NFL playoff race: Get to know the best defense that no one has been talking about

There’s an NFC East defense that ferociously pressures the quarterback, hardly allows passing offenses to get off the ground, and scoffs at the idea of ​​the opposition efficiently running the football. And it emerged as such a stingy unit without a genuine household name.

The Commanders boast the NFL’s best defense no one’s talked about this season. Be honest, you haven’t. Heck, it took me until the week of Thanksgiving to take the brawny essence of Washington’s defensive unit seriously. Oddly enough, it came after a dominant effort against the lowly Texans for this realization to take place in my thick skull.

OK, most serious football fans know Jonathan Allen. He’s been bringing the heat since his rookie season in 2017. For as annually disruptive as Allen is, he doesn’t have the same name recognition as some of the superstar defenders in his own division. He had calmly whistled his way through another routine day at the office in Week 11 against the Texans with six pressures and two sacks on 33 pass-rush opportunities. At defensive tackle, Allen’s season 11.2% pressure-generation rate is rather massive.

Then there’s the often unnoticed, former first-round pick Montez Sweat. In a 2019 draft class overflowing with defensive front talent — Nick Bosa, Jeffery Simmons, Quinnen Williams, Dexter Lawrence, Ed Oliver, and Christian Wilkins — Sweat has quietly hummed under the radar in Washington.

He’s having a season as monstrous as his combine workout, when he ran 4.41 with a 36-inch vertical and 7.00 three-cone time at 6-foot-5 and 260 pounds. To date, the former Mississippi State star has registered 45 pressures on 336 pass-rushing snaps. While that doesn’t equate to a ginormous pressure-creation rate (13.3%), the high-volume nature of that statistic makes it impressive.

Because of his supreme athletic gifts and imposing size, often when Sweat wins, those victories are worthy of going viral. Sweat was aligned at right defensive end here. Hold onto your butts.

Sweat and Allen may be the anchors on the line of scrimmage, but they’re hardly the sole reason Washington has morphed into one of the league’s least-fun-to-play defenses. The safety duo of Kamren Curl and Darrick Forrest have emerged as one of the best in the NFC, if not all of football. Seriously.

Curl’s the prototypical strong safety/linebacker hybrid at 6-1 and 200-ish pounds. He’s everywhere, particularly against the run and he filters in a flash to any action underneath or at the intermediate level. The former Arkansas star averages more than six tackles per game and has five tackles for loss in nine outings. Forrest, the rangier of the two, already has three interceptions, six pass breakups, and two forced fumbles on the season.

Curl was a seventh-round selection in 2020. Forrest was picked in Round 5 a year ago. That’s probably partly why they’re massively underrated. They entered the league with minimal fanfare.

Check how much ground Forrest covered on this interception against the Texans in Week 11.

Impossible to miss on that play: the brilliant coverage and tip from Benjamin St-Juste. As a third-round draft choice, he had more pedigree than Curl or Forrest, yet still fits the “no name” mantra of this Washington defense because he famously didn’t record an interception in three collegiate seasons and had just one pass breakup in his final year at Minnesota.

But he’s a rare cat at corner, standing in at over 6-3 and 204 pounds with nearly 33-inch arms. St-Juste has settled into his role as a suffocating perimeter defender. He’s batted away seven passes heading into Week 12’s game against the Falcons.

The linebacker duo of Jamin Davis and Cole Holcomb, a clear liability in 2021, is on the upward swing. Davis has played with more assertiveness and quicker reactionary skills against the run and Holcomb continues to outplay his fifth-round draft position by leading the team with 69 tackles.

As is the case with any high-caliber defense, the Commanders are getting quality pitch-ins from rotational pieces. Front-seven defenders Efe Obada, Casey Toohill, and James Smith-Williams have each flashed as pass rushers in limited roles.

Clearly, I can’t rave enough about the collective effort of Ron Rivera’s club and the mostly superstar-less identity of it makes that unit even more commendable.

On the season, Washington allowed 20.3 points per game, good for 12th in the league. Since Taylor Heinicke became the starter, the Commanders have surrendered just 17.6 points per contest. In that five-game stretch, they’ve allowed an average passer rating of 84.2 and less than 70 yards rushing in each outing.

The Heinicke story, finally earning a “starting quarterback” label in the NFL, is a fantastic one. But the Commanders defense, with some unjustifiably overlooked studs and a gang of chippy overachievers, is the true foundation of this club being in the thick of the NFC playoff race after winning five of its last six games.

Oh, and Chase Young — who does possess serious superstar juice — is due back in Week 12. HELLO.

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