ASHBURN, Va. -- One day last week, as he was watching film, Washington Redskins safety D.J. Swearinger noticed something along the defensive front. It made him smile. The young fellas, Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne, weren’t being moved despite two blockers trying their best.
It was only a drill in the spring. Still, it was a welcome sight for Swearinger and the Redskins’ defense.
“I seen both taking on double-teams and not moving an inch,” he said. “That’s impressive.”
That’s what Swearinger wants to see this season when players are in pads. In the past two years, the Redskins have signed or drafted seven players who are expected to start in 2018, and they can finally turn around a perennial problem.
And they selected a guy Swearinger let it be known on social media that he coveted: Payne. He and Allen, returning from a Lisfranc injury, have the defensive players lined up behind them whetting their appetites for what they hope occurs during the season.
“Interceptions go through my mind. The crazy open-field tackles go out of my mind, having to bear down on a guy that hasn’t been touched for 10 or 15 yards goes out of my mind,” Swearinger said. “Seeing tipped balls. In the past when I’ve had a great defensive line, we got tipped balls. I see the DBs being able to play real football and not worry about the run.”
Well, they’ll still have to do the latter, because coaches preach needing all 11 to stop the run. When you rank 29th in yards allowed per carry and last in rushing yards allowed per game, the return of one player and the addition of another alone won’t get it done.
But for the first time in a long time, the Redskins actually have young building blocks along the defensive line. They have the two former Alabama players and third-year tackle Matt Ioannidis, a fifth-round pick two years ago who worked with Allen in the nickel package. Anthony Lanier, another third-year player, has shown pass-rush ability but needs to improve against the run.
However, when the Redskins are in their base front, they envision Payne at nose and Allen at right end, with possibly Stacy McGee at the other end. That’s pleasing to inside linebacker Mason Foster, who will start alongside Zach Brown.
“I’m thinking, just go run and make the tackle,” Foster said. “Guys like that, they’re tough, man. A lot of those offensive linemen aren’t climbing up, so it leaves me and Zach Brown and everyone to run free. Just mirror the running back's footsteps and go make a play, man, because they’re a handful and it’s a scary sight.”
In the five times Foster, Brown and Allen played together last season, the Redskins allowed only 88 rushing yards per game. But when Allen was hurt -- along with Ioannidis, who broke his hand -- the Redskins defense struggled. It exposed Washington's lack of depth up front. And that’s what was behind Swearinger’s tweets before the draft, calling for the Redskins to build up their front.
Swearinger eventually deleted his tweets, but his point was made. He said what many on the defense had said in casual conversations, even some of the linemen: They had to beef up the front. That way, in theory, losing one player wouldn’t cause such a negative domino effect.
“I wouldn’t say I was stepping on anyone’s toes,” Swearinger said of his tweets. “Adding players, that always adds depth. Depth in the front is always great. Your 2s have to be as good as your 1s. It’s not taking shot at anybody, but it’s healthy for our entire defense when you’ve got multiple guys up front.”
But he wanted Payne.
"I was vocal about him," Swearinger said. "I know the guys were telling me about Vita [Vea]. I got an eye for an athlete ... and I just felt [Payne] was an athlete first. You can teach any athlete X's and O's. So I felt he was a great pick for us. Seeing him out here is unbelievable. They can't move him up front. He's very solid. He's got an NFL body already."
The Redskins’ defense hasn’t finished ranked better than 17th in points or yards allowed since 2011, when the unit was 13th in yards. The last time Washington was in the top 10 in both categories: 2008. There’s a reason the Redskins have hovered around .500 the past three years despite an offense that was led by a 4,000-yard passer each season.
Also, in a division with running backs Ezekiel Elliott and Saquon Barkley as well as the Philadelphia Eagles’ high-powered offense, having a strong defense is a must. If the defense doesn't improve, it'll be another mediocre season in Washington. But the Redskins are optimistic.
“We’re going to be a dominant defense,” Allen said. “If we can stay healthy and do what I know we can do, there’s nothing stopping us.”