In offices and workplaces across America, Friday is an unofficial day for downshifting—for dressing on the casual side and letting the mind wander to the weekend in store.
But there’s no place for “casual Fridays” in the NFL, at least not on teams that expect to make the playoffs. And that’s the alarm that Washington Redskins safety D.J. Swearinger has been sounding in recent weeks, troubled by what he describes as a lack of focus in the final full practice before game day.
In his view, it cost the Redskins in last week’s loss to the Minnesota Vikings. On a day when Washington’s offense scored 30 points (and should have scored more), its defense turned in its worst performance of the season, allowing Vikings backup quarterback Case Keenum to have a career day.
“Fridays have to be better here,” Swearinger said flatly in an interview this week, reflecting on the 38-30 defeat and the early-warning signs that, to him, pointed to a poor performance as clearly as a flashing neon sign.
“We didn’t practice as well as we should have Friday, and it ended up showing on Sunday,” Swearinger explained. “It was a good learning experience for us. I don’t think we’ll go back down that road again.”
Sunday’s game against the 7-2 New Orleans Saints, who are riding a seven-game winning streak, will tell a lot about whether Swearinger’s message is getting through.
A veteran of top-10 defenses in Arizona and Houston, Swearinger, 26, signed a three-year, $13.5 million deal in March, and his new teammates voted him defensive captain on the eve of the season opener. Along with linebacker Zach Brown, he has proven to be the Redskins’ most impactful free-agent acquisition.
Wednesday at Redskins Park, Swearinger’s teammates gathered around as he addressed the squad before the first practice of the week, still smarting from the loss to Minnesota.
“I just told the guys that we’ve got to take advantage of the days and the practices we have left. We can’t just go out there and go through the motions,” Swearinger recounted. “I said, ‘Our days are limited. It’s a big week, and we really need this [Saints] game. We’ve got to go 1-and-0 every single day, and on every single play, on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday!’”
Redskins Coach Jay Gruden delivered a message of his own later in the week: Having dipped below .500 — now 4-5 heading and winless in the NFC East — the team has little margin for error. Each loss stretches already long odds of earning a wild-card playoff berth.
The Redskins are in this predicament after starting 2-1 partly because the overhauled defense that was so impressive in the early going has backslid, dropping from fifth in the NFL entering Week 4 (allowing 272 yards per game) to 20th entering Week 11 (allowing 344.6 yards per game).
Injuries have played a part.
The Redskins lost defensive lineman Jonathan Allen and middle linebacker Mason Foster to season-ending surgeries. Safeties Montae Nicholson and Deshazor Everett have cycled in and out of the lineup because of injuries. And since Matt Ioannidis exited because of a broken hand in the Week 8 loss to Dallas, the defensive line hasn’t been able to rotate players on and off the field enough to keep them fresh. The unit was simply gassed against Minnesota, and it had a ripple effect throughout the defense. Swearinger grabbed two interceptions, but it wasn’t enough to prevent Keenum from throwing with abandon. Never sacked and hit just twice, the Vikings quarterback torched the Redskins’ secondary for completions of 51, 49 and 38 yards en route to a 304-yard, four-touchdown passing day.
“For me, that’s a probably the worst game I’ve played in a long time,” cornerback Josh Norman said this week. “It was a game that none of us played well in. . . . The plays that were there for us to make, we didn’t make them.”
Still, it hasn’t dented Norman’s confidence nor his outlook on what’s possible for the Redskins’ defense.
“I know we have guys that are out; we can’t do anything about that,” Norman said. “We just have to have the guys who come in and play, play hard, physical ball.”
The bigger challenge for backups, veteran defensive lineman Ziggy Hood said, is following the rapid-fire playcalls when they haven’t gotten much practice time with the first-team.
“It all boils down to communication,” said Hood, a nine-year NFL veteran who played the highest percentage of defensive snaps (49 of 61) against Minnesota. “In live action, bullets are flying, and that’s when things can get crazy. Not only do you have Pro Bowl-caliber wide receivers, running backs and offensive lines and quarterbacks going full speed, you’ve got to be able to listen, hear and pass information along, as well as receive it at the same time. It can be kind of hectic and tough. But as long as our defense stays together — despite what happened last Sunday — it cannot be repeated.”
Getting Ioannidis back for Sunday’s game at New Orleans would help distribute the workload. The 305-pound lineman, who’s listed as questionable, practiced this week with a club-like cast on his broken hand.
“Hopefully we’ll be able to utilize a solid rotation, get off the field on third down and keep them fresh and rested,” Gruden said this week. “. . . But we’ve still got to ask more from everybody now.”
As Swearinger sees it, the time for players to give more isn’t Sunday at the Superdome. It was every day leading up to Sunday: studying film, paying attention during meetings and practicing with focus and intensity during the week.
That’s the part of an NFL player’s job that fans never see. No one buys a ticket to a defensive meeting or cheers when a defensive back executes a call correctly in practice. But that’s where players earn their money, Swearinger believes, and where championship defenses are built.
“If you prepare, you don’t have to worry about poor performances,” Swearinger said. “If you study the film, you know what you’re going to get when you go out on the field. If you don’t prepare, that’s when pressure comes. You second-guess yourself because you haven’t seen it on film or you haven’t listened in the meeting room.”
That’s what Swearinger says he learned from teammates such as cornerback Patrick Peterson in Arizona and defensive end J.J. Watt, cornerback Johnathan Joseph and linebacker Brian Cushing in Houston. And that’s the point he has tried to make these past weeks, with the Redskins’ postseason hopes in the balance.
“I’ve always been on great defenses, and I kind of know what it takes to be a great defense,” said Swearinger, who has studied leadership almost as much as he has studied his position, drawing from coaches and mentors at every stop of his football career. “That’s the thing I’ve been trying to get here: To change this defense to a championship-winning defense and not a defense that has been up and down.”