Even without Chase Young, who has missed nearly a year of football following an ACL injury last season, the Washington Commanders defensive line has played some pretty good football of late, and fans believe that team captain Jonathan Allen has been the best of a very good bunch.
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Head coach Ron Rivera had some really good things to say about the group this week:
I’ve seen a difference in their play. You know when you sit there and you watch the tape and you look at some of the rushes that we’ve gotten and you look at how it’s synced, you know, we run a line stunt and you see guys coming in and not only are they doing the stunt properly, but they’re also following up. We have a couple stunts where we call a ricochet where the guy’s going to come down instead of just burying himself. [Montez Sweat] has learned how to take that, put his hands in the right position and get vertical.
That’s what you’re looking for, that growth. And that’s what we’re seeing. And because the result of it, not just him, but I mean [DE Efe Obada] had a couple of really good weeks.
Jonathan [Allen] and Daron [Payne] continue to play at a very, very steady pace, very impactful pace. Because anytime those guys are getting pushed, it allows the outside guys to have a little more success. The two of them are really good tandem.
I know I refer sometimes to my time in Carolina, but the biggest success we had on defense was when we had two really good defensive tackles together. One was the first-round pick, the other one was a second-round pick that could have easily been a first-round pick — Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei. I mean those two guys were a tandem. They allowed the linebackers to run and make plays. One guy forced a double team — he was a space eater. The other guy was athletic and vertical and could get into the creases very quickly. Well you look at the two guys we have [in Allen & Payne], and that’s what I’ve talked about; that’s the kind of tandem you want to keep.
That sounds like some powerful support from the guy who has the final say on all personnel decisions with the team, which indicates that Daron Payne’s future tenure with the Commanders might be a bit longer than the betting odds would indicate.
The headline to this story is, of course, Jonathan Allen, but before we talk about the defensive captain or any of the other former first-round picks that fans expect to play well, let’s take a look at what some of the less-well known players on the defensive line unit have achieved through six games.
The former Panthers and Bills player has averaged almost exactly 25 defensive snaps per game (151 defensive snaps in 6 weeks) and has 3 sacks and 7 quarterback hits + 1 pass defended. A little over half of his snaps (76) have been pass rushes, and PFF gives him a 68.6 grade for his pass rush in 2022.
Efe Obada cracks the first sack of the night pic.twitter.com/Iv1ujTxMOv— Commanders Nation (@WasCommandersCP) October 14, 2022
Former undrafted college free agent Toohill is actually playing a similar number of snaps per game to Obada, though Toohill missed the Week 3 game against his former team, the Eagles. PFF grades Toohill lower as a pass rusher, but much stronger in rush defense, with grades of 66.0 for run defense and 66.5 overall defense. Interestingly, PFF gives Toohill a grade of 61.8 on 5 coverage snaps this season.
All the credit in the world goes to Casey Toohill for his work on this play. Originally gets knocked down at the LOS but ends up being the guy to chase down Herbert 60-plus yards later. Efe Obada also hauling ass. A goal line stand follows for Washington pic.twitter.com/PAbBoLBU1P— Pete Hailey (@PeteHaileyNBCS) October 14, 2022
The last of the three “second-tier” defensive linemen I want to look at is Smith-Williams, a former 7th round draft pick of the Washington Football Team. JSW has actually gotten the most snaps of the three, despite also missing the Week 3 game against the Eagles. Smith-Williams has 191 defensive snaps in 5 games (~38 snaps per game), and he is graded a bit more consistently across all aspects of his game, with PFF run grade, pass rush grade, coverage grade and overall defensive grades of 56.5, 63.6, 60.0, and 63.2 respectively. JSW has 2 sacks and 8 QB hits, as well as a pass defended.
That’s pretty good production from a 7th round pick, a former UDFA and a guy from England who had never played football before 2014
John Ridgeway was drafted by the Cowboys in the 5th round of this year’s draft, but was waived late in the week after the Week 1 game, I think with the intention of re-signing him to the practice squad. Instead, Washington grabbed him off the waiver wire, and he joined the Commanders on the Monday of Week 3. He has played 84 snaps in 4 games (21 per game) and I’ve seen a number of people comment positively on his play. In those 84 snaps, he has only one tackle, and PFF doesn’t love him, giving him an overall grade for 4 games of 29.8.
But then, if you’re looking at the stat sheet for nose tackles, we have a problem.
John Ridgeway III is going to be surrounded by three Alabama offensive linemen here. He will then break out of it and go to help out on a tackle. Not on the stat sheet. If you're looking at the stat sheet for nose tackles, we have a problem. pic.twitter.com/WLZ91KrCvJ— Matt Alkire (@mattalkire) March 10, 2022
Thursday Night Football:
John Ridgeway (91) gets held pretty blatantly here and it doesn't matter because Justin Fields takes an incredibly Justin Fields sack anyway pic.twitter.com/AjBUZuOrOB— Christian D'Andrea (@TrainIsland) October 14, 2022
Daniel Wise is a guy I started paying attention to in preseason a year ago. He has appeared in 4 games in extremely limited duty, playing 34 snaps in Week 1, but, hampered by an ankle sprain, has played 10 or fewer in the other three games where he made an appearance. Wise played 139 snaps in 2021, getting credit for 3 pressures and 10 tackles. In his 51 snaps this season, he has recorded 2 pressures and a tackle. PFF gave him a grade of 59.6 for the 2021 season, and 59.2 for his play so far in 2022.
Here’s a preseason highlight for Wise:
Nice pressure off the edge from Casey Toohill forces QB to step up. Daniel Wise spins inside and skips by a lunging C before cleaning up for the sack pic.twitter.com/iWrhtFhd0C— Mark Bullock (@MarkBullockNFL) August 13, 2022
And here are some featured plays from his one healthy game of the season against the Jaguars:
Daniel Wise caught the eye with some nice plays for the #Commanders, particularly against the run. Stakced up Scherff on one wide zone, went under him on another. Got some penetration near the GL to force the RB to bounce. Flashed a few times as a rusher too pic.twitter.com/7hhOX3lhaH— Mark Bullock (@MarkBullockNFL) September 15, 2022
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But the Commanders also have 3 currently-healthy former first round picks from whom great things are always expected.
Payne has looked dominant in several games this season.
Daron Payne had fun against the Lions RG on 3rd down pic.twitter.com/gcfbQDm1f7— Mark Bullock (@MarkBullockNFL) September 18, 2022
Look at Daron Payne chuck the right guard and then decide that he doesn't want the Bears to pick up another inch on the ground all in the span of like two seconds pic.twitter.com/ocnGY2PtJ0— Pete Hailey (@PeteHaileyNBCS) October 14, 2022
For a player who came out of Alabama with a reputation as a run stopper that would have little impact on the pass rush, Payne has certainly rewritten the narrative. His pass rush grade from PFF for this season is 70.3, and at times it feels as if the defensive play calls must simply be for Payne and Allen to beat their blocks and meet at the quarterback.
Daron Payne and Jonathan Allen combine for a Bama Burger ™️ sack of Justin Fields. Fields is still seeing Bama ghosts from the 2020 title game pic.twitter.com/JHeQQlPzOD— Bama NFL (@TheBamaNFL) October 14, 2022
Payne has 3.5 sacks and 9 quarterback hits — with a safety — in 6 games. PFF credits Payne with 20 pressures (slightly different than the 14 from Next Gen Stats below) and 2 batted passes to go with 15 stops so far this season.
This is a contract year for Daron Payne, and he’s playing like a man who wants to get a bag in the offseason.
The Washington Commanders have generated a league-high 37.4% pressure rate with 4-or-fewer pass rushers this season.— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) October 13, 2022
WAS Pressure Leaders (2022)
Montez Sweat: 21 (T-4th in NFL)
Jonathan Allen: 18 (2nd among IDL)
Daron Payne: 14 (5th among IDL)#WASvsCHI | #HTTC pic.twitter.com/MXYOo0z31A
Sweat has actually played well all season, though his effort wasn’t resulting in statistics in the box scores in the first month or so of the season. Still, as you can see from the graphic above, Next Gen Stats has Sweat ranked 4th in the league (all positions) in QB pressures.
Montez Sweat (@_sweat9) with the stab/chop. Stabs the inside pec, then chops the wrist to clear the outside hand as he takes away the stab. Eventually, he gets the sack! #passrush #httc pic.twitter.com/wkjBR8bYFn— Coach Aaron Day (@dlinevids1) October 14, 2022
oh my goodness Montez Sweat pic.twitter.com/O7kNvMOgnu— Bill Barnwell (@billbarnwell) October 15, 2022
Sweat’s measurable production has been picking up of late. In just the past two weeks, Montez Sweat has had 12 total tackles (8 solo), 8 quarterback hits, 5 tackles for loss, and 3 sacks.
PFF has Sweat ranked 5th out of 115 players at his position for the year, with a 79.5 pass rush grade, an 85.0 run defense grade, and an overall mark of 89.6. The season trend for Sweat from PFF reflects the same thing that the box scores do — he’s been playing well all season, but getting better lately. After grading out at roughly 70 in each of the first three games, Sweat’s PFF grades rose to 81.0 and 74.2 in Weeks 4 & 5 before hitting the elite level with a 92.5 on Thursday night in Chicago.
Allen is a team captain again in 2022, and he is in the first year of a 4-year contract extension worth an average of about $18m per season. Allen is stepping up both as a leader and as a good financial decision.
Jonathan Allen with a Interception pic.twitter.com/sFkIGDszdc— Alabama DieHards (@DiehardsAlabama) October 14, 2022
Like Payne, Allen has 3.5 sacks. He also has a forced fumble, 3 passes defended and an interception — not bad for an interior defensive lineman — to go along with his elite pressure rate (21 per PFF; 18 per Next Gen Stats), 14 hurries and 20 stops.
You can’t really be wrong
Jonathan Allen got about two-thirds of the vote in our survey, but it’s hard to be wrong voting for any of Washington’s top-6 defensive linemen based on their respective 2022 performances. The most surprising may be that of Efe Obada; I was talking him up in training camp after writing a profile about him when he was signed as a free agent, but he has probably gone beyond my expectations.
Washington fans are split (when are they not?) about what to expect from Chase Young when he rejoins the group, which is expected to happen some time around mid-season. Those who are excited point to what he did in his college career and what he did as a member of the Washington Football Team in 2020 en route to a Defensive Rookie of the Year award. They look forward to Young’s immediate return to form.
Others remember Young’s underwhelming 2021 season more clearly, and point out that few players are immediately as explosive or impactful on return from an ACL surgery — especially those with complex injuries like we’ve heard that Young suffered. It may be some time next year before the former #2 overall draft pick regains his form, if he ever does.
The strong play from this unit — including the second-string players — on a defense that is struggling to stop opponents and a team that is struggling to win games raises questions about how to best use the salary cap resources to reward the players we’ve got.
Jon Allen got his payday; signs from this past offseason point to Daron Payne having to get his with another team, though he is doing his best to make himself indispensable. Chase Young’s injury complicates the decision-making with respect to him and Montez Sweat, but the strong performances by Smith-Williams (under contract through ‘23), Toohill (also till ‘23), and Obada (playing on a 1-yr deal) raise the level of confidence that the team can survive the slow breakup of its lineup of 4 first-round picks.
Look for the Washington defensive front to have a lot of opportunities on Sunday against a Green Bay offensive line that has struggled all season. They have been giving up 2.5 sacks per game (ranked 22nd), and surrendered 4 sacks to the Jets last week. Washington’s defense, meanwhile, is tied for the 4th most sacks through 6 weeks, averaging 3.2 per game; last week they got to the Bears QB 5 times behind the line of scrimmage.
The Packers are favored on the road by 4.5 points according to DraftKings. I’m calling an upset victory this week to move the team to 3-4 and to keep hopes alive for a resurrection of the season. I’m looking for the D-Line, Ben St-Juste and Taylor Heinicke to have good games and propel the Commanders to an unexpected victory.
Look for #93 — the guy who fans say is the strongest link in Washington’s strongest position group — to be harassing the Green Bay offense for 4 quarters to help make my prediction come true.