When I think about the Redskins interior defensive line the past three or four years one word comes to mind: Heartbeats.
This word–which was introduced to me my senior year of football by my line coach–means exactly what it sounds like: a player that literally just occupies space and is essentially just a 300-pound blocking dummy.
Ever since I can remember the Redskins have had heartbeats for defensive tackles. Terrance “Pot Roast” Knighton and Chris “Swaggy” Baker were inconsistent, Ricky “PB&J” Jean-Francois and Barry Cofield were just not good enough and Ziggy Hood was straight trash.
Ziggy was the definition of a heartbeat. Last year, he would literally line up two yards off the line of scrimmage, react a full second after the snap and get pushed around. In many ways, his inability to hold the line of scrimmage and being the worst starting nose-tackle in the league per Pro Football Focus led to multiple losses last year.
When you look at the film, there’s really no comparison between Hood or any of these guys and Jonathan Allen, Da’ron Payne and Matt Ioannidis. This trio and their run-stopping abilities have been the catalyst to the 5-2 start and the Redskins’ now-elite defense.
The first way they’ve helped change the run game is simply not allowing offensive lines to get a three-yard push every play. Instead, they’re either knocking the offensive lineman back or giving up very little ground. Because of this, it’s extremely difficult for opposing team’s offensive linemen to get to the second level and block linebackers. And when linebackers as fast and skilled as Mason Foster and Zach Brown have that much time and space to make reads, it’s almost impossible to have a consistently effective run game.
The past two games, elite running backs like Ezekiel Elliot and Saquon Barkley have had little impact on the ground because Foster or Brown are kept clean by their defensive line and are waiting in the hole. They’re also doing a great job of getting penetration on stunts which has disrupted blocking schemes.
Although Ioannidis, Payne and Allen all weigh at or around 300 pounds, they’re still having a massive impact–directly or indirectly–on the Redskins’ improved pass rush. Last year, Washington’s six interior defensive linemen combined for 13 sacks the entire year. This year, through just seven games, Ioannidis, Payne and Allen have 12.5. Ioannidis, Payne and Allen are so much more successful because they use their hands violently to shed blocks and they have the strength to bull-rush offensive linemen into the quarterback.
Even when they don’t actually record a sack, the three are so quick off the ball to drive offensive linemen back in pass protection, that they still make a heavy impact on the pocket. Because of increased interior pressure, opposing quarterbacks unable to step up in the pocket which, in turn, flushes them outside or forces them make an uncomfortable throw.
Ioannidis, Payne and Allen’s pass-rushing abilities also have made life easier for the Redskins secondary. Because of the increased pressure, Coordinator Greg Manusky doesn’t have to resort to aggressive blitz packages–A la the famed Jim Haslett Zero Blitz of years past. This means the Redskins can drop seven or eight deep into coverage which in turn, makes it difficult for opposing quarterbacks to get the ball out quickly. This also gives Ioannidis, Payne and Allen–in addition to Ryan Kerrigan and Preston Smith–more time to rush the passer.
The Redskins invested heavily in the defensive line the past two drafts and they’re finally seeing the pay off. If Alex Smith and the offense become more efficient, the Redskins’ defensive front combined with an improved secondary have the potential to help the Redskins ascend from mediocrity to a playoff threat and Super Bowl contender.