Perhaps no other position group was more affected by injuries and other issues in 2015 than the Redskins' defensive backs, giving coach Perry Fewell plenty of challenges.
Perry Fewell called his first season with the Redskins a "head scratcher."
Fewell, who is entering his second year guiding the defensive backs, was faced with the challenge of fitting multiple players into positions that they don't normally play thanks to a number of key injuries.
He seemed to face curveball after curveball, constantly being forced to re-arrange the lineup to get enough personnel on the field.
But through it all, with a good blend of coaching and natural talent, the Redskins' cornerbacks and safeties found a way to get it done in 2015 -- to the tune of an NFC East championship, no less.
"I think I really credit the defensive backs," Fewell told "Redskins Nation" host Larry Michael this week. "Some of the senior leadership in the defensive backfield, they're just sticking together, we studied together, we knew that we had to rely on each other and we just tried to make sure that we had our stuff in order. When I say 'Our stuff', our coverages, what we felt like our strengths and weaknesses were with the players that we had that were practicing and playing at the time."
The shuffling began in training camp, when the Redskins saw cornerback after cornerback go down with minor to moderately serious injuries. In a matter of days, the team's top four cornerbacks at the time -- Chris Culliver, DeAngelo Hall, Bashaud Breeland and David Amerson -- were mostly relegated to watching practice from the sidelines.
Although the team signed a couple veterans to be preseason bodies at the cornerback position, perhaps the most interesting move it made was moving undrafted rookie wide receiver Quinton Dunbar from wide receiver over to cornerback to see what he could do.
At 6-foot-2, Dunbar definitely had the size, and head coach Jay Gruden and Fewell wanted to see if he had the physicality and natural skills to stick with receivers.
"So we took him over, first we had to get him in the stance and teach him how to pedal -- as a matter of fact I was watching some film on him from the preseason and his pedal was not very good," Fewell recalled. "But the thing about Quinton is he really worked at it and he listened to what you said and took what you said to heart and he worked every day at his craft."
Fewell said "if you have a player that has talent and has a skillset that works at his craft, he'll get better and better." Perhaps not coincidentally, Dunbar made the regular-season roster as a cornerback and even made one of the most crucial plays of the season, picking off New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning in the end zone to help secure a Week 11 victory at FedExField.
Match Dunbar's natural ability, the later addition of veteran Will Blackmon (who came on after Week 1 and turned in a career year) and the eventual return of Culliver, Hall and Breeland, and the Redskins eventually settled down at the cornerback position.
The team even moved Hall -- a three-time Pro Bowler at cornerback -- over to safety towards the second half of the season, as the veteran continued to recover from a sprained toe.
Both Gruden and Fewell believe Hall can be not just a mainstay at safety from this point on, but one of the top safeties in the league.
"Transferring to safety midway through the year is really tough to do," Fewell said. "And because he's such a student of the game, because he's a hard worker not only on the field but in the classroom, he was a guy that was able to come in and make that transition."
'They kept believing'
A loss at home to the Green Bay Packers in the opening round of the playoffs definitely wasn't what the Redskins wanted, but Fewell sees the simple experience of postseason football as beneficial, as gave his players a "taste of what it feels like" to know you're that close to the ultimate goal.
"that's kind of been my thing for talking to the DBs, texting them over this offseason: 'Let's win and advance,'" Fewell said. "And so if you have that burning desire, which I believe that we do have, we'll come out ready and we'll come out wanting to win and advance."
Fewell hopes that disappointment resonates with the players, igniting that passion and desire for success next season.
Injuries aside, Fewell is pleased of how his team was able to face the adversity and finish out the season strong, disproving the critics who didn't think the Redskins would be much of a factor in the NFC East.
"Oh, I'm extremely proud of how we stuck together, and one of the things I've learned over the years is our guys continue to listen," Fewell said. "They listen to the coaching, they never turned us off, they kept believing what we were telling them and thus for we were able to win that NFC East -- and what a tremendous accomplishment for a team that was picked to be last in the East to be the No. 1 team in the East."