“You know you making plays when you get to pull ’em out,” Payne said, smiling wide, after a rare comfortable win for Washington (6-5), which walloped the woeful Houston Texans, 23-10, at NRG Stadium.
Despite the Texans’ ineptitude and a slight letdown in the second half, the Commanders’ defensive dominance Sunday was important. The performance illustrated their ability to refocus after pulling off a big upset and hinted at just how good the unit can be when the players work together. On the second play of the game, cornerback Kendall Fuller returned an interception for a touchdown, and by halftime Houston had just five yards. It was just the 11th time this century a team failed to amass 10 or more net yards in the first half, according to statistic website TruMedia.
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“The defense has really come together,” Coach Ron Rivera said. He credited coordinator Jack Del Rio, his staff and the players for correcting early-season struggles. “There’s some really cool stuff that’s going on right now,” Rivera added. “This team is starting to grow.”
The key to the game plan was run defense. Washington’s defenders said they knew Houston wanted to rely on rookie running back Dameon Pierce, as it had in its best games. But the Commanders were confident they could stop him. Washington has allowed one 100-yard rusher this season — Tennessee’s Derrick Henry, the league’s rushing leader, managed 102 — and advanced metrics suggest it’s a top-five run defense in the NFL.
On Sunday, the Commanders blew up run plays with coordinated rush schemes and pure physicality. The defenders set the tone early — Pierce’s first two rushes combined for a loss of five yards — and delivered punishing hits. Over 16 total rushes, the Texans’ longest gain was four yards.
“[Pierce] runs hard, so we hit him in the backfield before he got going,” defensive end James Smith-Williams said.
In the second quarter, the deficit forced the Texans to throw more, and the Commanders’ defensive line teed off on quarterback Davis Mills, often targeting Houston’s rookie left guard, Kenyon Green. When a reporter asked Payne if he had seen one of Allen’s dominant rushes against Green, the lineman was confused.
“Which one?” Payne said. “We was f—ing him up all game.”
Allen and Payne, who may be the best interior line duo in the NFL, seemed to have appointments with each other in the backfield. They combined for three sacks, four tackles for loss and five quarterback hits. Payne also added a batted pass. They celebrated with elaborate handshakes, and after the game Allen said those celebrations are important because it’s so difficult to make plays in the NFL that “you got to enjoy one another.”
“I don’t know if Payne’s going to be here [next year],” Allen said, referencing his teammate’s expiring contract. “I don’t know what his situation is. We’re just trying to enjoy one another, play off each other and just have fun. I feel like too many times, you get caught up in all the big stuff, but really, [you should] just enjoy being around each other. When you talk to guys who aren’t in the league no more, the biggest thing that they miss is the locker room, so I’m really trying to take that in.”
Payne said he’s trying not to think about a new contract.
“This offseason, I was training real hard to get to the position I’m in now,” he said. “So it’s only up from now. I just keep trying to make plays, and then at the end of it, figure it out.”
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In the second half, the Commanders had lapses when playing soft coverage. Brandin Cooks beat linebacker Jon Bostic on a short crosser and scampered 41 yards. Fellow wideout Nico Collins racked up 22. Mills scrambled for a four-yard touchdown, the Texans’ only one on the day.
Those were the types of plays that prevented Allen from suggesting the Commanders’ defense is playing as well as it did at the end of 2020.
“The best defenses are the most consistent,” he said. “We had a really good first half; second half was not as good. We had a good game against Philly, [but] against the Vikings, we let too many drives down the field late in the game, and we lost.”
But in the locker room Sunday, the defenders seemed to be living in the moment. Forrest and St-Juste relived the third-quarter interception, when St-Juste tipped a long ball and Forrest swooped in for the catch. It was the third time in two games the two had combined for a turnover — and Forrest said it started with the line.
“I got four lions in front of me, and I’m just sitting back there waiting,” he said. “… They’re getting after the quarterback. He’s flustered, he doesn’t have nowhere to throw it, so he’s just throwing it up, and we’re going to get it. That’s our brand of football, and that’s what we’re going to continue to do.”
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At one point, Smith-Williams grabbed a microphone, jumped into a scrum of reporters and asked Payne, “Daron, what’s it like playing with James Smith-Williams?”
“I mean, look at the guy,” Payne said, pointing to Smith-Williams’s sunglasses and fluffy white coat. “He’s a cool guy … swaggy guy. Nice.”
Sweat added that the team had more celebrations it wanted to use for the big plays still to come.
“We got a few in the bag we going to pull out,” he said, grinning.