The Washington Football Team has gone through several safety combinations during the 2020 campaign.
The team paired Troy Apke with Pro Bowler Landon Collins to begin the year, only to replace Apke with special teams standout Deshazor Everett five games in. Then injuries ravaged the unit, with Collins suffering a season-ending Achilles injury in Week 7 and Everett going down with an ankle injury in Week 10. All of the sudden, Apke was back in the starting lineup alongside seventh-round rookie Kam Curl.
But in Washington's Thanksgiving rout of the Dallas Cowboys, it was another young safety who validated himself to the coaching staff. Playing nearly 50% of the defensive snaps, Jeremy Reaves recorded his first-career sack and helped break up a pass in the end zone -- on back-to-back plays. That forced the Cowboys to settle for a field goal in the third quarter, which were the last points they scored in a 41-16 defeat.
"As we went through training camp, I kept an eye on him and he just did everything right," head coach Ron Rivera said of Reaves after the game. "I watched the way he practiced. I see a lot of things, and he was a guy I was pleased with because of his attitude, his effort, his preparation."
Reaves, an undrafted free agent in 2018, has bounced between Washington's practice squad and active roster the past three seasons. His most recent promotion came when the team placed Collins on Injured Reserve on Oct. 27 -- the same day Eric Reid reportedly turned down a practice squad offer.
Reid was highly productive in two seasons with Rivera in Carolina, but Rivera wanted him to "get his legs under him" before opening up a spot on the active roster. Rivera also wanted to see what the team had in Curl and Reaves.
After primarily playing special teams in the previous three games, Reaves split time with the struggling Apke against the Cowboys. On multiple occasions, Reaves read Andy Dalton's pre-snap tendencies and communicated the necessary adjustments to his teammates. However, where Reaves truly shined was in the third quarter. After Terry McLaurin chased down Jaylon Smith to prevent a pick-six, Reaves brought down wide receiver CeeDee Lamb for a four-yard loss. He then helped break up a pass to hold the Cowboys to a field goal.
"When we ran out there, I said, 'They don't get in.' I talked to all of the guys up there and I said, 'We've got to stand tall right now. This is a big moment in the game, this could say a lot about our defense and this can build a culture within our defense right now.' I mean, Dallas is a good offense. If we get a stop like that, it kind of turns that momentum. They come off a big play at home, we stop them three plays in a row and get off the field giving up three points. That's huge."
Following the game, Rivera had nothing but praise for the unheralded safety. He earned the right to be on the 53-man roster, Rivera said, and now he was taking advantage of it. Reaves, meanwhile, was grateful that Rivera believed in him.
"Honestly, it's a good feeling. I know how this business works, and they easily could have went the other route. But they believed in me, and so it's only right when I get my opportunity out there, I put my best foot forward and repay coach in that way. So, any time I get a chance to step on that field, honestly it's a way to represent my family and it's another way of thanking coach for just giving me a chance."
With 11 days between Thanksgiving and a matchup with the undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers, Everett may have enough time to recover from the ankle injury that kept him sidelined. If that's the case, he'll likely slide back into the starting lineup.
But if Everett cannot go, Reaves has shown he is capable of handling significant defensive snaps. In fact, he earned a Pro Football Focus grade of 78.5 for his performance in Dallas, the highest for any Washington free safety this season.
Regardless of what happens, Reaves made the most of his opportunity. He's anxiously awaiting the next one.