ASHBURN — Historically great NFL defenses generally have an elite pass-rushing tandem in the mix. Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware anchored the 2015, Super Bowl-winning Denver Broncos. Justin Tuck and Michael Strahan led the 2007 New York Giants to a championship. Dexter Manley and Charles Mann were a ferocious duo under Joe Gibbs.
Chase Young and Montez Sweat — Washington’s top duo — have a long way to go before they’re mentioned among those legends. But after a promising first year together, Young and Sweat have made it clear they intend to chase history along with quarterbacks.
In the offseason, Young and Sweat embraced the lofty expectations generated by last season, and Sweat took it even further Tuesday, telling reporters their goal for the upcoming season is 40 combined sacks — one more than the all-time season record of 39 by a tandem, set when Chris Doleman recorded 21 and Keith Millard had 18 for the 1989 Minnesota Vikings.
“We talk about it all the time,” Sweat said, “breaking records and stuff like that.”
To do so, Sweat and Young would need to have monster seasons — much better than they had in 2020, when they combined for 16½ sacks. For reference, Doleman and Millard both earned All-Pro honors for that 1989 season — while Washington, as a team, has only produced two All-Pros (Brandon Scherff in 2020 and Matt Turk in 1996) in the last 25 years.
Presumably, breaking the record would also require a fast start. In 1989, Doleman had seven sacks over his first six games. By comparison, Young had 7½ sacks over the course of a 16-game season. Millard was even better, posting 12 sacks over the first six weeks. Sweat, in two seasons, has 16 career sacks.
Perhaps breaking that record is now more realistic in a 17-game season rather than a 16-game slate. Due to the NFL expanding its schedule, Young and Sweat will “only” have to each average 1.2 sacks per game to break the record — rather than two per game under the old format. Not even Strahan averaged two per game when he broke the league’s all-time single-season sack record with 22 1/2.
Of course, Young and Sweat wouldn’t have to evenly split the record if they were to break it. Various combinations add up to 40.
If the two have anything going in their favor, Young and Sweat cherish playing off each other. One’s success pushes the other to go harder, Young said. And given they’re only 22 (Young) and 24 (Sweat) respectively, they still have plenty of time to grow. They’re far from their prime.
“If Montez is going and I’m slacking a little bit, I know I got to pick the slack up because I know Montez over there busting his [butt],” Young said late last month. “Same with me, vice versa. I think we keep each other up and I feel like we just keep each other going. I feel like that’s how great we can be if we just keep doing that.”
Washington’s all-time sack record for a tandem might be more achievable for Young and Sweat. Mann and Manley combined for 28½ sacks in 1986. That figure has been attainable in recent years, with Kansas City’s Chris Jones (15 ½) and Dee Ford (13) reaching that number in 2018 and Denver’s Miller and Elvis Dumervil actually topping it in 2012 with 2012.
For the latter, Washington defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio served in the same role for the Broncos. Del Rio’s track record for getting high-level production out of his pass rushers is strong: Miller and Ware combined for 24 sacks in 2014, Del Rio’s final season in Denver before becoming the head coach of the Raiders for three seasons. Earlier in the offseason, Del Rio said Young and Sweat had the opportunity to take their game “to another level.”
Safety Landon Collins said Young and Sweat remind him of Oliver Vernon and Jason Pierre-Paul, the 2016 Giants’ top pass rushers who were the driving force behind an 11-5 season. Like those two, Collins said Sweat and Young “can do it all” and make life easier for the secondary. Collins pointed to a play in which Young rushed from the outside, allowing the safety to have a free shot at the quarterback on an inside blitz.
“They are going to cause disruption,” Collins said.
Sweat, meanwhile, didn’t know that Doleman and Millard held the duo sack record. His personal favorite pass-rushing pair, he said, was Miller and Ware in Denver. He watches other pass rushers, too, like Chicago’s Khalil Mack and former Dolphins great Jason Taylor.
As for whether he thinks breaking the NFL record is possible? Well …
“We are both dynamic players,” Sweat said. “When you have two dynamic players on one line. You can make things happen.”