ASHBURN, Va., — To hear Washington Commanders defensive tackle Jonathan Allen talk, he and his linemates – and the defense in general — might never play a great game. His definition of one will make it difficult to obtain.
“At least 10 sacks, three turnovers by the D-line ourselves,” Allen said. “Definitely a defensive touchdown, probably putting a quarterback out. I mean we would have to just completely wreck the game — and also getting a shutout. High standards.”
High standards indeed. But for Allen and the rest of Washington’s defensive line, they’ve been used to hearing about – and having – high expectations. If the Commanders are to win at the Denver Broncos on Sunday, their defensive front will be a key reason.
With a young quarterback in Sam Howell making his third career start – his first on the road – and with an offensive line that starts new players at four positions, the offense will take time.
That means the defense, and the D-line in particular, must take the lead.
That’s what happened in last week’s 20-16 win over the Arizona Cardinals. The linemen combined for three sacks, eight tackles for a loss, six quarterback hits, two forced fumbles and two recoveries. Denver coach Sean Payton certainly noticed their impact.
“They create a lot of minus plays,” Payton said. “I’m not even talking about rushing the passer. Just within the framework of the run game, they’re really active, and they’re athletic. All of those guys have had great college careers. A lot of them are first round draft picks that are playing well. The defense kind of feeds off that. They’re a handful.”
After that game, when asked if the line took over the game, end Montez Sweat wasted little time answering.
“Hell yeah,” Sweat said. “You see how the team’s shaped up. There’s nothing but first-rounders on the D-line. That’s what we expect to do, so that’s what we’re going to do.”
“Just causing disruption,” linebacker Cody Barton said of the line.
Washington’s starting four linemen — Allen, Sweat, Daron Payne and Chase Young — all were drafted in the first round. Both Payne and Allen have been rewarded with big deals and average a combined $40.6 million per year.
Meanwhile, Sweat and Young are entering the final year of their contracts.
Sources within the organization say Washington would like to extend Sweat but the team is taking a wait-and-see approach with Young after declining his fifth-year option in the offseason. Young will make his season debut Sunday after missing the opener with a neck injury he suffered in the Aug. 11 preseason opener at the Cleveland Browns.
Regardless of what happens in the future, the line pushes one another to perform now.
“I’ve got to beat Chase, Sweat, Payne, I got to get to the quarterback first,” Allen said. “So that’s what we always pride ourselves on — competing. And it’s not just about winning and beating your guy, but it’s about beating your guy faster than the other guy. So we’re always racing and competing and pushing each other and letting each other know when they’re not fast enough.”
Washington’s defensive front – Payne and Allen in particular – had a strong 2022 season as well. The tackles both made the Pro Bowl after combining for 19 sacks, with 11.5 from Payne, and 39 tackles for a loss. They were the NFL’s most productive tackle combination in those areas.
Sweat finished with eight sacks but the one word he and others kept using when discussing his play was, “finish”. They want more production from him; Sweat, in his fifth year, has never recorded double-digit sacks. In the opener, he recorded 1.5 sacks and two forced fumbles.
Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said Sweat’s conditioning had improved, which he said made a difference in finishing plays.
“He’s a talented rusher,” Del Rio said. “It’s just a focus. He’s pretty dialed in right now.”
Washington’s front is better positioned to dominate games than in the past. It’s the fourth year of Del Rio’s system. Early on, the group at times resisted what the coaches wanted. They were used to playing a two-gap system under the previous staff, moving horizontally initially but in this one-gap scheme the coaches want them getting upfield first.
Also, they did not always respond to previous line coach Sam Mills III, who was fired in August of 2022 and replaced by his assistant Jeff Zgonina. Former Washington linebacker/end Ryan Kerrigan was also added to the staff.
“Once we got things straightened out with the staff, I think you could really start to see those guys come together last year,” Washington coach Ron Rivera said. “You see a lot more discipline in their play. They play with a lot of confidence because they understand it.”
There were multiple plays that showed their comfort level, notably inside. On one play, Allen was a half-yard quicker off the snap than even Payne. Allen shot inside a tackle sliding toward him and past a pulling tight end to tackle the ballcarrier for a four-yard loss. Allen later said the tackle’s stance suggested he was going to pull so he wanted to get off the ball quickly.
“The thing about young guys, a lot of times they overthink and they see too much,” Allen said, “as opposed to if I make a mistake I’m going to be making it full speed and live with the results.”
Commanders center Nick Gates started six games against Washington as a member of the New York Giants from 2018-22. This summer, he practiced versus this group. He understands what it’s like to face this front.
“That was always circled on my schedule because just Jon and Payne, they’re really good players,” Gates said. “They have high motors too, which you don’t really see with a lot of guys that are paid and good — they don’t have a want-to. These guys, they don’t stop. They keep going and it’s good.
“They’re smart guys too. They watch film. Jon’s calling stuff out before we’re even running a play and he’s reading the guards. He could tell sometimes when somebody’s pulling and stuff like that. But yeah, no, they’re smart. They take in everything too.”
And they understand what they mean to the team, especially with a young offense.
“I know our fans are impatient. They want 40 points on offense,” Allen said. “We got all this excitement, but it’ll happen. So until then or whenever it happens, just know the defense is going to be ready. We’re going in the year four with Del Rio and we’re really ready to dominate.”