ASHBURN, Va. (AP) — Neither Jonathan Allen nor Daron Payne is considered among the best of the best defensive linemen in the NFL.
Together, the Washington Commanders defensive tackles might be the best interior tandem in the league.
Even with Chase Young sidelined for much of the past two seasons, the front four led by Allen, Payne and edge rusher Montez Sweat is the reason Washington’s defense ranked third last season. They’re again the reason this defense should be one of the Commanders’ biggest strengths in their effort tor return to the playoffs.
“I want us to be the most dominant group on the field — like every game,” Payne said. “We got the capability to do that. … We got all the pieces we need to just take over games, dominate and just lead the team.”
Allen and Payne combined for 19 sacks last season, with each earning Pro Bowl honors. The Alabama products who were Washington’s respective first-round picks in 2017 and 2018 have also been handsomely rewarded for their efforts.
In 2021, Allen signed a four-year extension worth $72 million. After the Commanders didn’t pick up Payne’s fifth-year option going into 2022, he put together a career year and in March got a four-year deal of his own worth $90 million.
“I just appreciate it because it took a lot of hard work to get here, and it didn’t go unnoticed,” Payne said. “It’s not about validating anything. I like playing football. I love coming up here every day, showing all the hard work that I put in and I love making plays.”
That’s what coach Ron Rivera and defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio are expecting from Allen and Payne, especially after 2022 second-round pick Phidarian Mathis landed on injured reserve Thursday with a calf injury.
After each playing linebacker in the NFL, Rivera and Del Rio appreciate the value of having a strong push from the inside of the defensive line.
“The quickest way to the quarterback is a straight line,” Rivera said. “When you have guys like that who can be disruptive and get into those creases and get vertical quickly, it helps the rest of the pass rush. It helps the coverage and forces the quarterback to make some decisions a little bit sooner. It cleans up a lot of things for a lot of people.”
The draft provided some help in coverage, too, specifically first-round pick Emmanuel Forbes, who is expected to start after an impressive showing in training camp and preseason. The Commanders also took defensive back Quan Martin in the second round for depth.
But members of the secondary know it all starts up front with the defensive line.
“When it comes to creating turnovers, what’s better than having a great D-line?” safety Darrick Forrest said. “The quarterback’s out there running for his life and (is) going to be throwing the ball up, so we just have to go get it.”
That’s one thing Washington’s defense needs to do more this season, after only six teams forced fewer turnovers in 2022. Allen forced two fumbles last season, and he and Allen have certainly earned the respect of opposing offensive linemen.
“They’re just super, super good — super strong and super big,” Baltimore Ravens guard Kevin Zeitler said. “You don’t see guys like that every day, let alone the entire front built up of guys like that.”
Unlike the offense, which is learning new coordinator Eric Bieniemy’s system, the defense is going into a fourth season under Rivera and Del Rio. That continuity gives players confidence they can make a real difference.
“We know the plays, we know what we’re supposed to do now and we can really pay attention on how we have to do it,” Allen said. “I feel like we have a good understanding of what we’re trying to do, but now we can really fine tune on how we’re going to accomplish that.”
NOTES: In addition to Mathis, the team put defensive end Efe Obada on IR and brought back previously cut defensive tackle Abdullah Anderson and center Tyler Larsen. … No. 1 receiver Terry McLaurin missed another practice Thursday because of a sprained toe. His status for the season opener Sept. 10 against Arizona is uncertain.
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