ASHBURN — Call them “The Bama Boys.” Or call them whatever you’d like. Just don’t ask former Alabama teammates Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne to give themselves a nickname — that’s just not how it’s done.
“That’s up for y’all,” Allen said. “Like someone once told me: You never trust a man who gives himself a nickname. You always let other people do that for you.”
When the Redskins open the season Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals, they’ll do so with a remade defensive line. After drafting Allen with their first-round pick in 2017, Washington selected Payne with the 13th overall pick this year, then added Tim Settle in the fifth round.
The Redskins’ defensive line, of course, was a glaring weakness last year, especially after Allen went down with a season-ending foot injury in October. Washington ranked last in rushing defense in 2017 — allowing 134.1 yards per game.
“They’re both strong humans and they’re hard to move and they’re tenacious in their efforts, which is really critical for a defensive lineman,” Gruden said. “When you have talent and you have strength and you’re also tenacious, it’s a heck of a combination and one we feel really great about with those two guys.”
When he watches the tape to study went wrong last season in stopping the run, Allen said it was a combination of little things adding up. Some mistimed communication here, a lack of discipline there. The issues were so small, he said, that it was hard for the Redskins to fix them as they were happening.
Second-year linebacker Ryan Anderson, who also played with the two at Alabama, said since college practices allow for more reps, Allen and Payne have been together for a lot longer than most defensive teammates. That should translate, he said — even if the schemes in college are different than the pros.
“Anytime you’re in there you’re comfortable with like that, things just go a lot smoother,” Anderson said. “You’re able to talk about, ‘You do this, I’ll do that,’ … they understand it takes teamwork.”
Last season, Washington’s defense was better than basic numbers suggested. The unit allowed the 12th-most yards per game (347.9) and the fifth-most points per game (24.2). But those metrics don’t account for factors like the quality of opponent or the situation.
Accounting for efficiency, the Redskins had the 11th-best defense in 2017, according to Football Outsiders, after ranking 25th the previous year.
The reason for the improvement? Pressure rate. Under defensive coordinator Greg Manusky, the Redskins generated pressure on 38.3 percent of opposing dropbacks — which led a league where the average was just 31.6 percent.
It will be interesting to see if the Redskins can do the same in 2018. Pressure rate can vary year-to-year and just four teams — Denver, Carolina, Philadelphia and Cincinnati — placed in the top 10 in both 2016 and 2017. Washington went from 12th to first in that span.
Asked if the Redskins can be as successful with their pressure, Gruden said: “I hope so.”
Payne has said he’s eager to prove he can rush the passer at the NFL level, something draft experts and scouts questioned in the pre-draft process. The 21-year-old Payne has pointed out that wasn’t his role at Alabama, but he could do so when asked.
In the preseason, Payne sacked Jets quarterback Sam Darnold and has been a force. If he and Allen can routinely be disruptive up the middle, that would allow more one-on-one opportunities for linebackers Ryan Kerrigan and Preston Smith.
The Redskins’ defensive line, in general, is young. Veteran Ziggy Hood, 31, is the oldest of the team’s six linemen. The average age of the six? 24 years old.
The group, too, has talent. Matt Ioannidis, 24, had 4½ sacks last season. Settle looked impressive in training camp and can be plugged in to stop the run. Washington also added former Browns sixth-rounder Caleb Brantley on Monday, cutting Anthony Lanier.
“We feel really good about where they’re at,” Gruden said.
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