The Washington Redskins will unleash some new looks up front on both sides of the ball. They will also add some dynamism to a sluggish special teams.
Defensively, more creative alignments will generate greater pressure on quarterbacks. However, the success of the unit might still depend on new faces in the secondary.
A prolific offense could get better thanks to the presence of a true third-down back, something missing in 2012. Using more overloaded lines could make an already dominant rushing attack even better.
Finally, a few key changes on special teams will allow that unit to make a greater impact. A new coordinator will unleash a dangerous returner on unsuspecting opponents.
The Redskins might not have anything as bold as the pistol or read-option in store for their 2013 opponents, but these new wrinkles could prove as significant.
Screen shot courtesy of NFL.com Gamepass
The addition of new faces in the secondary is the most important change for the Washington Redskins this year. The opening day defensive backfield could feature two rookie starters.
One is cornerback David Amerson, the team's top draft choice. The former North Carolina State standout gives the defense greater size at the corner position.
The 6'1", 205-pounder also boasts the ball skills to increase last season's team total of 21 interceptions. In 2011, Amerson snared 13 interceptions and knows how to make game-changing plays.
Kevin Ross II of CBSDC, notes that Amerson has been "outstanding" in preseason. But he also states that the rookie must show he can be more physical and play press techniques in the pros.
Amerson's NFL.com draft profile notes that zone and off-coverage were his strengths at the collegiate level. He may begin life in Washington as a third corner until he learns to use his size to his advantage.
Given how often teams use three-cornerback packages to counter multiple-receiver sets, Amerson can be a real asset as a rookie. His flair for the big play could see him usurp incumbents Josh Wilson and DeAngelo Hall sooner than expected.
Another first-year defensive back the Redskins will hope can quickly make the grade is safety Bacarri Rambo. The sixth-round draft pick has started most of preseason and can step in immediately at free safety.
That is the role Rambo played at Georgia and he has the instincts of a natural center fielder. Run support has been an issue, but Rambo has shown a willingness to improve in this area.
It is a big step up from the late rounds of the draft to being the last line of coverage for a pro defense. But the Redskins need more range and dynamism at the position, so Rambo is worth the risk.
He could have a veteran playing alongside him, provided Brandon Meriweather can stay healthy. His first season in D.C. was savaged by a torn ACL, but he made his return to start the final game of preseason.
Unfortunately, Mike Jones of The Washington Post saw some reasons for concern in Meriweather's performance:
The bad news, he appeared hesitant to get into the mix on some run plays where he could’ve helped make tackles. Meriweather had a couple pass plays where he appeared sound in coverage, but otherwise, Meriweather didn’t really have much of an impact. It’s understandable that he would exhibit some rust, but it would’ve been nice to see Meriweather make a couple plays. Meriweather didn’t record a tackle in the game.
The Redskins need Meriweather to put himself near the action on a regular basis. He can be a liability in coverage, but he is a fierce hitter and good blitzer.
Coordinator Jim Haslett should play him nearer the line of scrimmage and use him to attack offenses. But that would depend on Meriweather's willingness to adopt such a demanding role.
Haslett needs these new faces to deliver for last season's 30th-ranked pass defense to improve. His unit faces some elite quarterbacks, including Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers. So the secondary cannot put the offense in shootout mode every week.
Jim Haslett could opt for a better view of things this season.
Haslett might choose to keep a close eye on his remodeled secondary from a higher vantage point this season. The veteran signal-caller has been experimenting with calling plays from the booth during preseason.
Mike Jones of The Washington Post says calling the defense from the press box is a career first for Haslett. Jones also uses Dean Pees of the Baltimore Ravens as an example of a successful transition from the sidelines to the booth.
While this is not a guaranteed new facet of the 2013 Redskins, many defensive coaches around the league prefer the all-encompassing overview from the press box.
While this can be seen as the more macho choice, it does not offer the cool objectivity that distance from the field can provide.
Shifting himself to the booth could be a real advantage for Haslett, as he schemes plans for a defense that should be much improved this season.
The Redskins hope a new coach can deliver greater success on special teams.
The special teams need a boost and new coordinator Keith Burns will be expected to provide it. Burns played for head coach Mike Shanahan, as a special teams ace with the Denver Broncos.
He must coax greater speed and more aggression from the coverage units. But the biggest impact Burns can make is in prioritizing more key plays.
The unit rarely forces a turnover, or surprises opponents with an unexpected and well-executed fake. Burns needs to find playmakers to replace departed special teams demon Lorenzo Alexander. But he must also get more creative about what this unit can do.
Championship teams usually rely on big plays from all three phases of the game and this is one phase where the Redskins have been short.
Chris Thompson adds real big-play potential to the return game.
It has been a long time since the Redskins fielded a return man opponents feared. That could change this season with the emergence of 5'7", 192-pound rookie Chris Thompson.
The mini marvel has survived fumbling issues during preseason to show his flair for the big play. That talent has been most obvious in the return game.
Thompson produced a nifty punt return to help overwhelm the Buffalo Bills in Washington's third exhibition game. He did even better in Week 4 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, returning a punt 69 yards for the score.
The ex-FSU star's natural shiftiness, combined with excellent acceleration, makes him a dangerous return man. Would-be tacklers find it hard to get a hold of the diminutive speedster.
Thompson can play a key role in shaping the field-position battle. He can give a talented offense shorter fields to attack defenses. He can also force opposing teams to alter their punting strategy by risking shorter kicks just to avoid him.
New special teams coordinator Burns may have found his unit's first real game-changer.
One thing that was noticeable in preseason was the Redskins' tendency to field an unbalanced or overloaded offensive line. It is something that has become common around the league in recent seasons and could help Washington's ground game be even more effective.
Essentially, an unbalanced line is one that overloads a side with an extra blocker or two. Some teams, including the 49ers, add an extra guard or tackle.
Others, like the Redskins in the screen shot above, position two in-line tight ends on the same side. In this example the Bills did not shift their defensive front to the overloaded side.
This mismatch up front allowed Keiland Williams to run for 24 yards, on a stretch play behind the overload. The Redskins have the personnel to make this a feature of their rushing schemes this season.
They have four useful tight ends in Fred Davis, Logan Paulsen, Jordan Reed and Niles Paul. Any combination of that quartet could be used to overload a side.
It would be similar to the way Redskins legend Joe Gibbs used to deploy his fronts. Gibbs would use tight ends like Don Warren and Ron Middleton to overload one side of an already powerful O-line.
Head coach Mike Shanahan's ground game is already a potent force. But it can be even more dominant if the Redskins commit to running some of their favorite zone plays behind unbalanced lines.
The Redskins did not have a third-down specialist last season. That will change with the return to health of Roy Helu Jr.
Shanahan was quick to earmark 2011's fourth-round pick for a key role on third downs, and for good reason. Helu has the combination of speed and receiving skills to be an x-factor on football's most important down.
Rich Campbell of The Washington Times believes Helu will give the offense greater flexibility and put defenses in some nightmare mismatches:
Helu is a quality third-down back because of his good hands, his ability to gain yards after the catch and his adequate pass blocking. He improved his blitz recognition as his rookie season progressed. Saturday’s performance in team drills was an auspicious sign.
His speed and elusiveness on the second level set him apart from first-string running back Alfred Morris. He also could join Morris and quarterback Robert Griffin III in an extremely potent triple option.
Campbell has also noted that Helu is embracing the demands of a third-down role, particularly with pass-blocking:
On one play, he came across the formation to pick up blitzing safety Brandon Meriweather. Later, he slid to his left and squared up outside linebacker Brian Orakpo on the edge. Near the end of practice, he stuffed linebacker Will Compton’s A-gap blitz.
Now in his third training camp, Helu is comfortable recognizing where the rush is coming from, which is as critical an element as any for a pass-blocking running back.
Helu can be an extremely versatile weapon this season. The Redskins should move him across the formation to take advantage of his skill as a pass-catcher.
He can be split out wide or moved into the slot. His speed from option looks was the only thing missing from last season's league-leading ground attack.
Darryl Tapp has helped the Redskins get more creative up front.
The most exciting thing revealed by preseason has been how the defense has mixed its personnel and fronts to create pressure.
The linebackers have been key to this process. In particular, veteran free agent Darryl Tapp has been vital in increasing the flexibility up front.
But that has not been the only wrinkle added by Haslett and his staff. Jim Corbett of USA Today has identified one front to watch this season, known as the "Swift Package."
It is a six-linebacker look that deploys four linebackers as the first line of the defense. It can include Tapp and Ryan Kerrigan inside at tackle, while Brian Orakpo and rookie Brandon Jenkins line up on the edges.
An inside linebacker—either London Fletcher or Perry Riley—aligns on the outside, while the other occupies the middle. That is just one possible alignment.
The package puts more speed and better rushers on the field, and the linebackers can be shifted to create different combinations. Not only will it cause confusion, but it will let the Redskins generate pressure without Haslett having to blitz everyone barring the equipment man.
These tweaks worked wonders in preseason, and the additional pressure they help create can mask inevitable deficiencies in the secondary.