Redskins could rely on young defensive backs against Eagles
ASHBURN, Va. (AP) — Quinton Dunbar takes pride in the way Washington Redskins defensive backs coach Torrian Gray makes every member of the secondary prepare as though he’s starting.
“When you get in, you are expected to play like a starter,” Dunbar said.
That approach has come in handy this season. Already 2015 All-Pro Josh Norman, fellow cornerback Bashaud Breeland and safety Stefan McClure have gone down with injuries, and second-year safety Su’a Cravens left the team to contemplate retirement.
It’s possible Breeland, who sprained his left knee Sunday against San Francisco, and Norman, who has been out with a broken rib, play Monday night.
If they can’t go, Washington will lean heavily on Dunbar, Kendall Fuller and rookies Montae Nicholson, Fabian Moreau and Joshua Holsey against quarterback Carson Wentz and the NFC East-leading Philadelphia Eagles.
“It’ll be a great challenge because he’s playing extremely well,” Gruden said.
“Our guys will have to step up. That’s just the way it is. There’s a lot of teams around the National Football League this time of year that are dealing with key injuries at certain positions and we just had a couple of them at the corner spot. Fabian, Dunbar, they’ll have to step up and play well (along with) Holsey, Fuller.”
Breeland began the 49ers game as the top cornerback with Norman out and took a block at the knee from offensive lineman Joe Staley. Gruden said Breeland escaped serious MCL damage and is a quick healer, so he could be ready to face the 5-1 Eagles.
Norman will ramp up his running and exercise this week, and Gruden said “there’s a chance” he plays Monday.
The news isn’t so good for rookie defensive lineman Jonathan Allen, who could miss three weeks or more with a Lisfranc sprain in his left foot, and kicker Dustin Hopkins, whose right hip rotator muscle strain will force the Redskins to work out free agent kickers this week.
Even with all the injuries in the secondary, Washington hasn’t yet had to look for external help because it has four 2016 or 2017 draft picks on the roster and able to take on extended roles.
“We are as strong as our weakest link and we always talk about not having the drop-offs,” said Fuller, a 2016 third-round pick. “Anybody who is in there, we trust to make plays.”
The Redskins have had no choice but to trust their young players, including Dunbar, a 25-year-old converted receiver. Injuries to D.J. Swearinger and Nicholson on Sunday almost forced Fuller to move from cornerback to safety where he saw no snaps at practice, and Moreau had to take over on the outside when Breeland was hurt in the second half.
Moreau, a third-round pick who missed the start of training camp with a torn pectoral muscle, said players follow Swearinger’s lead to be ready for any situation.
“We got dogs,” Moreau said. “We all trust each other. We all feed off of him, and we know that.”
Of all the young defensive backs, no one has made a bigger leap than Dunbar, who was a receiver at Florida. Gruden joked that Dunbar isn’t “really smart enough to know the magnitude of the situation he’s in” and just goes out and plays.
Dunbar said after what he went through growing up that football’s a pleasure for him and he doesn’t blink. But he has made incredible strides since shifting to cornerback.
“Mentally I’m a thousand times better,” Dunbar said. “I always had the physical attributes, man. It was more mental for me — just breaking down the offenses, learning what’s coming and stuff like that.”
That’ll come in handy against Wentz as the 3-2 Redskins try to close the gap and keep this a competitive division race.
From the coverage to the pass rush, Washington’s defense must be better against Wentz than it was in a 30-17 loss in Week 1.
“We’ve got to figure out a way to contain Wentz,” Gruden said. “He killed us with the off-schedule plays, and he’s been doing that consistently throughout the year. That’s why they’re 5-1. It’s a big game for us. We know that.”