Green Bay Packers preparing for Washington's formidable and scary defensive front four
GREEN BAY − There’s still a couple of weeks until Halloween, but Green Bay Packers coach Matt LaFleur already has been fending off nightmares this week from watching something scary before bed. In this case, the tape of the defensive front four for the Washington Commanders.
“It can give you nightmares if you let it,” LaFleur said Wednesday, as the Packers began preparation for their next opponent. The Commanders are a 2-4, last in the NFC East, with a backup quarterback leading them this week. But their defensive front four is made up of Jonathan Allen, Montez Sweat, Daron Payne and James Smith-Williams, three of which (all but Smith-Williams) were first-round draft picks. If Chase Young was not recovering from an ACL tear, all four starters would be first-rounders.
It creates a formidable group that is tied for fourth in the league with 19 sacks through six games.
“If you watch the sack reel or just the pressure reel, the third down, you’ve gotta have a plan for it,” LaFleur said. "And even when you have a plan for it, it still might not go the way you want it to go.
“They just wreck havoc on an offensive line and the teams they played. Certainly, really talented group. I think they’re well coached, they give great effort, so it’s gonna be a great test for us.”
The Commanders held Green Bay to 57 yards rushing in the 2021 edition of this game (which the Packers won 24-10) and sacked Aaron Rodgers multiple times.
Outside of protecting Rodgers, that test will mostly manifest itself in the Packers run game. The Commanders have allowed an average of 131.7 yards per game on the ground, but it’s also an area the Packers have struggled, despite playing Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon together. The key, Dillon said, will be to not panic and to stay patient, even if that front four doesn’t budge at first.
“They got a lot of talent up there with high-caliber guys and you can tell they definitely have invested in their front four and stopping the run,” Dillon said. However, the Packers have invested in their run game as well and the pieces could be there to break through.
“With a run, nine out of 10 times, you're never gonna have it where they're always hitting,” Dillon said. "So there's gonna be a little bit, a little bit and then you'll hit one. And I think in the run game, specifically, we kind of stick with that and you got a lot of confidence in your run, you know, eventually you'll hit one."
LaFleur’s message to his team this week has been to remember to have fun playing the game. That is a message Dillon is taking to heart, not only in his attitude but how he approaches rushing against this Commanders front.
“That's something I've really kind of been working on this week, just being positive,” Dillon said. "Just, you know, really having fun with the game and really enjoying the opportunity.
“And so I think this week, going into it, if we have a couple where it’s 1- or 2- or 3-yard gain, then we hit a 4- and a 5-, you know, I'm happy with each play we're out there.”
If anyone knows the power in the Commanders defensive front four, it’s Preston Smith. The Packers linebacker spent four years in Washington, drafted there out of college and playing behind a front that included Allen and Payne at the time. While he didn’t play with Sweat in college (both attended Mississippi State) or in the NFL, they did play together one year in high school. In other words, Smith has been a commodity this week, in helping his offense understand the Washington front.
“He's probably about the same height he is now,” Smith said of Sweat in high school. “I don't think he grew since his freshman year in high school. He’s been like 6-7, long arms, but he's always been a freakish athlete who had a lot of ability and a lot of talent. I kind of felt like he would be special, I mean, since then. He’s grown to be a special player, first-round draft pick, you know, having a lot of sacks in the NFL. He's doing pretty great.”
Sweat joined a formidable group that stands out on a team that is otherwise looking for talent in many places. They’re a tough matchup for anyone.
“It's a bunch of guys on their defense that play relentless, regardless of the circumstances,” Smith said of his former teammates. “They always play hard and always finish till the end of the game. They're not going to let up, not gonna lay down. They’re gonna play hard; playing with Jonathan and Payne and going to high school and playing, knowing Sweat, I just know those guys play hard to the end of the game.
“They're gonna play through the whistle and they're gonna fly around. They're gonna try to do whatever it takes to make a play for their team.”
With that in mind, the Packers offense is creating not only its game plan, but a mindset to do the same.
Said Dillon, “It's really important for us to be stout up front as running backs to help out when we can, get a chance to get a chip or something … and really just take care of protection.”