The Redskins needed to fix their defense, and the work required was not light. In consecutive drafts, the team selected defensive linemen from the University of Alabama, and the results are beginning to prove worthwhile.
On Sunday, Washington's defense stifled the New York Giants in a 20-13 victory. Rookie phenom running back Saquon Barkley couldn't run, and veteran quarterback Eli Manning couldn't pass. In fact, Eli could hardly stand up.
Led by the defensive line, the Redskins sacked Manning seven times and knocked him down many more. Barkley had just 38 rushing yards.
It was a dominant effort, and it all started with the defensive line.
There are playmakers all over the field on the Redskins defense. D.J. Swearinger is playing sensational football and Josh Norman competes at a high level. But three guys up front are creating havoc: Matt Ioannidis, Daron Payne and Jonathan Allen.
Against the Giants, Ioannidis had 2.5 sacks while Allen and Payne each had one. The trio is also a huge part of the 'Skins suffocating run defense.
Ioannidis leads the Redskins with 5.5 sacks on the season, and he's a great story, too. Selected in the fifth round of the 2016 NFL Draft, Ioannidis was actually released as a rookie and signed to the practice squad. He kept working, and got coaching from Jim Tomsula, and ended up making the active roster that season.
In 2017, he showed improvement.
In 2018, Ioannidis is breaking out.
"Matt does play hard, and he is also very strong," Redskins head coach Jay Gruden said on Sunday. "He is one of the strongest guys on our team, and he is a smart football player too. He understands leverages and double teams and all that."
Strength and smarts is a killer combination on the football field.
Ioannidis, in his third season, has seen more than Allen and Payne, but does not play quite as much. That's because Allen and Payne just can't come off the field. Gruden won't let them.
"Jonathan and Daron, they are good, they were first-rounders for a reason. Daron is an unbelievable run player, great leverage, great hand strength, great idea of what plays are coming, getting off blocks, pursuit, never stops, and Jonathan is the same way. Those two guys together, like I said, we had a vision for those two guys and it’s starting to come to fruition, obviously, and we just have to keep them healthy and keep working," Gruden said.
"They are great players."
It might seem too simple, but great defenses win up front. That's how it works. Ask the corners and the safeties and they all say a strong pass rush and the ability to stop the run make them look good.
The craziest part might not be what the Skins defensive line did Sunday, it's what they've done on the team's current three-game win streak.
In three consecutive games, the Redskins have shut down some of the best running attacks in the NFL. Let Gruden explain.
"It is unbelievable, really. These are three really, really good backs. [Ezekiel Elliott] and Barkley back-to-back, and obviously [Christian] McCaffrey, but also don’t forget about Cam Newton and (Dak) Prescott, they are great runners with the ball also, so like I said, it starts with the scheme. Greg (Manusky) and Tomsula are doing a great job, and then the players have to buy in and they have to perform. They have to get off blocks, they have to continuously pursue, play with great leverage and hustle, and they are doing that."
They are doing that. And they're doing it quite well.
Late October is not the time to get carried away, but defense travels. Ferocity and physicality on the defensive line matters in January.
Few things lead to wins more than forceful play up front, and for three straight games, that's what the Redskins are getting.
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