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'A heck of a tandem': Jon Allen, Daron Payne are a duo to be reckoned with

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There is one snapshot that perfectly sums up how good Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne have been this season.

The play, which came during Sunday's game against the Atlanta Falcons, was first pointed out by The Washington Post's Nicki Jhabvala on Twitter. There are plenty of talented players on the Washington Commanders' offensive line, from Montez Sweat to backups like James Smith-Williams and Casey Toohill.

On this particular play, though, the Falcons' entire offensive line, which Pro Football Focus ranks as the best run blocking group in the league, triple-teamed Allen and double-teamed Payne.

It is rare for a defense to have one player who demands that kind of attention; Washington has two, and their emergence as one of, if not the best interior defensive tackle duos in the league has been one of the main reasons why the Commanders have been so suffocating on that side of the ball.

"I think both Jonathan and Daron do deserve to have some more light shed on who they are as football players, and they've done a good job for us," Rivera said Nov. 21. "They've been a unique talent."

That is not to say that this is unexpected from either Allen or Payne. Payne has been one of the more talented defensive tackles since he was drafted in 2018, and Allen just made his first Pro Bowl in 2021.

Both players have taken their skill sets to another level, though. They both have 6.5 sacks this season – that is a career-high for Payne -- and are tied for fourth among all defensive tackles. They have combined for 92 tackles and surpassed both of their previous career highs in tackles for loss.

To coach Ron Rivera, it is reminiscent of when he had Kawaan Short and Star Lotuleli manning the middle of his Carolina Panthers' defensive fronts "that really helped set the tone for our defense."

"And that's what we're seeing right now," Rivera said.

The uptick in production has been particularly prevalent in the case of Payne, who has either surpassed or nearly equaled almost every career metric with five games left to go this season. Disruption has been Payne's calling card this season, as he has 14 quarterback hits and five pass breakups, including one against the Falcons that led to the game-sealing interception by Kendall Fuller.

"I think Daron is hitting his own stride, and he's really elevated his game to a high level and has really been able to help me play better," Allen said. "Seeing him dominate week in and week out all year is really making me raise my game to his level."

Payne finished the 23-10 win over the Texans with three tackles, a sack, a quarterback hit and a pass deflection, and he carried that dominance in the game against Atlanta. On a pivotal drive by Atlanta in the fourth quarter, Payne stuffed Cordarrelle Patterson for a two-yard loss to kickstart a three-and-out.

"I think Daron [Payne] is playing really good football," Rivera said. "He and Jonathan are a heck of a tandem. One of the things I talked about, I remember on my first day...was about having that kind of tandem. Guys like that are space eaters, guys like that have an impact on the game. That's what you look for. That's what you want out there."

Allen, meanwhile, has continued to be as advertised after signing a multi-year extension prior to the 2021 season. His overall PFF grade of 82.3 is the second highest of his career, while his pass-rush grade (87.4) is fifth among all defensive tackles and fourth in the NFC.

Like Payne, Allen has put together a standout season that could rival the numbers that earned him a Pro Bowl appearance last season. In addition to his 45 tackles, 14 of which have been for a loss, he has 16 quarterback hits, a forced fumble, an interception and three pass breakups.

And if anyone needs more evidence as to how much of a problem Allen is for offenses, just take a look back at what he did to the Texans' offensive line. He sent first-round pick Kenyon Green flying into the backfield before taking down Davis Mills for a sack.

And while he did not record a sack against the Falcons, he did have a quarterback hit and a hurry.

"Jonathan is playing at the kind of level that we believed he could," Rivera said.

Together, Allen and Payne account for 27 of the Commanders' 66 tackles for loss. Those numbers, Rivera said, are from them buying into the philosophy of playing vertical on their way to the quarterback.

"If they can get into the creases, they can be very disruptive as we've seen and I think that's part of it," Rivera said. "When you look at those guys, we're not two gapping. We're not grabbing a guy trying to figure one way or the other."

Allen and Payne have become a force this season. It is why the defense has improved from 17th to eighth in yards allowed and 14th to eighth in rushing yards allowed. It's also why you should vote them to the 2022 Pro Bowl.

And their teammates do not need any convincing: Allen and Payne playing at a high level benefits the entire team.

"You see those guys' preparation and the things that they go through week in, week out to dominate like that on Sundays," Fuller said of Allen and Payne. "I always go to them, telling them, 'Hey, y'all eat, I eat.' And they'll come to me and say, 'You eat, we eat.'"

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