Two weeks ago, Shaka Toney was just a rotational player who didn't even make his professional debut until Week 6. Now, he's become a heavier contributor for the Washington Football Team's defense.
He'll be asked to do more going forward.
Toney, a seventh-round pick in April, played in 61% of the defensive snaps against the Dallas Cowboys and got his first start. He's had to grow up quickly, as many of Washington's defensive linemen are on the Reserve/COVID-19 list with their status for Sunday's matchup against the Philadelphia Eagles in doubt.
The former Penn State pass-rusher is ready to take on the task.
"It's a learning curve, having to go out there every single play," Toney said. "And I gotta adapt, adjust and prepare myself the best I can to get ready for the week."
It's a benefit that Toney already has the pedigree to handle the increased workload. He finished his college career ranked eighth on the Nittany Lions' all-time sack list, racking up five games with at least two sacks. It helped earn him All-Big Ten honors in 2020, when he tied Penn State's single-game sack record (4).
It's also a plus that he's been learning from Washington's plethora of talented young pass-rushers throughout the season. It's a tight-knit room, he said, so the information is always available if he wants it. He's picked up tips from Montez Sweat and Chase Young when it comes to his own position, but he's also developed a strong relationship with Daron Payne. That bond has already started to show up on the field.
"I've been watching Payne since he was in college," Toney said. "I've seen him rush for years and seeing him up close just these last few months … he makes sure that I sell and set stuff up the way I'm supposed to. Make sure I attack at the right angle."
Even before Toney starting to become a bigger part of the defense against the Cowboys, the extra tutelage from Payne was paying off. Toney got his first sack on Russell Wilson on Monday Night Football against the Seattle Seahawks. And as an encouraging sign of his maturity, he was more focused on trying to secure the win rather than celebrating.
"I wasn't going to be the rookie that everyone's screaming at like, 'What the heck are you doing?'" Toney said. "So I just got lined up to play the next play."
The sack was one of just five plays Toney was on the field against the Seahawks, but it was a great moment for the young player. Plays like that are what has impressed head coach Ron Rivera and gotten his attention.
"I see a little explosive quickness off the edge," Rivera said. "He's got a little bit of a natural slither to him in terms of his movement skills. And he's a guy that if he can get into a rhythm, especially for a young guy, he could help make an impact."
A positive impact from Toney would be a welcome sight against the Eagles, who not only boast the league's most productive rushing attack but are also one of the best in terms of protecting their quarterback. They've only given up 26 sacks, which is good enough for sixth in the NFL.
It's certainly not an ideal situation to carry more responsibilities, with many of his fellow defensive linemen unavailable and a playoff berth in the balance, but that's the situation Toney has been dealt. It should be a positive, though, that just his previous opportunities, Toney will make the best of it.
"If your number's called, you gotta step up," Toney said. "This is football. Everybody wants an opportunity … you gotta take it, you gotta maximize that moment."