For the fans of most teams, the news that a rotational defensive lineman is returning from injury is met with bland indifference. But that’s not the case in Washington.
It seems likely that the most significant return-from-injury for the Washington Football Team in 2021 won’t be strong safety Landon Collins, quarterback Kyle Allen, offensive lineman Saahdiq Charles, or 3rd-year receiver Kelvin Harmon, but 27-year-old 6th-year defensive tackle Matt Ioannidis.
On most NFL teams, Matt Ioannidis would likely be a key defensive star; in Washington he has to share the spotlight. Ioannidis is a starter (per Pro Football Reference, he started 15 of 16 games in 2019) and an important part of a rotation that puts him, Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne on the field for a similar number of snaps. All three players are disruptive, but when the opponents drop back to pass, Matt Ioannidis delivers a huge bang for the buck.
A fearsome foursome
In fact, the Football Team has perhaps the deepest talent pool at the defensive line group in the league. Washington’s top 4 interior defensive linemen are Jonathan Allen, Daron Payne, Matt Ioannidis, and Tim Settle. Together, they form one of the most fearsome interior defensive front lines in the NFL.
Matt Ioannidis was one of the strongest defensive linemen entering the NFL five years ago, putting up 32 reps on the bench press at the NFL Combine. He’s done nothing but get stronger since.
By 2019, Matt Ioannidis had become a critical part of Washington’s defense and he was considered a core part of the roster entering Ron Rivera’s first year in Washington in 2020. Unfortunately, Ioannidis was injured in Week 3, suffering a torn biceps that ended his season.
The silver lining behind this particular cloud is that because it occurred so early in the ‘20 season, Matt Ioannidis should be fully healthy at the start of the upcoming 2021 season.
When Ioannidis was placed on IR in late September last year, it was widely expected that the Football Team would sign a free agent DT to replace him. However, the team never added a 4th DT to replace Ioannidis on the depth chart last season. Instead, they relied on Allen, Payne and Settle to play more snaps for the balance of the season. This is one of the reasons why I don’t believe the team will carry more than 4 DTs on the roster to open the season — they went 13 games last year with only 3 DTs.
Last year, the coaches also took advantage of the flexibility of other players such as then-rookie James Smith-Williams, who is primarily a defensive end, but who also has the flexibility to move inside. Per PFF, Smith-Williams played nearly half of his defensive snaps at an interior DL position in 2020.
Still, even with Matt Ioannidis out for most of the 2020 season, no one on the WFT played more than a few dozen snaps at DT last season except Allen, Payne and Settle.
Let’s look at the statistical production of Washington’s four interior defensive linemen for the three years they have all played together.
All yearly stats (2018-20) per Pro Football Focus
The key year in this data is 2019, when none of the four players was a rookie, and each of them was basically fully healthy for the season. I find it interesting that, while the perception seems to have been that Allen and Payne were the ‘starters’ and Ioannids was a backup, it was Matt Ioannidis who had the highest snap count in 2019. Ioannidis also out-snapped Jonathan Allen for the first two games of 2020 when they were both healthy.
The data highlighted in yellow in the tables above show the cumulative totals for three seasons (2018-20), and to the right this, I have calculated three index numbers for production. Tackles and pressures are shown per 100 snaps; sack production is shown per 1,000 snaps.
While the tackle production is similar for all four interior defensive linemen, Jon Allen has the highest index number at 5.17 tackles per 100 snaps.
Interior pass rush master
In passing situations, however, you can see immediately that Matt Ioannidis has been the most productive interior pass rusher, tallying 7.37 pressures per 100 snaps, and 14.14 sacks per 1,000 snaps. Allen was the second most productive in terms of pressure, though Settle had the second-best sack production.
It should be noted that the numbers for Ioannidis are not skewed by a short stretch of production or one great year. His pressure indices for the three years were 8.2, 6.7, and 9.9, while his sack indices were 18.2, 10.9, and 24.6. All 6 of these indices ranked #1 among the four interior linemen in the relevant seasons, whether Ioannidis had the highest snap count (as he did in 2019) or the lowest (as he did in 2020).
In short, on a team that is absolutely loaded with talented interior defensive linemen, Matt Ioannidis is the best interior pass rusher of the group.
Impact on team defense
Last season, with Matt Ioannidis lost in the first half of the Week 3 game against Cleveland, the Washington defense finished 5th in sacks for the season with 47 (they had 46 in 2019). The upcoming 2021 season could actually see the Football Team lead the league in sacks.
This year, for instance, Chase Young will be entering his second season; traditionally, great edge rushers have taken a big leap from their rookie season to their sophomore year. Von Miller went from 11.5 to 18.5; J.J. Watt went from 5.5 to 20.5; Cameron Wake went from 5.5 to 14; Justin Houston from 5.5 to 10; Chandler Jones from 6 to 11.5. The list goes on and on.
So, there’s a natural progression probably in store for Chase Young, but when you add the dynamic of Washington’s most productive interior pass rusher — Matt Ioannidis — rejoining the defense and playing 800+ snaps this season, the added disruption that it creates and the options it takes away from the opposing quarterback should pay off in a huge way for Jack Del Rio’s defense and for the team as a whole.
Setting a high bar
The Steelers led the league with 3.5 sacks per game in 2020. If Washington could match that pace over the 17-game schedule in 2021, the defense would finish with nearly 60 sacks for the year. That’s an impressive total, but it’s also one that wouldn’t even crack the top-25 all-time seasons for an NFL defense, nor would it set the franchise record.
The Chicago Bears hold the all-time single season sack record with 72 in 1984, and they hold 4 of the top-15 all-time best seasons with the defenses that played from 1984-87. Those four defenses all included a young linebacker named Ron Rivera.
The 7th spot on the list of all-time great sack seasons is the 1984 Redskins, who tallied 66 sacks. That team featured two great edge rushers in Dexter Manley and Charles Mann, who tallied 20.5 sacks between them, but it also featured a strong interior pass rush from #77, Darryl Grant, who was a 4th year defensive tackle that contributed 8 sacks.
For Washington’s 2021 defense — who match 1984’s Manley, Mann and Grant with 2021’s Sweat, Young and Ioannidis — to equal the ‘84 Redskins’ tally of 66 sacks, this year’s defense would need to average 3.9 sacks per game.
To live up to the all-time greatest sacking defense that Ron Rivera played on in Chicago, this year’s group would need to exceed 4.2 sacks per game.
I’m not sure that this defense will climb up to the heights of these all-time DC and Chicago greats, but a season total of well over 50 sacks seems not only possible, but likely with the return of Matt Ioannidis as the major disruptor inside. It also seems conceivable that the defense could achieve 60 sacks for only the second time in franchise history.
Whatever the final tally, I think we should all look forward to another season of hearing the play-by-play announcer calling No. 98, and seeing replays of him dominating offensive linemen from around the league week after week.