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Giants’ defensive line in for trench battle with Commanders’ front four

Take the sense of optimism that grew out of the Giants bookending their offensive line with two first-round draft picks and double it.

That’s how the Washington Commanders built their defensive line from 2017-20. So, while the Giants have a young foundation in place with left tackle Andrew Thomas and right tackle Evan Neal, the Commanders counter with four former first-rounders: Ends Chase Young and Montez Sweat and tackles Daron Payne and Jonathan Allen.

The cliché that games are won along the line of scrimmage certainly will apply to Sunday’s NFC East clash, which might as well be a six-face advertisement for the big boys developed in the SEC and Big Ten. What makes Washington’s front four such a challenge?

“They’re good at the run and the pass, that’s what,” head coach Brian Daboll said. “Having strong fronts — both defensive and offensive — is where you want to build your football team, and they certainly have done it. They don’t give up a lot of points.”

Sweat, Payne and Allen all have at least 6.5 sacks and combine for 20 — matching the Giants’ team-wide total. Payne (85.6) and Allen (83) are among the leaders in snaps played percentage among NFL interior defensive linemen and the main reason that the Commanders’ last six opponents are rushing for just 85.1 yards per game. The last seven opponents — during a season-changing 6-1 stretch — are averaging just 177.7 pass yards and 15 points per game.

Montez Sweat #90 of the Washington Commanders celebrates a sack
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“Allen gets — not necessarily lost in the hype of all the others — but I think he’s the best player,” center Jon Feliciano said. “Biggest thing is we can’t beat ourselves.”

What’s worse news for Daniel Jones and Saquon Barkley? Young — the 2020 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year — could play in his first game since Nov. 14, 2021, which won’t make it any easier to jump-start a Giants’ rushing attack that tumbled from No. 3 to No. 6 after managing just 89.5 yards per game in back-to-back losses.

“Their front seven is very disruptive,” Thomas said, adding the three linebackers to the mix. “Talent all over the place. Not just that, they play physical, they run to the ball. So, we have to be prepared for that, be able to get movement at the line of scrimmage and protect D.J. to allow him to make plays.”

Jones had the best game of his career — 352 passing yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions — in a 41-35 victory against Washington on Dec. 22, 2019. If the outcome of that game was reversed, the Giants likely would’ve picked No. 2 instead of No. 4 in the draft and selected Young instead of Thomas.

Andrew Thomas #78 of the New York Giants defends
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Young looked like the better player heading into his first three head-to-head matchups with Thomas. The narrative has flipped with Young’s long recovery from a torn ACL and Thomas’ rise to No. 3-ranked offensive tackle by Pro Football Focus. Sweat and Thomas switch sides from play to play more than most end pairings.

“Any dominant pass rusher in this league I get excited for,” Thomas said, “and that’s the beauty of playing left tackle: Every week there’s going to be somebody that’s a war daddy that you’ve got to be prepared for. So, I don’t look at [Young] any different than the other top rushers in the league.”

Sweat was the consensus top edge rusher on the board when the Giants made their second first-round selection in 2019. After taking Jones instead of Jaguars-bound edge Josh Allen at No. 6, the Giants passed over Sweat (who was potentially misdiagnosed with a heart condition pre-draft) for defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence. That decision also now is seen through a new lens than years past, given Lawrence’s development into more than run-stuffer.

Young isn’t the only starter about to return to the trenches. The Giants’ offensive line could be whole with the returns of Neal (four games missed) and Feliciano (one). Nick Gates, who started at center last week, could be the fifth different starting left guard in 12 games.

“Gates and I will feed off each other because we both have the same mindset of crazy,” Feliciano said. “It’s easy to jell with a guy who you know understands what you are thinking.”

Maybe the push on the line of scrimmage won’t just come down to those six former first-round picks after all.

“All hands on deck,” Daboll said.