Watching this Washington defense, two things stand out most to me. First, the defensive front is absolutely the strength of that entire roster. Second, Washington has some new faces in the secondary that will give the back end of that unit a new look in 2019.
Let's start this breakdown up front with a defensive line that is chock full of talent. Washington employs one of the top defensive line coaches in the NFL in Jim Tomsula, and while it plays a traditional 3-4 scheme, those players all have the versatility to play in the subpackages. The three-man front in the base defense features two former first-round picks in Daron Payne and Jonathan Allen, as well as a very productive player in Matt Ioannidis.
More often than not, those players are asked to two-gap, meaning they're not going to fire upfield and will instead look to take on an offensive lineman, lock their arms out, and hold their ground, putting themselves in position to play the gap on either side of them. This allows the linebackers to stay clean and flow to the football or drop back in coverage without a hard-fast run responsibility. All three of those players are able to cut loose and play on the other side of the line of scrimmage. It's not easy to put together a group of strong two-gap players who offer one-gap quickness, but Washington has done that. The biggest threat of that group is Payne.
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Maybe I'm a bit biased, because I was really high on Payne coming out of Alabama, but he has absolutely lived up to the promise I had for him coming out of school. He is on a path to reach that upside as one of the very best interior linemen in the NFL. Payne has an outstanding blend of size, strength, power, quickness, and play personality to be an active participant against both the run and the pass while also making plays outside the hashes as a rangy run defender. He moves at a different speed when compared to the rest of the defensive linemen and jumps off the film whenever you turn on the tape of that Washington defense. His battle with Jason Kelce will be an important one in this game.
Allen, who lines up at right defensive end next to Payne, plays a number of different techniques on the line. Whether he's head up on the left tackle (matching him up against Jason Peters), across from the left guard (putting him on Isaac Seumalo), or even outside the tight end in some looks, Allen offers a very urgent skill set and can win with both power and quickness (but mostly the latter). He's not a dynamic pass rusher at this stage of his career, but he's extremely well rounded and can impact the game in a number of ways.
Ioannidis, a former third-day draft pick out of Temple, is extremely disruptive as well from his left defensive end spot. Ioannidis is quick, but he's also strong, and he's really, really effective in the various stunts and twists up front.
When we get to the edge rushers, Washington still has veteran Ryan Kerrigan, who will spend most of his time matched up off the right side against Lane Johnson. Kerrigan hasn't lost a step, and still looks to be the same player. The question about that group, however, is how they will replace Preston Smith. The former second-round pick started opposite Kerrigan over the last few years, but left this offseason for Green(Bay)er pastures, so Washington needs to account for that up front.
Ready to step in for Smith is former second-round selection Ryan Anderson, another former Crimson Tide star. However, the team selected Montez Sweat out of Mississippi State in the first round this spring, and it appears he may have the edge in starting off the edge this fall.
Sweat didn't record a sack this preseason, but I was pretty impressed with what I saw out of him as a pass rusher. In college, I thought the rookie showed a fairly advanced plan of attack against offensive linemen, an understanding of how to use his hands, and string multiple moves together, along with having a nose for the football (as a result of good eye discipline) and a versatile, well-rounded game. Sweat has length, tested like a freak at the Combine, and can defend the run. Sweat fell later in the draft than people thought, and it's possible that Washington got themselves a steal late in the first round this April.
Anderson isn't a player to write off though, because he will be an effective early-down presence for Washington. He's a great run defender, plays with a high motor, and overall is just a smart, savvy football player. Both Sweat and Anderson will see a large majority of their reps against Jason Peters or the tight end who is lined up to his left.
This Washington defensive front is absolutely the team's strength. It's the deepest and most talented unit on the roster, and one the Eagles must negate to win this game.
At inside linebacker, the team has two new starters in the middle. The team moved on from veterans Mason Foster and Zach Brown, who is now with the Eagles. Stepping in for them are Jon Bostic and Shaun Dion Hamilton. Dion Hamilton – another former Alabama star – has had issues with knee injuries going back to his college days, while Bostic has bounced around a handful of teams over the course of his career after being a second-round pick of the Chicago Bears. Not unlike New York Giants linebacker Alec Ogletree, Bostic is an explosive athlete with great range, but is a bit undisciplined with his eyes. Washington is banking on him being more reliable between the tackles this year while another one of their top acquisitions, Reuben Foster, rehabs from a torn ACL suffered in the spring.
Now to the secondary.
Washington is always active in the free agent market, and this year their big-ticket player was safety Landon Collins, who they signed away from the Giants. A former second-round pick out of – you guessed it – Alabama, Collins is a classic strong safety who brings leadership and physicality to the back end of that defense. His presence was something I definitely noticed on preseason tape.
How will Collins be used when the team matches up to the Eagles' pair of tight ends? I'm anxious to see that play out. Collins is a physical player and very smart, but he's been a guy who has struggled at times in man coverage. Free safety Montae Nicholson will be the other starter. He is a rangier safety, but has a similar skill set to Collins. They will be relied on heavily to match up with Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert in this game, something we focused on in this week's episode of Eagles Game Plan.
At cornerback, the team brings back Josh Norman to start on one side, and while there is some speculation surrounding the other spot due to a short-term injury to Fabian Moreau, I believe their nickel job is more than locked up. The team drafted cornerback Jimmy Moreland in the seventh round of April's draft, and he was a star this summer.
Moreland may get the start on the outside in Moreau's stead (if it's not young veteran Greg Stroman), but regardless I think he brings a new presence to their slot position in their nickel package. A certified playmaker who was just too small for some teams to consider higher in the draft, Moreland has a nose for the ball and plays with the type of swagger that Norman, Collins, and the rest of that group possesses. Moreland will certainly see a lot of time against Nelson Agholor or whomever lines up in the slot when the Eagles are in three-receiver sets.
Fran Duffy is the producer of the Emmy-nominatedEagles Game Planshow which can be seen every gameday during the season on NBC10 in Philadelphia. He is also the host of two Eagles-related podcasts,Eagle Eye in the Sky, which examines the team from an X's and O's angle each and every week as well as theJourney to the Draft podcast, which covers college football and the NFL Draft all year round. Fran also authors the Eagle Eye in the Sky column, which runs four times a week during the football season to serve as a recap for the previous game and to preview the upcoming matchup. Prior to joining the Eagles in 2011, Duffy was the head video coordinator for the Temple University football team under former head coach Al Golden. In that role, he spent thousands of hours shooting, logging, and assisting with the breakdown of the All-22 film from the team's games, practices, and opponents.