When Kendall Fuller knocked out Carson Wentz in practice last week, the Washington cornerback jumped past Dyami Brown on a slanting route to grab the ball – no surprise to those who have followed the corner’s eight-year-old of the ball peddler in the NFL. But Fuller isn’t the only familiar Washington high school sight this spring.
Kam Curl and Bobby McCain were lined up at security. William Jackson III filled the other outside cornerback spot. Essentially, it’s the same Washington secondary from last season.
Other than the departure of Landon Collins, the commanders’ unity is mostly intact for 2022. And though they’re coming off a slack season, Washington is counting on continuity to fuel a defensive resurgence this fall.
“It helps a lot, man, to know the brothers, to know your guys next to you,” McCain said. “You are able to talk to them and talk to them with confidence. Some guys, you come in, and if you’re a new guy, you can’t talk to everyone the same. But we all know each other pretty well, so it’s pretty easy.
A rebound is needed. After ranking second in pass defense the previous year, the Commanders have fallen all the way to 29th in 2021, giving up 254.8 yards per game. This figure was 191.8 in 2020.
The COs’ coaching staff attributed the regression in part to the fact that games kept changing in high school last year.
Cornerback Ronald Darby left for free agency, and although the team signed Jackson to a big, three-year, $40.5 million deal to fill the void, the former Cincinnati standout has put in some time. time adjusting to Washington’s zone-based program. The team also initially moved Fuller to the slot machine, an experiment that surprisingly failed considering Fuller’s success there during his first stint in Washington. McCain was new, as COs tried to reinstate Collins after an Achilles injury.
However, over the year, the secondary gelled. Commanders dropped the idea of Fuller playing the slot in Week 7. Jackson started playing well once he got comfortable with Washington’s zonal scheme, a change he says will s happened in Week 10 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Commanders also found success deploying a three-man safety suit from Collins, Curl and McCain.
From Week 7 through Week 14 — a streak that included a four-game winning streak — Commanders actually allowed the third-fewest and 12th-fewest passing yards, according to Pro Football Reference. The team’s performance then plummeted again in the streak when a COVID-19 outbreak left Washington thin in Week 15 and Jackson and Collins suffered season-ending injuries.
“I hate watching early, because I don’t even look like myself there,” Jackson said. “But later in the season I started to play better and then I started to feel like myself and it started to show on the pitch.”
This year, COs coach Ron Rivera will have to adjust to losing Collins after security was cut in March. Rivera mentioned fourth-round safety Percy Butler could fill Collins’ old job as a buff nickel (a hybrid role of linebacker and safety), but so far the rookie hasn’t. still took representatives with the starters during training sessions open to journalists.
Rivera and defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio also used those voluntary sessions to experiment with other spots at the back. In the first week of 11-on-11 play, Washington opted for a three-way look of safety from Curl, McCain and Troy Apke — the latter a Career Special Team member. The following week, the Commanders used second-year corner Benjamin St-Juste in the slot with the first team instead of veteran Danny Johnson.
St-Juste is an intriguing potential x-factor for secondary school. As a rookie, St-Juste played well on the road when he was available, but concussions limited his season to nine games. During those outings, according to Pro Football Focus, he only recorded 10 snaps in the slot.
Rivera said St-Juste’s height (6-foot-2) will allow Washington to deal with opposing offenses that choose to play bigger receivers on the inside.
“I’m pretty excited for him,” Rivera said.
By moving St-Juste to the slot, however, Rivera can keep Fuller on the outside – and maintain the status quo in the process.
“Playing outside for (Fuller) suits him because he plays with vision and he understands that a lot better than a lot of other corners I’ve seen,” Rivera said. “The only other guy I’ve ever really seen who really understood playing with vision was Josh Norman. I think he did it really well. I watch Kendall and Kendall does it really well.