During the early portion of most practices, the Washington Commanders’ defensive line runs through a drill that usually draws an audience.
Comical as it is at times to watch 300-pound linemen lunge for volleyballs, the drill has a purpose. On Sunday, Payne deflected a pass that cornerback Kendall Fuller then intercepted to seal Washington’s victory over the Atlanta Falcons.
“I said on the sidelines, ‘Way to go; you’re taking the drill to the field,’ and the guys started laughing,” Zgonina said. “They don’t want to hear that.”
Washington’s emphasis on the smallest parts of the game — the extra lean on a pass rush, the muscle memory to raise an arm during passes — has helped the line springboard to the top of most statistical categories. It also has turned the interior duo of Payne and Jonathan Allen into one of the NFL’s finest. Where some teams have a solid edge rusher and one powerful interior lineman or perhaps two strong edge rushers, Washington has two elite tackles — two 6-foot-3, 300-plus-pound linemen with speed and power, a knack for stopping the run and polished pass-rushing skills.
“To have two of the better [defensive tackles] in the league right now, I mean, it’s a blessing,” Zgonina said.
It’s a blessing so good that the Commanders are hoping to, and believe they can, keep their duo together for years to come.
An elite duo
The Payne-Allen tandem started at Alabama, where Nick Saban’s emphasis on run defense has turned many good defensive linemen into great run-stoppers at the pro level. In 2016, when Payne was a sophomore and Allen a senior, the two combined for 12 sacks, 19.5 tackles for a loss, an interception, three passes broken up, four fumble recoveries and three touchdowns.
Payne, a 310-pound behemoth of a man, could bench-press 460 pounds in high school, and at least one analyst projected he’d be a Pro Bowler before he was even drafted in 2018. At the time, NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein wrote that Payne possessed “one of the most impressive combinations of strength and athleticism” he had seen from an interior lineman.
Washington drafted Payne at No. 13 a year after it took Allen with the 17th pick, and their reunion has led to significant production. But it wasn’t until this season that the two came into their own together.
Part of their leap has been spurred by a scheme change to coordinator Jack Del Rio’s 4-3 base system, which was adopted in 2020 and has since been tailored and tweaked.
Part of it has been coaching, with a focus on development and those little details Zgonina talks of so often.
But much of it, those in Washington say, has been maturation — most recently by Payne.
“Every year he buys in more, which most players do,” Zgonina said. “Now, he is getting to the point where he understands his strengths and his weaknesses and works at those every day. So his maturity level has been phenomenal. His pass rush has really come on this year.”
In short: Payne is finishing.
“He has been disruptive the entire time,” Del Rio said. “It was kind of one of those things where his numbers haven’t come yet, [and now] they’re starting to come. His disruption has always been there.”
The pressures Payne has often created are, more and more, turning into sacks. His pass rushes are more effective, thanks to coaching pointers from Zgonina and his assistant, Ryan Kerrigan, Washington’s all-time sacks leader. And after a season in which Coach Ron Rivera criticized his line for freelancing, Payne and Allen have done some of their finest work with stunts and coordinated pass-rush games.
Payne’s growth has also coincided with a step forward for Allen, who last year signed a four-year, $72 million contract and earned his first Pro Bowl selection after registering nine sacks. Now widely regarded as one of the league’s best tackles, Allen has become a leader of the defense and the team. But with Payne, he’s even more of a force.
“Daron has really figured it out this year, and I think him playing so well has made my job a lot easier,” Allen said. “The combination of those two things have really helped us play well for each other.”
Through Week 12, the Commanders are the only team with two interior linemen who each have at least 6.5 sacks, 23 run-stops and 33 pressures, according to Pro Football Focus. And no other team besides Washington boasts a pair of defensive tackles with at least 11 tackles for a loss. (Including Montez Sweat, the Commanders have three defensive linemen with 11-plus tackles for a loss.)
With its line leading the way, Washington’s defense leads the league with 87 quarterback hits, ranks second in rate of opponent plays of zero or negative yards (36.2 percent) and is tied for the third-highest pressure rate in the NFL (36.5 percent), according to TruMedia.
“There’s very few teams that have two guys that physically are dominant,” Mark Schlereth, the former Washington guard who is now an analyst for Fox Sports, said. “So if both of those guys are left one-on-one, those dudes can crush the pocket.
“I’ve always thought of it this way as a player: If you’ve got great power, I can take care of that. That doesn’t scare me. If you just got great quickness, that doesn’t scare me either, because I can take away that. But when you have the combination of power and quickness and edge presence inside, that’s a problem. It’s like a pitcher that has three or four different pitches. … Now you’re guessing, and that’s a problem.”
Allen’s and Payne’s dominance has created opportunities for others, including Sweat. The two tackles are often double- or triple-teamed, creating one-on-one opportunities for fellow linemen and gaps for the linebackers to drop down.
And the added pressure up front has aided the play on the back end. Or, as Payne told Fuller after the cornerback’s game-sealing interception Sunday: “I eat, you eat.”
This is the final season on Payne’s contract, and keeping a 25-year-old tackle in his prime would, in most scenarios, appear wise and likely.
Washington, however, has a problem. It already paid Allen, already exercised Sweat’s fifth-year option and after this season will have to decide whether to exercise Chase Young’s option, which is projected to be worth $16.48 million for 2024.
The Commanders could also be in the market for a quarterback.
To keep their line intact while continually improving their offense will require some financial maneuvering, but it isn’t necessarily unfeasible.
“[Daron] and Jonathan are a heck of a tandem,” Rivera said. “ … Guys like that are space eaters. Guys like that have an impact on the game. That’s what you look for. That’s what you want out there.”
During Washington’s late-season winning streak in 2020 that pushed it into the playoffs, Rivera said he believed a strong interior pass rush was vital to a team’s success. As the coach of the Carolina Panthers, he had had a pair of productive tackles, Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short, who helped power the team to 15 wins in 2015 and 11 in 2017. The Panthers re-signed Short to a lucrative contract but declined to do the same for Lotulelei.
Could that decision influence the one Washington is about to make?
“Star was that guy that would absorb the double-teams and hold the point so your linebackers could run,” Rivera said. “So your three-technique [the defensive tackle aligned on the outside shoulder of the guard] was typically singled up. [Short] made a lot of plays, but when Star wanted to, Star would take it over. That’s how good he was.
“We’re fortunate. We have a guy that for the most part, in Jonathan, that is really good at both and a guy in Daron who is really good at both. So we don’t have to always try and flip one to make one the one-technique [aligned on the outside of the center] and the other one the [three-technique]. … It turned out that they’re both just as equally as valuable. It’s a lesson we learned [in Carolina], and if I had to do it all over again, I would have asked if we could get them both signed.”