Second-year safety Troy Apke had played just 10-career defensive snaps entering Sunday's game against San Francisco. Yet when Montae Nicholson went down with an ankle injury in the third quarter of the scoreless showdown, it did not take long for Apke to make the Redskins' biggest defensive play of the game.
On 4th-and-4 from the Redskins' 36-yard line, Apke dropped back in the middle of the field, recognized where the pass was headed and immediately broke on the rain-soaked football. He then made a jumping interception -- the first of his NFL career -- before weaving down the right sideline for a 33-yard return.
The turnover proved insignificant to the final result, as the Redskins immediately punted the ball back to the 49ers in an eventual 9-0 defeat. But for Apke, the takeaway served as the highlight of a promising defensive effort.
"Obviously we wanted to win and everything, but my mentality was just to be ready no matter what and just try to prepare all week," Apke said. "So it was good to get the first [interception]."
Apke played in 55% of the defensive snaps and finished the game with six tackles (five solo) and a pass breakup to go along with his interception. This comes a week after he played his first 10-career snaps in a 17-16 win over the Miami Dolphins.
"He came in and did his job, and that's what's expected of him," Landon Collins said of Apke. "Like we all say, when one person gets hurt, it's next man up, and what he did was fantastic coming in and making the plays that he made. And now we have to be on the same page from here on out until whenever [Nicholson comes back]."
Apke, a fourth-round selection in 2018, was solely a special teams contributor during his rookie campaign, and even then he only played in seven games and recorded 22 snaps before going on Injured Reserve with a lingering hamstring injury. But this offseason, defensive quality control coach Kyshoen Jarrett saw Apke make a concerted effort to mold himself into an NFL safety. There were days when Jarrett came to Redskins Park without much company. Then he'd see Apke, who would pepper him with questions about how to expedite his development.
"He's grinding and wanting to learn like, 'Hey KJ, what can I learn? How can I process this coverage and that coverage?'" Jarrett said on "The Rundown" podcast before training camp in July. "He's another young guy that has a lot of potential."
Apke's potential is centered around his speed, which manifested itself in the form of a blazing 4.34 40-yard dash time NFL Combine. At 6-foot-1 and 205 pounds, he also has good size for the position. He'll have to use both traits to his advantage in the absence of Nicholson, who did not practice all week and is listed as questionable for Thursday's game against Minnesota. If Nicholson cannot play, Apke will earn his first-career start alongside Collins -- a three-time Pro Bowl safety.
Collins said Apke's range is about the same as Nicholson's, so he does not expect there to be much of a drop-off in performance should Nicholson miss time. The biggest adjustment will be on-field chemistry, which is of the utmost importance during a short week. Collins said he has not worked with Apke in practice since OTAs in early June.
These circumstances have made film sessions and walk-throughs over the past few days especially crucial as they prepare for a Vikings offense that has averaged 36.0 points over the past three games. But as Apke showed against San Francisco, he's capable of stepping in and producing on short notice.
"He's watched a lot of film of me and Montae play. He can pick it up from there," Collins said. "And out on the field, I'm going to constantly talk to him throughout the game, tell him where to line up at, tell him where he needs to be, keep him out of the box. I trust Montae, but I don't know how much he knows how to read down there, so I'm going to keep him out of the box as much as possible. He can play the post, because he has the range to play the post, and he showcased it [against the 49ers].