Daron Payne needed all of three snaps to ease fears that he’s a one-trick pony. The massive defensive tackle, the Washington Redskins’ first-round pick, made his NFL preseason debut Thursday and recorded his first sack before the New York Jets could manage a first down.
“It’s crazy to see a guy like Payne who’s that physical in the run but also can get up there and pass rush,” Redskins linebacker Mason Foster said. “A lot of people may not see that, but we saw it the first day he was here in OTAs. It’s one thing to do it in practice. And then to take it onto the field and be dominant and explosive like that at the size he is is crazy.”
Payne came off the ball with two quick steps toward the outside and got Jets guard Jonotthan Harrison to lean in that direction. The No. 13 pick out of Alabama then cut back inside with a swim move that left Harrison off-balance and desperately trying to recover. That gave Payne a clear path to quarterback Sam Darnold as Harrison fell face-first to the FedEx Field turf.
For those worried that Payne was just a bull-rushing strongman who would stuff the run but fail to produce in the pass rush, that snap showed otherwise.
“He was ready to go,” fellow rookie defensive tackle Tim Settle said. “I was hyping him up a bit before the game, and he said, ‘You going to see,’ and he showed me. I was watching him the whole time, and I saw when the dude went at him and he cut back inside and I said, ‘Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!’ I was so into it.”
Payne’s debut — he missed the preseason opener with an ankle injury suffered in training camp — finally allowed the Redskins’ revamped defensive line to resemble the unit they expect will start the Sept. 9 opener at Arizona. Payne will pair with former Alabama teammate Jonathan Allen (who also missed the preseason opener), with Settle rotating in. The line was missing Matt Ioannidis because of a knee injury suffered in the preseason opener, but the unit still looked good Thursday. The Jets managed just 64 yards on 22 carries, a 2.9-yard average. New York’s rushing attack is far from the NFL’s most dangerous, but any progress is a positive for a Washington defense that had the worst run defense in the league last season.
Thursday’s game provided a glimpse of what the Redskins hope will be a formidable defensive line for years after their investment in Payne, Allen (the No. 17 pick in 2017) and Settle (a fifth-round pick in April out of Virginia Tech). Allen recorded three tackles, including one for a loss, in his first game since going on injured reserve after five games as a rookie. Settle had a tackle, knocked down a pass at the line of scrimmage and was tough to block.
“It felt like the old college days,” Payne said of playing alongside Allen. “I know we go to practice every day and work hard. We will have a good front four this year, and we are going to get after it every day.”
Coach Jay Gruden said the versatility of Payne and Allen is the reason the two play so well side-by-side. At 6-foot-3 and 294 pounds, Allen isn’t quite as stout as the 6-3, 319-pound Payne, but he’s plenty strong enough to hold up at the point of attack. Payne may not have the same quickness and footwork as Allen, but he can still move well enough to give offensive linemen fits.
That allows defensive coordinator Greg Manusky to play games at the line of scrimmage, offering a variety of looks to confuse the offense.
“Those two complement each other very well,” Gruden said. “They’re multiple in what they can do. . . . Payne can line up as a three, a four or a shade — whatever he wants to do. Same with Jonathan, same with Matt and the same with Ziggy [Hood]. Very multiple in what they do, and they complement each other well.”
The defensive line has flashed in practice, but it translated to game time Thursday. Foster said the difference has been easy to see. Holes that used to be opened by the offensive line just weren’t there or didn’t last long. That affected the options for both the running back and the linebackers. Collapsing the pocket from within helps edge rushers Ryan Kerrigan and Preston Smith, and aids a secondary that has young players filling bigger roles.
“Me and [Zach Brown] are running through gaps, trying to hit the running back in the backfield, but those windows were closing,” Foster said. “It was crazy to see. I felt it on the field, playing off of them, like, there’s really nowhere to go. … Payne’s taking on two dudes and making the tackle. So it’s incredible to sit back behind them and looking at the running back and seeing him get gobbled up by the two defensive [linemen]. They’re a handful. Those O-linemen had their hands full. You could see it. The running back has no choice but to cut back into us or run right into Payne. Against the Jets, they kept running into Payne and Allen. If that’s what you choose to do, then pick your poison.”
Smith was the beneficiary of some of that up-the-gut pressure from Payne and Allen. Payne fought through a block and ended up near the feet of Darnold at the top of his dropback, and Allen got off a double team and kept the quarterback from being able to step up in the pocket. Darnold pulled the ball down and looked for an escape route, and Smith worked back for the sack. The stat goes to Smith, but the combination of pressure from Payne and Allen, plus strong downfield coverage, all played a role.
The Redskins hope to see plenty of that in the future.
“We feel really confident,” Gruden said, “that Daron Payne is going to be a force in this division for a lot of years.”
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