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Photo: Courtesy of the Washington Redskins
Photo: Courtesy of the Washington Redskins

Shooting the Gap: Linebackers Look to Raise Redskins’ Defensive Level

The Washington Redskins’ 2017 season wasn’t without setbacks. The squad dealt with numerous injuries on both offense and defense, as the team’s expectations for the NFL Playoffs dwindled by the time winter blew through FedExField. However, the team never quit as they traded wins and losses down the stretch of the season with a persistent roster.

A key player during the home stretch was Zach Brown, who despite missing the last three games of the season with foot and leg injuries, led the team in tackles with 127 – a mark good for ninth in the league. With Brown and fellow linebacker Mason Foster returning to man the middle of the field, a defense that ranked last against the run can only improve, if health permits.

“[We’ll] take it to the next level,” Brown says. “Last year was really our first as a defense, so now it’s like, let’s keep it going and step it up. We have a lot of good young players, so they have to stay disciplined and we all have to do our job.”

Both Brown and Foster signed extensions in the offseason to stay with the Redskins. Before the ink was dry on Foster’s deal, he was already recruiting Brown to ensure their pairing would last longer than the five games they shared the field last season.

“I love this team and all these guys are brothers,” Foster says. “I love playing football, and when your year is cut short like that – especially when I was set up to have a big year – it’s tough. Part of it is a blessing in disguise, because I was able to sit there and watch the game and get in shape.”

Both players kept roots in Virginia this offseason, with Foster rehabbing his torn shoulder and Brown settling down with his family in McLean. Though they had different offseason experiences, both were ready for camp and eager to improve a defense not yet matching their standard for greatness.

“Guys are playing hard, but it was little things here and there,” Foster continues. “Being up in the box and being able to see it from a coach’s perspective, you see the little angles you take and the little things you bring to the table every day. It definitely helped me bring my game to another level.”

Though the pair is integral to the Redskins postseason goals, the hope is for their load to be lessened by the team’s top draft pick, interior defensive lineman Da’Ron Payne, who joins former Alabama teammate Jonathan Allen – Washington’s first pick in last year’s draft.

“With the young guys coming in and making it more competitive, everybody is in better shape and coming in strong,” Brown says. “Health is going to be really important, but everyone behind you has to stay ready too. If we can stay healthy, we can go a long way.”

As for the veterans, Brown and Foster acknowledge an undeniable chemistry between them on the field.

“He was a big reason I wanted to come back here,” Foster says. “I knew what me and him could do for the whole year. We see the game the same way, and it allows me to come downhill. We know who’s going to have an opportunity to take a chance. Sometimes I want to jump a route and he’ll cover for me, and vice versa. Stuff like that became natural for us.”

Though the defense – who finished with the 12th-most yards allowed in the league – is set to improve, the old saying “a good offense is the best defense” may still apply to the Redskins. To bolster the offensive unit, the team added veteran playmakers in running back Adrian Peterson and QB Alex Smith, replacing Kirk Cousins.

As inside linebackers, both Brown and Foster are essentially the quarterbacks of the defense, and each has had a chance to match wits with the new starting signal caller.

“He’s what I thought he was,” Brown says. “He’s a great player and he’s going to surprise a lot of people. We have a lot of receivers that will go get the ball for Alex, and he’s really upped the game for those guys. He’s a great leader, and he has high expectations for the offense.”

Despite the 7-9 finish to last season, neither of these players are lacking in confidence. They’re ready to prove the naysayers wrong.

“I think we’re in the mix,” Foster says. “The sky’s the limit, but we have to go out and execute.”

Brown echoes his teammate’s sentiments about the 2018 season.

“We feel like we can be one of the best in the NFL if we bring it together.”

Catch the Washington Redskins’ first home game against the Indianapolis Colts on Saturday, September 16. Follow the team on Twitter at @Redskins and check out their 2018 schedule at www.redskins.com.

FedExField: 1600 Fedex Way, Landover, MD; 301-276-6000; www.redskins.com