Quinton Dunbar knew the slant was coming.
Early in the second quarter against Miami on Sunday, the Redskins cornerback saw the inside wide receiver bubble towards the sideline. That meant that his man, Preston Williams, would break towards the middle of the field. And since quarterback Josh Rosen immediately readied to throw after faking a hand-off, Dunbar knew it would be a short route.
Sure enough, Williams cut inside while Rosen planted his feet and cocked his arm back, prompting Dunbar to break on the throw. His timing was perfect; he muscled his way in front of Williams as the pass arrived and then maintained enough focus to hold onto the ball as both players tumbled towards the Bermuda grass. Just like that, the Dophins' best first-half drive was over.
It's this type of formational awareness that has allowed Dunbar to perform like one of the NFL's best corners when healthy over the past two seasons. He's made five interceptions and broken up 13 passes over his last 10 starts and has been exceptional so far in 2019, earning the highest Pro Football Focus grades of his career against Miami and versus New York in Week 4.
“Film breakdown, reading concepts. Me playing receiver [in college] helps me out a lot with concepts and stuff like that," Dunbar explained to reporters after the Redskins' 17-16 win over the Dolphins. "That’s pretty much it. Reading two to the [running] back, and I see two to the bubble with a little play action, and I know that the slant is coming so I just went and jumped.”
Before developing into a productive NFL corner, Dunbar caught 111 passes for 1,500 yards and eight touchdowns at the University of Florida from 2011-14. And while he was not selected in the 2015 NFL Draft, he quickly signed with the Redskins to serve as a backup wide receiver and special teams contributor.
During training camp, however, the coaches were impressed with his ability to block gunners during punt return drills and thought he could have similar success covering wideouts. Plus, there was a shortage of defensive backs because of injuries, and Dunbar was unlikely to make the 53-man roster if he stayed on the offensive side of the ball. The switch made sense for all parties.
Dunbar has since made 51 appearances and 18 starts for the Redskins, recording 111 tackles, 31 pass breakups and eight interceptions. He began his career on the practice squad, then joined the active roster as the fifth cornerback and moved his way up to the No. 3 corner after his rookie campaign. Since 2018, he's served as the starter alongside Josh Norman.
“It helped me out a lot," Dunbar said about his past experience as a wide receiver. "When watching film, I can break things down to a tee and understand what they’re trying to do and what concepts they really like. The biggest thing is just keeping focus. When you’re out there on the field, everything is a rush, but the biggest thing is just to stay focus and play every play.”
Dunbar said he keeps a notebook for each game, filling the pages with opponents' schemes and tendencies. He'll then share his findings with his younger counterparts -- such as third-year man Fabian Moreau and seventh-round rookie Jimmy Moreland -- hoping his unique perspective can aid in their development.
Even though their positions are slightly different -- Dunbar plays on the outside while Moreau and Dunbar mostly work in the slot -- Moreland said Dunbar's notes, as well as his communication during practices and games -- have been beneficial as Moreland adapts to the NFL.
“You get the knowledge of the game being that he’s played the receiver side of the ball," Moreland said of Dunbar. "He knows what to expect, what types of concepts even though he might not know the playbook of what the offense does."
Other times, Dunbar leads by example. He played perhaps the best game of his career against the New York Giants on Sept. 29, intercepting rookie quarterback Daniel Jones twice and breaking up two more passes. On the second pick, Dunbar lined up in press coverage against the slot receiver, ran step-by-step with him the entirety of the route and then dove in front of him at the last second to corral the turnover.
And as interim head coach Bill Callahan noted after the Miami game, Dunbar's impact goes far beyond takeaways. On one play in that game, Dunbar sniffed out a screen pass and made a solo tackle in the backfield. On another, he swiftly passed off the outside receiver to Moreau and blanketed the wideout who entered his zone. The Dolphins targeted Dunbar seven times Sunday, completing three passes for eight yards.
"The play he made on the slant on the pick, really great anticipation, awareness, instinct, intuitiveness," Callahan said of Dunbar. "He showed all those traits, but by and large he made plays not only in the backend against the passing game but in the running game, in the screen game, the things that he prevented, the big play opportunities that he shut down early before they got going. That was really impressive. Very impressive play by 'Q'."
Dunbar is striving to improve in all facets, starting with his preparation and continuing on-field performance. He's also getting better at looking at the game from a finer lens. Instead of analyzing his execution series-by-series, he's breaking it down play-by-play, which he said has been crucial to his success.
Above all, though, Dunbar is focused on staying healthy. Whenever he's on the field, he's confident in his ability to perform like a top-tier cornerback; he just has not always been on the field. A pinched nerve in his hamstring forced Dunbar to miss significant time in 2018, and he missed Weeks 2 and 3 this year because of a knee injury.
To limit the possibility of future injury, Dunbar has emphasized taking care of his body at all times, not just when less than 100%. From stretching to lifting to treatment, he's hell-bent on staying on the field to build on what's been an exceptional start to the 2019 campaign.
"He’s good at what he does," Moreland said. "He knows the position very well, and he played the receiver position, so he knows what to expect. That’s why he’s turning out to be one of the best cornerbacks right now.”