LANDOVER, Md. — The Redskins spent consecutive first-round selections on defensive lineman Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne for a few reasons. Here are two: Ezekiel Elliott and Saquon Barkley.
“100 percent,” Allen said following Sunday’s 20-17 win over Elliott’s Cowboys in which the star running back was held to the second-fewest single game yards of his career. “If you can’t stop the run and run the ball you’re not going to win in this conference.”
Stopping the run isn’t some new analytics angle created by number crunchers seeking a winning formula. This truth goes back to the leather helmet era. That’s almost the last time Washington used its first selection in a draft for a player it intended to use on the line before tabbing Allen 17th overall in 2017.
That’s one year after the Cowboys snagged Elliott with the purpose of having the talented runner terrorize opposing defenses. Payne, Allen’s teammate at the University of Alabama, went 13th in the 2018 Draft, or 11 spots after the Giants selected Barkley with similar intentions.
Schedules change every season except for those six games against division foes. That’s 37.5 percent of the yearly schedule. It makes some sense planning for those specific teams. The Cowboys and Giants used top-5 selections respectively on Elliott and Barkley. The Super Bowl champion Eagles ranked third in the NFL in rushing last season, one spot behind Dallas.
The Redskins failed the run defense test the previous two seasons, ranking 24th in 2016 and a league-worst last season. Ineffectiveness truly kicked in after Allen’s season-ending foot surgery in Washington’s fifth game.
With Allen and Payne, dubbed “Alabama Wall” by tight end Vernon Davis, playing along with 2016 draft choice Matt Ioannidis, the Redskins line is finding success stopping opposing ground games. Washington ranks third with 87.33 yards allowed per game despite facing several of the league’s top running backs in David Johnson, Alvin Kamara, Christian McCaffrey and Elliott.
Since allowing 104 rushing yards in the Week 2 loss to Indianapolis, Washington has surrendered 100, 98, 81 and 73 in the subsequent four games. The 81 came against Carolina, which at the time led the league with over 150 yards per game.
Elliott, second league-wide in rushing with 619 yards, never found a rhythm Sunday. Washington held him to 33 yards on 15 carries.
“Dominating the line of scrimmage,” Allen said of the primary focusing entering the game, “and I feel like we went out there and did that today.”
His head coach concurred.
“It was very important. You know, it was very, very important,” Jay Gruden said of slowing down the Cowboys’ primary offensive weapon. “[Elliott] is a great, great player and it takes all 11 men on defense to get him stopped. And I think we got that. Our defensive line played outstanding — Payne and Allen and Ioannidis.”
Allen and Payne aren’t just playing at a high level, but playing quite a bit despite a league-wide trend in recent seasons of rotating linemen to keep the big fellas fresh. Allen and Payne were on the field for 82 percent of Washington’s 66 defensive snaps against Dallas.
Expect another heavy workload on the road Sunday. The Giants (1-5) are struggling collectively. Big Blue’s woes aren’t slowing down Barkley.
The dynamic rookie is fourth in the league with 481 rushing yards, averaging 4.9 yards per attempt. Barkley also ranks sixth among all players in receptions (49) and is tied for fifth with seven touchdowns.
“He’s a good all-around back. Can catch, run,” inside linebacker Zach Brown said of Barkley to The Sports Capitol. “If you miss a gap or something, he can hit a home run.”
There’s a debate over whether the Giants were wise to go with a running back at No. 2 considering quarterback options available and Eli Manning’s decline. The New York Jets selected Sam Darnold third overall. Washington faced Darnold during joint practices in Richmond this summer.
“I would have took the running back,” Brown said, speaking initially in general terms. “Next year I can get a quarterback. It’s hard finding a running back, very hard. Think about how many people draft running backs, and they don’t pan out. This one panned out. I would have drafted [Barkley] and then next year come back and draft a quarterback, beef up the O-line. They’ve got a plan. Sometimes people just don’t like the plan. That’s a run-first team. They got a horse back there.”
The Redskins have more than beef along their defensive line. There’s legitimate talent, perhaps enough to transform an entire defense.
Washington’s own running game caught a break entering Week 8 with the Giants shifting into rebuild mode. New York traded formidable defensive tackle Damon “Snacks” Harrison to Detroit Tuesday, further weakening a run defense allowing 113.9 yards per game. The Giants also dealt cornerback Eli Apple following their latest loss.
One reminder of how much has changed along the Redskins’ defensive line came from the stands. Chris Baker, a solid NFL player, was arguably Washington’s top lineman in 2015 and a key piece the following season. In the summer of 2017, the Redskins passed on retaining Baker, who signed a free agent contract with Tampa Bay. The Buccaneers quickly cut bait. Same with the Bengals during the preseason. While waiting for the next opportunity, Baker watched Sunday’s game as a fan.
Other defenders on the current roster are fans of the additions up front.
“We got to have one,” cornerback Josh Norman said of a stout defensive line. “That’s the only way to win around here. Those guys up there, they’re friends. They’re brothers. They came from the same school. They’re always joking, talking to each other, doing everything. … Coming up [to the NFL], they didn’t drop off. …I love it. I was knocking on the board for those guys. Just have to keep them going. Got to keep them fed. When they’re hungry, got to give them something to eat.”
Ben Standig is a host, writer and co-founder of The Sports Capitol. This D.C. area native grew up rooting for all the local squads and dabbled in the professional media world after college before making a full shift to sports writing in 2005. Since, Ben has covered every team and big event in town for several outlets including the Associated Press, NBCWashington.com and Scout.com.
The Sports Capitol is a WTOP news partner. Based in Washington, D.C., The Sports Capitol’s reporters cover the Redskins, Nationals, Capitals and Wizards. They also cover news on Maryland, Georgetown and GW sports, as well as local athletes. Subscribe to The Sports Capitol today.