Commanders D-line is counting on Chase Young to stand out by fitting in

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Early in the second quarter Sunday in Houston, Washington Commanders defensive tackle Jonathan Allen and defensive end Montez Sweat highlighted one reason the line has been so dominant in recent weeks.

On third and 14, they lined up in their normal spots — Allen on the left tackle’s inside shoulder, Sweat wide of his outside shoulder — but at the snap, the Texans’ left tackle didn’t kick out to block Sweat. Instead, he crashed down on Allen to create a double team with the guard. “Instantly,” Allen said, he knew Sweat would dive inside, so he pushed outside to maintain the integrity of the pocket. He called the wordless exchange of assignments “100 percent a feel thing,” the byproduct of many mistakes and corrections over the years.

The coordination kept Houston quarterback Davis Mills penned in. The nine other defenders held up — two rushing right, seven in coverage — and as Mills tried to scramble left, Sweat bounced back outside and burst into the backfield for a sack.

“That’s what happens when you play together for a long time,” Allen said. “You just get to the point where you can do things like that.”

“We’re just playing off each other,” Sweat added. “The chemistry is there.”

Commanders’ defense is dancing, dusting, Double Dutch-ing and dominating

This defensive line — cohesive, exuberant and among the league’s best — starkly contrasts with the one Chase Young left behind last fall. In November, when Young tore the ACL in his right knee, the line was struggling, divided and undisciplined. Young, who sometimes freelanced, was part of the problem, and Coach Ron Rivera called out him and Sweat on the team’s website, saying they needed to “stop pressing and trust their teammates.”

More than a year later, after a position-coaching change, depth turnover, time and success, most of the ills that once plagued the line appear to have been treated. When Washington activated Young on Monday, it highlighted the only question that has yet to be answered.

How will he fit into the new line?

It’s still unclear when Young will return. He could debut Sunday against Atlanta or maybe the week after at the New York Giants. Rivera has maintained for months that the team will wait until Young is ready, until he trusts his knee from him and can play through contact. Rivera said he still needs to see more confidence in the edge rusher’s practice reps.

When Young does return, Rivera said, he’ll line up for about 12 to 16 plays. By the end of the season, the coach hopes Young’s snaps will be in the mid-20s or mid-30s, though “the last thing … [we want to do is] expose him to way too many plays too early.”

From June: Chase Young rejoins Commanders, details recovery from ACL surgery

Perhaps the biggest concern is the line’s rush-lane discipline. In the 370-plus days of Young’s absence, his linemates have improved at working together. After a win over Green Bay, Rivera was asked about the defensive improvement and credited the discipline of the rush defense. On Friday, when a reporter asked Rivera if he had any concerns about the rush’s discipline with Young returning, the coach said, “It’s a valid question.”

“When you have guys that are right now orchestrated in terms of how they’re feeling and feeding off of each other, it’s impressive,” he added, speaking excitedly about watching defensive tackle Daron Payne, Allen and Sweat in sync. “That’s something that Chase will have to develop and get a feel for again.”

On Monday, Rivera said the team would try to maintain the current rotation’s success while welcoming back an elite talent by integrating Young gradually. He pointed out that Young missed organized team activities, minicamp and training camp, so he really has had only about nine practices this year. The balance will be delicate.

“We have a really good mixture of guys right now that are playing really well as a group, and I know the last thing that anybody wants, especially Chase, is to come in and be disruptive,” Rivera said. “We’ll have to be smart, but we’ll do this the right way.”

Initially, Washington is likely to use Young in place of James Smith-Williams (357 defensive snaps), Efe Obada (229) and Casey Toohill (201), the trio that has filled in for him this year. Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio could use Young more on third down to play to his pass-rushing strengths and help build confidence with sacks or pressures. It’s also possible Young, as he progresses, could replace Sweat on some plays because the defensive line rotation has been short. Payne (86 percent), Allen (83) and Sweat (71) are all playing career-high snap rates.

It seems probable Del Rio will incorporate Young into his five-lineman sets most slowly. Del Rio likes to maintain the threat of dropping an end into coverage, and that could be a bigger ask of Young than the coordinator would like to make early on.

But whatever situations Rivera and Del Rio put him in, Young’s play will be scrutinized. He emerged as a physical force and the emotional leader of the defense in the second half of his rookie year in 2020, but his disappointing sophomore season and major injury leave a lot of questions with his third year in the NFL nearly complete.

In 24 career games, Young has 70 tackles (13 for loss), nine sacks, six forced fumbles (three recovered), six passes defensed and one touchdown. He has generated pressure on 9 percent of his rushes, per TruMedia, which ranks him 140th out of 194 qualified players since the start of 2020.

At a news conference Nov. 2, the day the Commanders designated him to return to practice, Young said he will feel “no pressure” upon returning.

“I feel like I’ve been pressured most of my football career,” he added. “[I’m] kind of to that point in my life where i’m tuning it all out. I don’t care about what anybody says. I’m just focused on me, my teammates, my family.”

From 2021: Chase Young and Montez Sweat find out how hard it is to be elite

Though concerns linger about Young’s tendency to freelance, an optimist could point to Sweat. Last year, Rivera criticized him, and this year, though there have been a few lapses, Sweat has been more consistent and disciplined.

One major difference is the coach. In August, Rivera fired defensive line coach Sam Mills III and replaced him with Jeff Zgonina. The gruff 52-year-old has gotten more from his talented unit than Mills did, and in the locker room Sunday, Sweat credited Zgonina for helping instill a lesson that led to his first sack of him.

“Coach Zgonina talks about always playing off each other, filling up those gaps where somebody isn’t,” he said. “It worked that time.”

This year, despite his injury, Young often has been one of the most active players on the sideline. He’s engaged, cheering and hollering for the line’s biggest plays — especially those by Sweat, a close friend. Whenever Young rejoins his teammates on the field, the Commanders’ defense is counting on him to stand out by fitting in.

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