After a humbling 2021 season, some roster shuffling and now a coaching change, the question facing the Washington Commanders’ defensive line is this: How good are you, really?
Daron Payne: “We are trying to get better [at] everything.”
Jonathan Allen: “Expectations don’t really do anything.”
Montez Sweat, Allen and Payne: “I just want to win.”
Those quotes echo defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio’s message to his players at the beginning of camp. Coach Ron Rivera, who sat in on one meeting, said he liked what he heard: “Let’s be humble. Let’s earn it. … Let’s just do our jobs, and we’ll go from there.”
Last season, Washington’s defense ranked 25th in points allowed per game (25.5) and 29th in expected points added per play (.08). The struggles weren’t solely on the line — there was also poor communication in the secondary, and several players were uncomfortable in a new scheme — but because the line featured four first-round picks, and two of those picks were vocal and relatively unproductive (Young and Sweat), the unit’s failings were among the most glaring.
If Washington’s defense is to rebound this season, if it’s to regain the prominence it held briefly in 2020, the line will probably have to lead. It can count on Allen and Payne, two of the few bright spots from last year, but it must hope that Young and Sweat can reclaim their promise and that a relatively inexperienced group of depth linemen can provide steady support.
For now, Rivera appears optimistic. During the offseason and leading into camp, Washington tried to fix the unit’s problems from 2021, which included a room divided over which techniques to use, a lack of assignment discipline, “out of whack” expectations and, perhaps at the root of more than one issue, what Rivera saw as immaturity from Young and Sweat. The pass rushers were injured in back-to-back games — Sweat broke his jaw in Week 8, before the bye, and Young tore his right ACL in Week 10 — and never really got the chance to prove they could adapt midseason, as the rest of the team did.
In camp, Sweat has been loud but not provocative. “I’m in a great space,” he told reporters. “I just want to win.” And Young, who will miss at least Week 1, if not longer, has looked diligent in his rehab. Overall, Rivera said he’s seen an attitude adjustment, a maturity.
“[It’s] not just about, obviously, your personality being humbled or anything like that,” he said. “But it’s more about learning and … understanding it’s not all about you. It’s about us.”
If Sweat and Young refocus and find a rhythm with Allen and Payne, the line could again be one of the league’s most fearsome fronts. The team could lean on the straightforward formula it used in 2020 on the way to the playoffs. Back then, Del Rio rushed four most of the time and trusted his most talented players to generate pressure. He didn’t blitz often — about 18 percent of the time, which is around the league average — but when he did, it worked, and he found particular success blitzing defensive backs.
Until Young returns, it appears James Smith-Williams will line up across from Sweat, with Casey Toohill and Efe Obada as the backup ends. Rivera called Smith-Williams and Toohill “opposites” because Smith-Williams is a physical rusher with the power to get push off the edge and Toohill plays with more finesse and athleticism — a skill set Rivera likes in a five-man front.
Last year, Washington used five down linemen far more than any other defense. According to TruMedia, Del Rio used the grouping on 22.5 percent of snaps, significantly more often than every team except Cincinnati (19 percent) and nearly 10 times more than the average (2.34 percent). Rivera said Washington relied on it because of certain matchups, but it’s also possible the team just wanted to get its best players on the field more often. If Del Rio continues leaning on a five-man front at such a high rate, he could regularly use Toohill as the fifth lineman and then drop him into coverage.
Inside, after Allen and Payne, the team is replacing two solid backups in Matt Ioannidis, who was cut in March before signing with Carolina, and Tim Settle, who signed with Buffalo in free agency. The top backup now is Phidarian Mathis, a two-gap anchor drafted in the second round out of Alabama, and though there’s a competition for the fourth lineman spot, Daniel Wise has lined up most often next to Mathis in camp. Wise, an undrafted free agent in 2019 out of Kansas, impressed when promoted from the practice squad last year.
All of these tweaks seem to have given Rivera confidence that the line will be better this season. Earlier this week, when he fired defensive line coach Sam Mills III and promoted assistant Jeff Zgonina, the new coach was asked what it would take for his group to reach its potential.
“Playing as a unit, playing hard every play, being accountable for our mistakes,” Zgonina said. “We’re jelling. We are. I like where we’re at right now in the room. We’re not there yet, but we’re getting closer and closer every day.”