The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Coming off a career year, Commanders’ Jonathan Allen is thinking even bigger

Coming off a strong season in 2021, Commanders defensive tackle Jonathan Allen looks sharper than ever in training camp. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

The only thing that changed for Jonathan Allen is he didn’t take a vacation.

If he’s going to get away, he wants to enjoy it, and this year his mind was elsewhere. After a good season in 2021, the last thing Allen wanted to do was relax and then have a bad year. So he spent his summer at home in Northern Virginia, trained at the Washington Commanders’ headquarters and worked out alongside his teammates whenever they were in town.

“I just bust my butt all day,” Allen said. “This year was just too important.”

His focus was singular, and so far the results have been prolific.

The former first-round pick is one of the Commanders’ bona fide leaders and is coming off his finest season in the pros. Last year, he signed a four-year, $72 million contract, collected a career-best nine sacks and was selected to the Pro Bowl. Recently, his peers voted him the 88th-best player in the league.

And Year 6 for Allen is shaping up to be even more productive, if his play so far in camp and the preseason is any indication.

The reason? A mix of the mental and physical, he said.

Jonathan Allen just doesn’t stop

Allen didn’t mention any physical change, didn’t cite any significant alteration to his training regimen. But his head’s in a different space — a more confident one — and with a solid season behind him, his work has been validation.

“I think as a player, the more cautious you are, the more you’re going to limit yourself,” he said. “I’m not trying to play cautious. I think the thing in life, not just football, is people are scared to give 100 percent. And I was like that [for] my first three years. You’re scared to give it your all because if you fail, it hurts that much more. So for me, it’s trying to break through that fear of being able to give everything you have 100 percent, day and night, and if you fail, being okay with the consequences.”

Allen’s mentality has been a reflection of his play. Take that third and five during the Carolina Panthers’ opening drive Saturday at FedEx Field. Allen used a bear rush on left guard Michael Jordan to put him on skates and pressure quarterback Baker Mayfield.

There was also a third and three six plays earlier when Allen put a swim move on Panthers center Pat Elflein and rushed to Mayfield. The quarterback got the ball off, so Allen adjusted mid-sprint, stood up, lifted his arms and spared Mayfield what could’ve been a crushing blow.

“Oh, I thought Jon played well; he really did,” Coach Ron Rivera said. “I thought for the most part, he and [defensive tackle] Daron [Payne], for what we need them to do, they did it. They got vertical to the creases; they held the point. Every now and then, they got a little undisciplined and popped their gap for a little bit — both of them did do that — but I thought they were very stout. And that’s what we’re looking for.”

Jonathan Allen’s work with Washington’s homeless youth is inspired by his own experience

The play of Washington’s interior defensive line in camp and in the preseason has created opportunities on the second level. When the two take on double teams, they take away blockers from the linebackers.

“It gave Cole [Holcomb] a chance to run it, it gave Jamin [Davis] the chance to run into where they needed to be,” Rivera said. “And that’s what you want. You want guys to get vertical, get into the crease, demand that there is a double, and as soon as that double comes off, they came alive. That’s what you’re looking for. That’s what we hope to get.”

Last year, though the line struggled to perform in sync and the defense fell off from its 2020 rankings in most major categories, Allen finished second among interior defensive linemen with 67 total pressures, behind only Aaron Donald, according to Pro Football Focus. He was also the only player in the league to notch at least nine sacks, 30 quarterback hits and 10 tackles for a loss.

This year, he started thinking bigger early on.

On the sideline before one practice, Allen chatted with former pass rusher Ryan Kerrigan, who has been attending camp while mulling a potential career in coaching. In a video posted on the team’s website, Kerrigan asked Allen how many sacks he finished with last year, and Allen admitted he fell one shy of double digits because he narrowly missed a potential sack on the penultimate play of the season.

“Six and a half, seven sacks over the next 10 years,” Allen told Kerrigan. “[I'm going to] break your record.”

“Hell yeah,” said Kerrigan, who is Washington’s all-time sack king, with 95.5 quarterback takedowns.

Kerrigan has been a welcome voice at practice, especially as the defensive line changed coaches. Sam Mills III was fired last week, and assistant defensive line coach Jeff Zgonina was promoted in his place.

And though the Commanders haven’t added Kerrigan to the staff in any formal capacity, Allen’s trust in him could spur even more success — from him and from the line as a whole. Kerrigan said his approach to football while playing was almost maniacal. Every year was more challenging than the last because of the added pressure he placed on himself. The success of one season would mean he needed to work harder the following year.

Allen thinks similarly.

“Ever since I got to the league, I’ve been trying to emulate what he does,” Allen said. “I’ve been his shadow for the last couple of years.”

Kerrigan was never known for being vocal, but Allen picked up his own leadership style and has been unafraid to use it. Unlike in his early years, when he had the talent but not necessarily the confidence to maximize it, Allen is a man uninhibited by caution or fear on the field.

“I think for him more than anything else, it’s reflecting on what he did last year,” Rivera said. “It kind of validated everything that he worked for. So now there’s a little bit more pep, a little bit more confidence in him. … The way he was leading the defensive guys out there [today] and just pushing everybody for more, that’s what you hope for. That’s what you want in one of your guys.”