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Washington’s stout defensive line is about to get expensive. That’s where depth comes in.

Washington’s defensive line rests between snaps during its second preseason game against the Cincinnati Bengals at FedEx Field. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

Jack Del Rio likes to create confusion, so early in the Washington Football Team’s preseason opener against the New England Patriots, he had his defense wreak a little havoc. It was third and eight, and Washington showed a cover-two shell, with two defensive backs splitting coverage in the backfield. But safety Landon Collins snuck up to the line of scrimmage just before the snap, creating a seven-man front.

The threat of a blitz turned out to be the least of Patriots quarterback Cam Newton’s problems.

As Newton fielded the snap, Chase Young, Washington’s defensive rookie of the year last season, jumped off the edge of the line and put to work what he practiced throughout the offseason, jabbing his left arm into the inside shoulder of tackle Isaiah Wynn, while using his right hand to swipe at Wynn’s outside arm. With a rare mix of speed and power, Young relied on his hands to slip under Wynn’s grasp, skate around his hip and lunge at Newton, bear-hugging him to the ground while knocking the ball out of his hand.

Young has spoken about focusing on the finer details of his pass rush during the offseason, improving his hand work and his speed off the line, while also trying to strengthen his play recognition. He needed only three preseason snaps to show his progress.

“On that play, all that work paid off,” Young said after the game. “It was a long-arm cut, and I turned my hips, got around the edge and tried to make a play.”

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But the success of Washington’s defense is built on the expectation that everyone can make game-changing plays. Its line has the most firepower, and after already playing one year in Del Rio’s scheme, it poses a threat (and depth) that few teams can match. Consider: Young’s play against the Patriots came without his sidekick, Montez Sweat, in uniform that night (Sweat was out with an illness).

With Jon Allen and Daron Payne on the interior, Washington has four first-round picks as starters up front. Yet it also has a pair of defensive tackles, in Matt Ioannidis and Tim Settle, who would probably be starters anywhere else, and a second-year lineman in James Smith-Williams who can play nearly every spot on the line. It may also have a pair of valuable developmental players in seventh-round rookies William Bradley-King and Shaka Toney. It may also have discovered some less-heralded talents in camp, such as undrafted lineman Daniel Wise.

“We got everything on paper, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter,” Young said when asked about the defense’s potential at the start of camp. “It’s what we put out on the field and being consistent and just going out there and having to do it every single day.”

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As Washington nears the end of camp, the one thing the line lacks is clarity. Over the next week, Coach Ron Rivera and his staff will have to decide the final pieces of their initial 53-man roster, which gets set Aug. 31. And those last spots on the line will be critical — for both the team’s immediate success and long-term future.

When Washington hosts the Baltimore Ravens on Saturday for its final preseason game, the back end of that group will garner attention.

“We’re looking for guys that are going to take advantage of these opportunities, make plays, make things happen and handle the situations and opportunities,” Rivera said. “ … We’re looking at the backup depth at the defensive line, when those guys have got to step up. We want to watch those guys very closely as well.”

Washington’s depth proved vital in 2020, when Young began the campaign with a hip injury and Ioannidis was lost early on to a season-ending biceps injury. Ryan Kerrigan played a reserve role for the first time in his career to give Washington a seamless fill-in on the edge of the line. But his exit in free agency has created opportunity for Smith-Williams, as well as Bradley-King and Toney. Allen got a new four-year, $72 million contract, and Payne could be next, followed by Sweat and Young. Keeping the first-rounders together could grow expensive.

But Washington’s depth isn’t just insurance; it’s a significant piece of its defense. Del Rio, as he has shown often in the preseason and throughout training camp, likes to deploy five-man fronts. According to Football Outsiders, Washington played the most snaps with five defensive linemen (58) last season, and its defense allowed the fewest yards per play and had the lowest DVOA when rushing five or more.

Smith-Williams, a former high school safety who packed on 70 pounds while at North Carolina State to play on the line, has been eyed by Rivera as a possible replacement for Kerrigan. Smith-Williams underwent shin surgery this past offseason, and he stayed in Northern Virginia to rehab and train. Many of Washington’s linemen, including Allen, were in the area as well.

The familiarity and added reps together can only help, Young said.

“We know what we like to do,” Young said. “I know what Jon likes to do when he sends that three-tech to me, and I know what Payne likes to do. I feel like this camp, we got a lot better playing off each other.”

But to match the lofty expectations from the outside — and from within — Washington’s defensive line needs to discover its final pieces.

“The biggest thing with having success as a defense last year is not coming into this year expecting to duplicate that without putting in the same amount of work,” Allen said. “We got to come into the season and understand that we’re starting from the bottom. We haven’t done anything this season. We have to go out there and play good, play hard and build a solid base.”

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