'As good as we'll face': Lions set to get a glimpse of Washington's elite front four
Most NFL decision-makers will tell you the foundation of a successful team begins in the trenches, but few teams have been so dedicated to fortifying their defensive front as the Washington Football Team.
Starting in 2017, with the selection of Alabama's Jonathan Allen, Washington has used a first-round draft pick on a defensive lineman each of the past four years. And while the team still is firmly in the rebuilding stage, sitting with a 2-6 record entering Sunday's meeting with the Detroit Lions, its talent-rich front four is something the franchise can confidently build around.
"It'll be as good of a front we'll face in the NFL, in my opinion," Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford said. "Ultra-talented and really productive. It's one thing to have five first-round picks, but for all of them to produce and play the way they do, it's a testament to those guys and their coaching staff getting those guys playing at the level they're playing at."
Entering Sunday, Washington has managed to rack up 27 sacks. That's good for fourth in the NFL, despite having significantly fewer opportunities to rush the passer than the three teams ranked ahead of them. Washington checks in atop Football Outsiders' adjusted sack rate metric and is fifth in pressure rate, disrupting the pocket on 25.7% of drop backs.
And while there's a lot of talent that makes up that front, including veteran Ryan Kerrigan, the franchise's all-time sack leader, the brightest star is rookie Chase Young, the No. 2 pick in this draft. Seven games into his debut campaign, he's tallied 3.5 sacks and is only scratching the surface of his pass-rush production potential.
"His work ethic, whether in the practice or in the game, is phenomenal," Washington head coach Ron Rivera said. "That is very pleasing when you have a young guy that comes in and understands what it takes to give himself a chance to be a good football player. You get excited about a guy like that and we're very happy about that."
The individual matchup between Lions left tackle Taylor Decker and Young figures to be one to watch on Sunday. The two Ohio State products, each selected in the first round of their respective drafts, are both playing at a high level. Decker has arguably been playing the best football of his five-year career, having yet to allow a sack this season.
"He's obviously very physically gifted — big, strong, fast, and can cut, stop on a dime, re-accelerate," Decker said. "That's one thing you see on tape with (Young), he has a really good get-off, and he's very efficient with his hands. He does a really good job with that. So, obviously, he's a physically imposing guy."
For Lions fans, watching Young lead Washington's front figures to stir some frustrations. After finishing 3-12-1 last season, Detroit just missed out on an opportunity to land Young themselves, which could have helped solve the team's long-standing issues rushing the passer.
It's confounding how poorly the Lions have been able to address its issues, given general manager Bob Quinn's repeatedly stated emphasis about building up the team's trenches.
"I think it starts in the trenches,” Quinn said in 2018. "I think it starts up front. We want to build through the middle of our team, through the offensive line, defensive line and through the middle.
"And that’s kind of what we believe in."
Quinn has invested plenty of draft resources into Detroit's offensive line — with mixed results — while largely ignoring his defensive front in the early rounds. In five drafts, he's taken two defensive linemen in the first three rounds, defensive tackle A'Shawn Robinson and defensive end Julian Okwara.
"Certainly in the draft process, like we talk about all the time, it’s a position need or highest value in the draft at that point," Lions coach Matt Patricia said. "Those are the conversations that you have in the moment. Look — I think (Washington has) done a great job of maximizing the players that were available for them, and certainly, a lot of productions out of those guys."
To compensate for not addressing the defensive line in the draft, Quinn has used other methods of player acquisition. Among those moves were committing a $90 million contract for Trey Flowers in free-agency, trading for now-departed run-stuffer Damon "Snacks" Harrison and claiming this year's team sack leader Romeo Okwara off waivers.
But none of that has resulted in a consistent pass rush. In term's of pressure rate, the Lions finished 26th and 29th the past two years and rank 27th heading into Sunday.