The Washington Commanders have two of the best safeties in the NFL heading into the second half of the season, according to Pro Football Focus' metrics.
Kamren Curl, who is on pace for another strong performance in his third season, has the fifth-highest rated safety grade by the analytics website with a grade of 81.9. Not too far behind him is second-year pro Darrick Forrest, who is the ninth-highest rated safety with a 78.8.
The two have played some of their best football over the past month, and it is not a coincidence that Washington's defense is playing much better than it did in 2021 with the two in the secondary.
"They're doing a nice job," defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said of the duo. "Kam, it's great to have him back. He's a good football player. DFoe [Forrest] is really coming on, really playing good football. Pleased with those guys, the way they're working."
The combination of Curl and Forrest on the field, which is something Washington's coaching staff has been excited about since the start of the season, opens the door for the defense to use more flexibility in its rotation while also putting two of the team's best run and pass defenders on the field together. Curl has the fourth-highest run defense grade (85.7) among safeties and second-highest on the team, while Forrest has the team's highest pass coverage grade (81.9) and third-highest among safeties.
It has been an effective union so far this season, but the Commanders had to start the year without it when Curl needed surgery on his thumb, which caused him to miss the first two games.
That left Forrest to fill Curl's role in his first career start against the Jacksonville Jaguars. The former Cincinnati Bearcat did not shy away from the moment. Not only did he lead the team with a 91.5 overall grade from PFF, but he was also the highest-graded safety in the league for Week 1 and supplied the game-sealing interception.
Forrest's coaches have been impressed with the way he has grown in the system. Considering the fact that he spent the first half of his rookie season on the Injured Reserve list and was mostly a special teams contributor in the second half, it is a tremendous accomplishment.
"I think the evolution of DeFo is the game slowing down, and he's starting to recognize formation, starting to recognize split, starting to recognize back field sets," said defensive backs coach Chris Harris.
Everything was "moving at the speed of light" for Forrest, Harris said, which is typical for rookies. Now, Forrest is focusing less on remembering his assignment and more on how offenses will attack him and how he can respond.
"You see him playing very fast," Ron Rivera said of Forrest. "He's very physical. After Kam, he's probably one of our more physical guys. He's a downhill player. He's very active. He plays with his eyes pretty well. He sees a lot."
And that vision has led to Forrest making life difficult for opposing receivers. He has allowed wideouts to catch 56.3% of their targets, including just two catches in the last four games.
"You see a guy play with confidence, and a guy playing with confidence is gonna play fast," Rivera said.
As for Curl, missing two games has not hindered his impact as one of the team's best defenders, which has been the case since his rookie year in 2020. His return allowed Washington to move Forrest back to being a more traditional safety so Curl can play closer to the line of scrimmage, where he has had the most influence for the unit.
"What it did was it gave us an opportunity to put him down to the box and then bring Bobby McCain down to the box as well," Rivera said. "So now you have two guys that are very physical to point, two guys that can run and cover in the box if we needed to."
Rivera was blunt about the influence Curl has on the defense: it allows the unit to be more schematically versatile. Rather than sticking players to one spot, the Commanders can move Forrest, McCain and Percy Butler around the formation to keep offenses guessing.
"A guy like him, you're excited to have around because he's really like a Swiss Army knife," Harris said. "What do you need him to do today? And we put him in the role that we best need him that day. And then that could change the next week."
What has not changed has been Curl's proficiency against the run. He is second on the team in tackles, and he has a missed tackle rate of just 2.3%. He also has 16 "stops," which is a PFF metric uses to determine when a tackle constitutes a "failure" for the offense.
"He's a kind of a calming influence on the group, I think," Del Rio said. "He's so reliable and his communication is so strong."
That presence is why it was an easy decision for Del Rio to make Curl the primary play-caller on the field while Cole Holcomb recovers from a foot injury. Until Holcomb returns, it looks like that will be the plan going forward.
"He's the guy we want to have on the field all the time," Del Rio said. "He's bright, and he handled it. He was excellent. So I mean, it was an easy choice for those reasons."
And to see the effect Curl and Forrest have had on the defense, just look at the stats from recent weeks. The Commanders have held opponents to less than 200 passing yards four times in the past five games, and the defense has limited running backs to less than 100 rushing yards four times in nine games.
Not all of that success comes from them, but it is an indication of how their contributions can help the defense.
"You have guys that pack it in, can help with the run," Rivera said, "but you'd have the athleticism versatility to help guard against the throws, the passes, the matchups that people try to create when they have these athletic tight ends."