the whole room had the same reaction to his block.
"It's like 'oooooooooh.' It was cool."
Postgame analysis of the Nats' 5-3 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks on Thursday afternoon at Nationals Park.
How it happened: The Nationals beat the Diamondbacks on Thursday and in doing so took another important step towards locking up home field advantage in the NL Division Series against the L.A. Dodgers. But just as pertinent, if not more, were the little things the Nats accomplished in the victory, minor developments that bode well for October.
In Thursday's win, they checked off two important boxes - if you will - that would count as positive signs no matter the final result of the game. One was the leap forward starter Joe Ross took in building his workload. The other was an impressive offensive outing by catcher Pedro Severino, who will now be on the playoff roster as Jose Lobaton's backup with Wilson Ramos done for the season.
Ross stretched out to 90 pitches, the most he's thrown since injuring his right shoulder in a July 2 start against the Reds. He only made it four innings, but making sure he can handle a full start come playoff time is highly important for a team already missing Stephen Strasburg, and with concerns about Gio Gonzalez' ability to go deep in his own start.
Ross may have even showed enough to take Gonzalez' spot in Game 3, depending on what the Nats are looking for in these final games. With one run allowed, he was better than Gonzalez was on Wednesday, and that's despite beginning his day with 32 pitches in the first inning alone.
Severino's highlight was a solo home run to left field in the third inning, a game-tying bomb off Arizona starter Robbie Ray. That got the Nats started in what turned into an all-around offensive effort. Fellow rookie Wilmer Difo also homered, the first of his career. Michael Taylor had three hits, one to drive in two runs.
Anthony Rendon remained hot with a single, a walk and a run. Ryan Zimmerman did the same. Jayson Werth walked and scored.
Lefty Sean Burnett took over for Ross and got two quick outs, one on a strikeout. He has a 1.80 ERA through nine appearances. Reynaldo Lopez took over for him and was strong through most of his outing, until he gave up a two-run homer to Socrates Brito with one out in the ninth. Lopez finished with two runs allowed in 3 2/3 innings.
The Diamondbacks got their lone run off Ross in the third inning. That was on a single by Jake Lamb, one of three Ross allowed in the frame.
The Nationals got back in the win column and earned a series split against the Diamondbacks.
What it means: The Nationals moved to 93-66 on the season and dropped their magic number to secure home field against the Dodgers to just two games.
Severino hits No. 2: Severino has only played in 14 games this season, but his impact on offense has been hard to ignore. He's now 8-for-24 (.333) with two homers, four RBI, five walks and five runs. He has a 1.092 OPS. Again, it's a very small sample size, but the Nationals don't need him to produce for months at a time. They just need him to keep swinging it well for a few more weeks. That would go a long way to offset the loss of Ramos.
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Difo's first homer: For Difo to make the playoff roster, it would likely require an injury like the one that paved the way for Severino. But the rookie should feel good about the way he's played this season in the opportunities he's been given. Through 28 games this year, Difo is batting .288/.362/.404 with 11 runs, six RBI and six walks. He also made a brilliant diving grab to end the top of the sixth and save a run with Lopez on the mound.
Turner cooling down: With his 0-for-4 effort against Arizona, Trea Turner is now hitting just .214 (9-for-42) in his last 10 games with 10 strikeouts during that stretch. He entered Thursday with a seven-game hitting streak, but because he doesn't draw walks often, his on-base percentage is just .227 in those 10 games. The Nats need him to get back on track before the playoffs, especially given they will be facing tough lefties like Clayton Kershaw and Rich Hill without Ramos, who is arguably their best right-handed bat.
Up next: The Nats move on their final series of the regular season, a three-game set with the Miami Marlins in town. Rookie A.J. Cole (1-2, 5.09) will start that one, unless he drops his suspension appeal. And for the Marlins, it will be right-hander Andrew Cashner (5-11, 5.13).
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