Jay Gruden: Redskins' defense has chance 'to be special'

ASHBURN, Va. -- During the preseason, there were times Washington Redskins inside linebacker Jon Bostic noticed something out of the corner of his eye as he sprinted to the ball. It was lineman Daron Payne. Other times it was lineman Jonathan Allen. And thinking about the hustle by his young teammates made Bostic smile.

He knew what scenes like that could mean.

"That is what takes a defense from good to great," Bostic said.

The question then becomes for Washington: Where can this defense take the Redskins? With an offense that can best be described as in transition, the Redskins will need the defense to provide a sturdy foundation. And then some.

The offense is missing its best player (tackle Trent Williams), has one starting receiver who has played more than three games in the NFL, and has a starting quarterback who is with his third team in three years. It could take time for the offense to mesh.

But the counter, the side that provides optimism -- for this season and beyond -- is the defense. That's quite a change: Washington's defense hasn't finished in the top 10 in either points or yards allowed since 2009.

There's youth and talent: Washington's base defense includes seven starters who are 25 or younger. Only two starters are in their 30s -- Pro Bowl linebacker Ryan Kerrigan (30) and cornerback Josh Norman (31). Corner Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (33) is the only other 30-something defender.

"Defensively, we have a chance to be special," Redskins coach Jay Gruden said. "If we have to win 17-13, we'll win 17-13 with a great defense."

In the first nine games last season -- before quarterback Alex Smith was injured -- the Redskins were 6-3, thanks to a defense that was fourth in points allowed. The unit was tied for first in the NFL, having allowed only 17 points off turnovers. Here's why: The Redskins had turned the ball over only seven times in those games. During that stretch, their opponents had the third-worst starting field position.

The Redskins don't have an explosive attack, so they will need that sort of help again from their offense. That means quarterback Case Keenum -- who has turned the ball over a combined 25 times the past two seasons -- will have to take care of the ball like Smith did in 2018.

"The defense is playing at a high level. They will continue to do that no matter who the quarterback is," Gruden said.

There's an improved cohesion defensively heading into this season. Gone are safety D.J. Swearinger and linebacker Zach Brown, two outspoken players who created friction -- whether with teammates or coaches. There is more harmony; now the Redskins need that to result in strong play.

But the reason for more optimism surrounds the steady growth of their young defensive linemen, particularly Payne -- who looked terrific in the preseason -- and Allen, entering his third season, feeling comfortable in the defense.

"I can focus on just playing faster, more aggressive, more confident," Allen said.

Payne, in his second season, appeared quicker off the ball in preseason games. He and Allen play well next to one another and if one gets double-teamed, the other has a good chance to win a one-on-one. It's also about end Matt Ioannidis as well as reserve Tim Settle.

"Man, this defense, we could ride it all the way," safety Landon Collins said. "We have a great deep front that's going to put pressure on quarterback faces. They're going to have maybe 2 seconds to have that read downfield and get the ball out."

Collins, Washington's prized free-agent signing, isn't a vocal leader; rather, he prefers to speak only when needed and instead focuses on studying film. That's why Norman calls him a silent assassin. After Collins leaves Redskins Park, he'll watch an extra 3½ hours each week at home.

But that's how he knows where he's supposed to be and also where his help will be positioned. There were several times during the preseason when he broke up a pass, partly because it was his responsibility and partly because of instincts. But he always knew where he had help.

"I try to play that way because I trust my DBs behind me," he said. "These guys know what they're doing. We call out route concepts together; we play faster because we know what's coming."

Bostic said the defense is versatile, which helps, and also smart, which it hasn't always been as a group. Bostic said this summer he asked one rookie if he had watched film of Washington's 2018 games. The reply: No. Bostic then said he has watched every Redskins game from the past two season -- multiple times. The rookie later watched all the games from last season. But Bostic's point to the rookie, whom he didn't want to name, was simple: Coordinators don't change, so watch how teams tried to attack the Redskins' defense.

"If you can get those little jumps on it, those little tips," Bostic said, "all of a sudden you get into game week and you're more prepared than you would have been without watching. Every little bit helps."

If the Redskins want to do anything this season, they need every little bit -- and then some -- from the defense. For the first time in a while, they might have one capable of delivering.