With analytics now the craze in the NFL, it’s well known that sacks aren’t the be-all, end-all of evaluating pass rushers.
As recently as a decade ago, that wasn’t the case, but now, pass rushers and some head coaches — including Washington’s Ron Rivera — openly talk about the importance of more consistent stats like quarterback hits and pressures over volatile ones like sacks.
There may not be a player in the NFL more emblematic of the sacks vs. pressures conversation than Washington defensive tackle Jonathan Allen.
Last season, Allen totaled only two sacks in 16 games — a total of 448 pass-rush snaps — compared to the seven sacks he averaged the previous two seasons. Despite the decline in sack production, Washington signed him to a four-year, $72-million contract that netted the University of Alabama product $30 million guaranteed.
Through nine games this season, positive regression has treated Allen kindly, as the fifth-year veteran has a team-high six sacks, an impressive number for an interior defensive lineman.
“He‘s physical at the point of attack, more so than anything else,” Rivera said Monday. “You get a lot of guys that stutter and float looking for an opportunity. Jonathan just goes forward, and the quickest route to the quarterback is straight ahead. And when he‘s doing that, he‘s having success.”
His sack total is tied for 13th in the NFL but is second on a per-game basis for interior defensive linemen, behind only Tennessee’s Jeffery Simmons (7 1/2 sacks).
Fellow Washington defensive tackle Daron Payne said Wednesday that Allen is rushing the quarterback the same as last season but added that he’s been capitalizing on more of his chances.
“I know he works hard, practices hard, rushes hard,” Payne said of Allen. “He’s got a relentless mindset. He’s just been finishing with his opportunities.”
As a rookie in 2017, the former first-round pick played in only five games before his season was cut short due to a Lisfranc foot injury. He tallied eight sacks in 2018 and six in 2019, but his peripherals weren’t as good as his sack total suggested
That flipped in 2020, though, as Allen’s pass-rush win rate was eighth best in the league at 17%, according to Pro Football Focus, and he tallied 47 pressures versus only two sacks. This season, PFF has Allen as its third-highest-rated interior defensive lineman, behind just Pittsburgh’s Cam Heyward and Los Angeles Rams’ Aaron Donald.
In addition to his six sacks this fall, Allen has eight tackles for loss and 20 quarterback hits — already a career high and tied for second most among defensive tackles.
His ability to pressure the quarterback was evident in this past Sunday’s win over Tampa Bay. While Tom Brady wasn’t sacked in Washington’s 29-19 victory, Allen did pummel the future Hall of Famer on the Buccaneers’ first third down. Later in the game, on Brady’s second interception, Allen’s bull rush pushed his blocker into the pocket, not allowing Brady to fully step into the throw that was picked off by Bobby McCain.
“He’s got a tremendous hump move. I don’t want to compare it to [Hall of Famer] Reggie White’s, but it’s still a pretty good hump move. It gives him a chance to get vertical and get into the quarterback’s lap and cause some problems,” Rivera said. “I think his hit on the first third down, I think was a little bit of a disruptor. I think it’s really kind of helped our guys get going.”
With edge rusher Chase Young out for the season with a torn ACL and defensive end Montez Sweat on injured reserve with a broken jaw, Washington will be leaning on Allen even more in the final eight weeks of the season.
Following Sunday’s victory, Allen said the key for the defense is to eliminate the “stupid mistakes” and to be more consistent.
“What separates the good teams from the bad teams is being able to do this on a weekly basis,” Allen said. “We are super excited and happy we were able to do it [against Tampa Bay], but it doesn’t mean much if you can’t do it next week and the week after that.”