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Jonathan Allen focused on making sophomore leap, improving Redskins’ run defense

Defensive coordinator Greg Manusky, left, talks with defensive tackle Phillip Taylor (99) and defensive end Jonathan Allen during training camp last season. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

The frustration is still evident on Jonathan Allen’s face months later.

He is grateful to be on the practice field again, dripping with sweat alongside his teammates, even on these damp, humid days. He is thankful, not only because he has returned to playing football, but because he is back to running again. And walking.

The Lisfranc injury the defensive end suffered in Week 6 last year did more than prematurely end his rookie season with the Washington Redskins. It squandered what was turning into an impressive first year for Allen, the team’s much-hyped first-round draft pick, and it helped to derail the promising start shown by the defense as a whole. And even now, even though he is healthy, Allen can’t hide his irritation over his lost season.

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“Oh, I was pissed. It sucked,” he said, shaking his head as he walked up the stairs leading from the field to the locker room Wednesday after practice. “I felt like I had just started to hit my stride. I was just starting to feel comfortable. I was just starting to have a little bit of success. And then it got taken away.”

The “fluke” but devastating foot injury sidelined Allen in mid-October, resulting in a stat line that left much to be desired for the former All-Met Player of the Year from Stone Bridge High, just a few miles from Redskins Park. He finished the 2017 season with just one sack and three tackles in five games. But now he is eager to be a dominant force on the Redskins’ defensive line for an entire season. And he already has identified one glaring weakness from a year ago.

Asked if he knows where the defense ranked against the run in 2017, Allen’s face turns serious. “Thirty-two,” he said. “Yeah. Terrible.”

It’s impossible for the Redskins to fare any worse, obviously. But Allen, who went on to star in college at Alabama, all but guaranteed the unit will be much-improved in that area. “One-hundred percent,” he said. “[It’ll be] completely different.”

One reason for his optimism: The addition of his good friend and former teammate Daron Payne, the No. 13 overall pick in this year’s draft. Their connection was cultivated over two seasons playing together for Crimson Tide Coach Nick Saban, and now the pair has even higher expectations for themselves playing together on the same line in the NFL.

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Told of the Redskins’ 32nd ranking against the run, Payne smiled and said: “That ain’t a good thing.”

The rookie defensive tackle added that playing with Allen and fellow Alabama alum Ryan Anderson, a linebacker, has already made his adjustment “a whole bunch easier. Just being able to look to the side of you and seeing somebody you knew, knowing that they’ll guide you in the right way.”

On paper at least, the Redskins appear to have upgraded their front seven with more athleticism and depth. But defensive coordinator Greg Manusky was quick to caution that, while Payne and the rest of the rookies “have been doing a great job” and Allen “did a great job of rehabbing this offseason,” it’s too early to gauge  how much better the unit will be. Particularly against the run.

“Last year was the first year coming together as a group, with the calls and stuff like that,” Manusky said, adding that the unit needed time to “mesh together.” “ … It looks good now, but hopefully in the future it’ll pay dividends.”

Allen, however, won’t accept mediocrity from himself or the defense.

He enters his second season preaching the importance of players taking care of their bodies and being more consistent for a full 60-minute game. “We did it for a quarter, maybe a little under half the year,” he said. “But that’s not good enough if we’re going to reach the goals we want to reach.”

The Redskins’ 2017 statistics paint a disappointing picture of yet another squandered season: a 7-9 record and defense that was ninth in pass coverage (surrendering 213.8 yards in the air per game) and dead last stopping the run (allowing a league-worst 134.1 rushing yards per game). And Allen’s injury only helped compound the team’s defensive struggles.

“When I got hurt, I was just at home, by myself, every day, watching our team play,” he said with a heavy sigh. “Going through the year we had, where we had so much potential but we didn’t put it together, oh my God, it was terrible.”

But the 23-year-old insisted he “went the extra mile” in his offseason recovery to ensure he is a formidable threat on the edge for all 16 weeks. Said Payne: “Every day I see him, he’s just ready to go to work.”

Manusky acknowledged the coaching staff was somewhat “hesitant” to give Allen a full dose of reps early on, but the defensive lineman “just keeps on progressing from where he kind of left off last year and the sky’s the limit for him.”

If there is a silver lining to be found in having an injury-shortened season, Allen said, it is this: He returned to Ashburn with a renewed sense of gratitude, not only for the ability to play football again, but also for the simple pleasures, like walking on a treadmill, running and chasing around his nieces and nephews in the house.

“It made me really appreciate football, honestly,” Allen said, before disappearing behind the heavy glass doors leading to the locker room. “So now I love practice. Not saying I didn’t last year, but you just appreciate it more when you have it taken away from you.”

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