- The Washington Times
Sunday, November 20, 2022

HOUSTON — Daron Payne needed clarification. 

Asked what he made of teammate Jonathan Allen driving Houston Texans rookie guard Kenyon Green backward into the backfield during Sunday’s game, Payne had a question of his own. 

Which time? Payne asked. “We was (messing) him up all game.” 

Payne had a point. 

Allen’s relentless game-long disruption of the Texans’ offense was a statement for anyone watching the Commanders’ 23-10 win, but the specific play the reporter asked about saw Allen jam all of Green’s 323 pounds right back onto Texans quarterback Davis Mills for a sack. 

The play was one of a highlight reel of defensive dominance. Washington recorded five sacks, forced two interceptions and held the Texans to a season-low 148 yards en route to a win and a more-than-respectable 6-5 season mark.

No one would confuse the lowly 1-8-1 Texans for an offensive juggernaut. But the way in which Washington shut down Houston still said a lot about how — and why — the Commanders suddenly have won five of the last six. 

The streak can be partly attributed to quarterback Taylor Heinicke, who has helped lead Washington to a 4-1 record in the wake of an injured Carson Wentz. Heinicke (191 yards) has provided such a spark that coach Ron Rivera said he would stick with him at quarterback even after Wentz (finger) is healthy.

But that doesn’t explain all of Washington’s momentum. 

The team’s improvements on defense are also a major reason for Washington’s success. And those improvements again were on display when the Commanders held the Texans to just five net yards in the first half — a franchise low for the Texans. 

“The defense has really come together,” Rivera said. “That’s a tribute to Jack (Del Rio) and the defensive staff, a tribute to the young players that are developing and growing, and it’s a tribute to the player leadership that they have. … Those guys have stepped up and really been the leaders that we hoped they could be for us, and it’s been awesome.”

There were still areas, Rivera said, the defense had to correct. After a shutout in the first half (20-0), the Commanders came out flat in the third as a 41-yard reception set up the Texans’ first field goal. Then late in the fourth, Mills scrambled for a four-yard score to make the final score seem closer than Sunday’s contest really was. 

But the coach was pleased. Rivera said he thought the defense’s turnaround could be traced back to Week 3 against the Philadelphia Eagles. The Commanders lost that game, 24-8, but it was notable for a few reasons. For one, Philadelphia’s explosive offense scored all of its points in just the second quarter — leading Rivera to believe if the defense could just limit explosive plays, the unit would be fine. Even more telling, the Commanders held the Eagles to just 72 yards rushing — defusing their NFC East rival’s major strength.

Stopping the run has since become one of the Commanders’ calling cards. Against the Texans, Washington limited standout rookie running back Dameon Pierce to only eight yards — on 10 carries. Pierce entered the afternoon ranked sixth in rushing with 85.8 yards per game. 

The Commanders have similarly fared well against top backs like Green Bay’s Aaron Jones, Indianapolis’ Jonathan Taylor and Minnesota’s Dalvin Cook — holding each one to under 100 yards. And in last week’s upset win over the Eagles — the biggest indication Washington’s turnaround could be for real — Philadelphia rushed for only 94 yards.

Add winning the turnover battle to the formula, too.

After insisting for weeks that turnovers would “come in bunches,” the Commanders have finally started to force them. Over the last six games, the Commanders have forced 12 turnovers — a dramatic increase from the 1 (a Trevor Lawrence interception in Week 1) the defense had in the first five outings. 

That growth can be partly attributed to stability in the secondary. The Commanders benched — and then traded — William Jackson III, moved safety Bobby McCain to the slot and have deployed three safety looks with McCain, Kam Curl and Darrick Forrest.

Players, though, credited the improvement to their preparation. On Mills’ second interception, for example, cornerback Benjamin St-Juste knew that Brandin Cooks likes to run deep so he played further off the line of scrimmage to give himself enough room to handle the wide receiver’s speed. When Mills targeted Cooks deep, St-Juste made a play on the ball — allowing Forrest to come down with the interception.

Fuller used similar tendencies to account for his pick-6 on just the Texans’ second play of the game. The cornerback said he understood the route concepts that the Texans ran from watching film. So sure enough when the time came, Fuller jumped an out-route that he recognized — returning the pass for a 37-yard touchdown.

The score was a career first for Fuller. 

“It’s definitely fun to cross that off the list,” the seven-year veteran said of the touchdown return, “and set the tempo for the game.”

No position, though, set the tempo better than the defensive line. As it did two years ago when Washington made the playoffs, that group has taken over the line of scrimmage this season — starting with the interior push from Allen and Payne. Last season, the relationship between Allen and Payne came into the spotlight when the two teammates got into a fight on the sideline late into the year during a blowout loss to Dallas. Since then, however, the two longtime teammates — they even played together at Alabama — each responded with arguably career years. 

This season, each with 6½ sacks, Allen and Payne have accounted for 13 of the Commanders’ 29 sacks. After one big play on Sunday, the two broke out in a celebration that involved an elaborate handshake routine. This time, they were technically trading hands again — but not in a scrap. 

“I’m definitely having fun,” Allen said. “But I really only have fun when I win.”

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

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