The Saints are a very good team but they are not unbeatable. They lost three times during the 2011 regular season and once in the playoffs. Can the Redskins learn anything from those games?Perhaps they can. It would help if they were playing the Saints at FedEx Field. Not that Washington has demonstrated much of an ability to defend its home turf in recent years but all four of New Orleans losses last year were on the road. They were a perfect 8-0 in the Superdome.But the schedule is what it is and the Redskins cant do anything about the venue. They also probably cant get to be as good as the Packers or 49ers, the teams that dealt the Saints their first loss of the year and their last loss, respectively. So lets focus on the Rams and Bucs, two teams that finished with worse records than the Redskins last year but still managed to beat New Orleans.On Oct. 16, the 3-2 Bucs scored 17 unanswered points in the second quarter and took a 20-10 lead into the locker room. The Saints eventually pulled to within three at 23-20 in the fourth quarter but the Bucs held on for a 26-20 win.Tampa Bay had both a 300-yard passer (Josh Freeman, 303) and a 100-yard rusher (Earnest Graham 109). Still, the Saints outgained them 453 yards to 420 but they didnt have much balance. Drew Brees passed for 383 yards but his 21 yards rushing nearly led the team (Mark Ingram rushed for 22).Brees threw three interceptions and the Saints lost a fumble. The Bucs didnt turn the ball over at all.That game was a surprise; the Saints next loss was a stunner. Two weeks after losing in Tampa the Saints visited the 0-6 Rams. Quarterback Sam Bradford was sidelined with an injury and A. J. Feeley was at the helm for the home team.The identity of the quarterback didnt matter much as the Saints were fed a steady diet of Steven Jackson. The Rams running back carried 25 times for 159 yards and two touchdowns. The Rams outgained the Saints on the ground 183 yards to 56.Turnovers again were an issue for the Saints as Brees threw two interceptions. The Rams did not commit any turnovers.One Brees interception sealed the deal for the Rams. The Saints had started to mount a comeback from a 24-0 third-quarter deficit. With the score 24-14, Brees threw a pick six to safety Darian Stewart and that was that.So what are the common themes here? Getting some turnovers, running the ball, and building a big enough lead to survive a Saints run. That sounds like a recipe for success in most games.
It's never been a talent issue for D.J. Swearinger. In college he made big plays and earned all conference honors playing in the SEC at South Carolina. He was drafted high by Houston, second round in 2013, and started 10 games his rookie season.
In his first two seasons with the Texans, Swearinger started 22 games and proved to be a playmaker. He logged three interceptions and more than 100 tackles. He looked like a possible long-term answer at safety, until he was uncermoniously cut after his second year.
Reports showed Swearinger bucked at playing special teams. And over time, a reputation as a big - sometimes dirty - hitter emerged.
None of it helped Swearinger, who was signed by Tampa in 2015. He played seven games for the Bucs but was cut mid-season. Arizona signed him late in the 2015 season, and kept him for 2016.
Last year, playing on a defense with strong leaders like Calais Campbell and Patrick Peterson, Swearinger excelled. He played all over the Cardinals secondary, starting 12 games and making plays like he did early in his career in Houston.
He finished the 2016 season with three interceptions, two sacks and eight passes defensed. He made more than 50 tackles. Pro Football Focus rated Swearinger with a +15.3 grade, by far the highest of his career and good for the 8th best rating of any safety in the NFL.
The Redskins haven't had solid safety play in years. In 2016, the team tried to address the position on the cheap, converting cornerbacks to safeties and signing low tier free agents. It didn't work.
So, finally, in 2017 the Redskins front office addressed the safety position by signing Swearinger to a three-year deal. And it sounds like the 25-year-old has grown up a lot after five years of bouncing around the league.
"I've been on a lot of teams. I want to make this home," Swearinger said (full video above). "I feel like I’m experienced enough to know what to do as a pro, know what to do to stay on top of things and be a pro. As long as I be a pro every day and make the plays I’m capable of, I’ll be a Redskin."
Swearinger's deal will keep him with the Redskins through the 2019 season, but already, head coach Jay Gruden seems excited about the new safety. Earlier this offseason, Gruden said watching film of Swearinger revealed a player hitting the highest levels of safety play in the NFL. In OTAs, seeing Swearinger in person, Gruden was impressed.
"Watching him the first two days really excites me. He just looks like a safety back there," Gruden said. "No offense to the previous safeties we’ve had before, but I just think D.J. is to a level in his career right now where he’s got a lot of confidence. He has got a lot of talent."
There was some question if Swearinger can play the free safety role in Washington. More to the point, if he has the speed to play a true center field, with second-year man Su'a Cravens moving from linebacker to strong safety. Swearinger has zero concerns.
"I'm a free safety, I think that fits my body well," he said. "As a free safety you got to have the confidence in yourself that you can run with those guys and make plays on those guys."
Swearinger doesn't lack for confidence, and he shouldn't. Combined with Cravens, along with Josh Norman and Bashaud Breeland at cornerback, the Redskins secondary could be a strength in 2017.
"We have a lot of talent. If we work day in and day out, I think this group can be one of the best," Swearinger said. "We just got to keep working, keep gelling to get everybody on the same page, the sky’s the limit."
It's normal for players to be excited in May. There supposed to be.
Coaches, however, tend to be more hesitant with praise. Not optimism, but actual praise, though when it comes to Swearinger, Gruden isn't shy about his expectations.
"We know that he’s a physical guy, but as far as coverages and breaking up things, he’s got a lot of confidence and I think he’s going to really, really emerge as a top safety not only for this team but in this league," the coach said of his new free safety.
It's been a long journey for Swearinger, four teams in five season. He's hoping this one sticks.
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It is not news to anyone reading this that the Redskins wide receiver corps is bigger than it was last year. The challenge now is for the offense to get better, particularly in the red zone.
The additions to the wide receiver corps that stand out are free agent Terrelle Pryor, 6-4, and 2016 first-round pick Josh Doctson, 6-2, replacing the 6-0 Pierre Garçon and DeSean Jackson, who was generously listed at 5-10, as the starters on the outside.
It’s not just a matter of quarterback Kirk Cousins aiming his passes a little higher. Bigger receivers present a different target.
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“I’m bigger and my body movement is different than some guys he played with,” Pryor said on Wednesday following his second OTA practice with Cousins. “He played with some guys that are six-foot, 5-11. I think the movement and how I run, it doesn’t look like I’m really flying but I’m flying. Different things like that he needs to feel out and he will.”
Last year, the Redskins tried to run some fade patters in the red zone, often to some of their shorter receivers. It worked on occasion but it failed often enough for it to become a running joke among fans. But with the bigger wide receiver group coach Jay Gruden could be doubling down on the fade in 2017. It sure sounds like Cousins will be working on it a lot.
“There are certain throws down the field that we have to get adjusted to—some of the back-shoulder fades, the opportunity balls that Terrelle really makes look easy that are harder to throw if you haven’t thrown them before,” said Gruden. “That’s an adjustment period we’ll have to go through. We’ll keep pushing the envelope out here at practice and try to get good at everything. Terrelle is a different target and gives us some different options down the field, but we do have to get him squared away on some of the fundamental route concepts that we have.”
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Throwing to the smaller group of receivers, Cousins has completed 68.3 percent of his passes. He is looking forward to throwing to the big guys.
“I think it’s an advantage in the sense that you have a larger catch radius,” said Cousins. “When a guy is quote-unquote covered, hopefully he is still open because you can throw him to a spot where maybe the defensive back can’t quite make a play. It is a little new for me, haven’t had a ton of experience making throws like that, so it is one of the many things we will emphasize, work on and try to get a better feel for as we go through the offseason program. And as a quarterback it is exciting because we think that adds another wrinkle or element to our offense that hopefully can make us better and help us take a step forward.”
There is one thing to keep in mind as the Redskins move forward with their new receiving corps. There are smaller receivers who play big. Pryor likes how his new teammate, the 5-9 Jamison Crowder, plays.
“I look at Crowder and he plays like he’s 6-5,” said Pryor. “You want guys like that, guys who play like they’re huge.”
And that’s the thing. The Redskins have had one of the best passing attacks in the NFL for the past couple of years with smaller receivers who often came up big. It will take the bigger players playing up to their size for the Redskins to continue to be productive through the air. And that will take a lot of work.