- The Washington Times
Thursday, August 4, 2022

ASHBURN — Ron Rivera’s defenses tend to thrive on pressure generated up the middle. Last season, Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne created havoc from the interior for Washington. In Carolina, the coach’s last stop, Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short set the tone for an intimidating Panthers front. 

Even as a defensive coordinator, Rivera utilized big, thumping defensive tackles like Chicago’s Tommie Harris to collapse pockets and take down quarterbacks. 

That said, the Commanders coach knows, for this upcoming season, his edge rushers need to start pulling their weight. 

“We’ve gotta be able to clean it up from the outside,” Rivera said. 

The Commanders ranked dead last in the percentage of sacks generated from the edge in 2021, according to Football Outsiders — with only 31.1% of the defense’s sacks coming from the group. That was a major surprise for a unit that featured prolific names like Chase Young and Montez Sweat. The duo talked openly about breaking records prior to the season, though ultimately combined for just 6½ sacks (Sweat 5, Young 1½). 

Injuries didn’t help. Sweat missed a total of seven games because of a broken jaw, COVID-19 and the death of his brother. Young tore his ACL in November — keeping him out the final eight weeks. Their primary replacements — James Smith-Williams and Casey Toohill — combined to finish the season with just 3½ sacks. 

The lack of production on the edge meant that when Washington’s defense was successful at taking down the quarterback, it was often the tackles who got the job done: The unit had the league’s third-highest percentage of sacks generated from the interior at 47.3%.

Those splits were almost reversed in 2020, with the edge rushers accounting for 48.9% (ranking 19th) of the team’s total sacks and the interior finishing at 25% (15th). That year, Young and Sweat combined for 16 ½ sacks. 

“Not good enough,” Sweat said Thursday when asked to assess last year. 

Sacks aren’t everything for a defensive line as generating pressure is just as crucial — if not more so. There, Washington’s edge rushers were a little bit more successful. Young, for instance, still accounted for 20 hurries — down only six from his rookie year. But too often, Rivera noted that the pass rush wasn’t in sync,  which resulted in a tougher assignment for the secondary. 

Yet Rivera believes last season’s setback could end up helping his team grow in the long run. In 2021, the coach repeatedly dismissed the idea of adding a veteran pass-rusher — whether that was to re-sign Ryan Kerrigan in the offseason or sign someone off the street once the injuries piled up — and instead rely on its youth.  

Rivera said Thursday he thinks the strategy paid off as Smith-Williams and Toohill — both in their third year — were among those to earn valuable experience. Smith-Williams, in particular, could be a key factor with Young still recovering from his ACL injury and already ruled out for at least Week 1. 

This offseason, Washington also kept the position largely intact with the notable exception of signing veteran Efe Obada. 

“If you look at the transition that this roster’s gone through in terms of the age, you notice it’s a young group of guys,” Rivera said, “but those guys have played a lot of football already. They’re learning how to play the game because they’ve been on the field and exposed to being on the field.”

Washington’s defense, though, may only be as good as its stars. The interior was in part so successful last season because Jonathan Allen (nine sacks) enjoyed a career year.  The Commanders will need Young and Sweat to bounce back.

On that front, the Commanders seem particularly pleased with Sweat. In practice, the former 2019 first-rounder has routinely gotten into the backfield with explosive speed. And Sweat has been sure to make the offense know, yelling out trash talk for all to hear. 

“Talks too much,” left tackle Charles Leno said. 

Leno is usually the offensive lineman tasked with stopping Sweat in practice. And after going against him for two straight years, the nine-year veteran says he has noticed the 6-foot-6 pass-rusher has expanded his repertoire of moves this summer.

“Being a guy who’s however tall he is and be able to run 4.4 [40-yard dash], you just don’t want to be a one-trick pony,” Leno said. “You want to be able to work different moves, work power moves, work finesse moves and things like that inside out. He’s been doing a good job of that.”

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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