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STEVE DeSHAZO: ’Skins’ patience on defense is paying off

LANDOVER, Md.—Anyone who draws definitive conclusions from NFL exhibition games should be subjected to stringent drug testing. Still, it’s hard not to be impressed with the Washington Redskins’ defense through three preseason victories.

“It doesn’t count, but it does matter,” said linebacker Darryl Tapp, echoing his coaches’ mantra.

It must have been tempting for coach Mike Shanahan and coordinator Jim Haslett to consider a major overhaul of a defense that ranked 28th out of 32 NFL teams in yards allowed in 2012. But with limited salary-cap space and a belief that they weren’t too far away, the Redskins settled for tweaks rather than a renovation.

And although Saturday’s 30–7 romp over Buffalo came in a game featuring both teams’ third-string quarterbacks, the Redskins look like they’re building something impressive. Allowing 41 points in three preseason starts bodes well for the games that count.

“It’s our fourth year with coach Shanahan and Jim Haslett, and the third year with most of the guys since they’ve redone the roster,” said defensive end Kedric Golston, one of the longest-tenured Redskins. “We now have confidence. They know what we can do, and we know what they expect out of us. In years one and two, we had to build a foundation. Now, we’re expanding on that foundation.”

At least among his front seven, rarely does Haslett now worry about being outmanned or players missing assignments. Instead, this preseason has been devoted to fine-tuning.

No one wants to give away any secrets in August, but Saturday offered the Redskins a chance to face an up-tempo offense similar to the one they’ll see in the regular-season opener against Philadelphia.

Granted, Buffalo rookie quarterback Jeff Tuel won’t make anyone forget Michael Vick—let alone first-stringer E.J. Manuel—but Washington’s defenders now know how they’ll need to react on Sept. 9.

“It’s hard to simulate that in practice,” cornerback Josh Wilson said. “I’m glad we had the opportunity to do that in a game.”

The Redskins also unveiled a strategy that plays to their defensive strength—remarkable depth at linebacker. On the game’s fourth offensive snap, Haslett removed all three of his starting defensive linemen and deployed outside linebackers Ryan Kerrigan and Darryl Tapp in three-point stances, with four linebackers and five defensive backs behind them.

“It presents a lot of problems,” Tapp said. “We’ve got so many talented guys at one position. Anything that creates confusion in the opponent’s eyes helps us out.”

The Redskins spent 2010, Haslett’s first year, simply adjusting to his 3–4 setup. In years 2 and 3, they were incorporating new players into the scheme, with the expected glitches. Now, instead of worrying about themselves in the preseason, they’re focusing on their opponents.

“We trust each other,” Golston said. “This group of guys has been together for years. We’re finishing each other’s sentences.”

They could all complete this declaration: the defense’s weak link is the secondary. They’re already relying on a couple of rookies who are experiencing inevitable growing pains. Safety Baccari Rambo has been embarrassed twice in the open field in three games, and nickel cornerback David Amerson had a forgettable game Saturday, drawing a 42-yard pass interference call and a face-mask penalty as well as getting juked on C.J. Spiller’s 19-yard first-quarter run.

They weren’t alone, either. Wilson, a seven-year veteran, was called for a 45-yard interference penalty on Saturday’s first play from scrimmage. And two young defensive backs—safety Phillip Thomas and corner Richard Crawford—appear to be lost for the season with injuries.

“There are game situations those guys haven’t experienced,” said veteran safety Reed Doughty, “But they’ve got a lot of ability.”

If the Redskins continue to get a push from Kerrigan, Barry Cofield and Brian Orakpo (who played just  two games last season), their inexperienced secondary may become less of a liability. And that’s largely because for the first time in a while, the defense doesn’t require name tags.

“It’s not always possible because of free agency,” Doughty said, “but I think [the coaches] understand continuity on offense and defense. You can’t bring everybody back, but we’ve got a lot of guys back.

And we hope we’re on to something great.”

Steve DeShazo: 540/374-5443