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14 Dec 2012
by J.J. Cooper
It’s not often that this can be said, but the race for the Defensive Player of the Year award this season seems even more fascinating than the Most Valuable Player chase. With Aldon Smith leading the league with 19.5 sacks and J.J. Watt and Von Miller both on pace to finish with nearly 20 sacks themselves, it’s a great year for pass rushers.
This Under Pressure is not making an argument that the Defensive Player of the Year award should be given solely based on who has the most sacks, or that the quality of those sacks should be the sole determinant of who wins the honors. But it’s also quite realistic to expect that the sack numbers will play a large part in who wins the award, and with that in mind, it can’t hurt to take a closer look at the three most likely candidates.
Even though his scrawny body type might lead you to believe that all of his sacks are speed-based, Smith doesn’t just use his exceptional first step to generate sacks. He also has a surprisingly impressive bull rush, in part because pass protectors have to be constantly worried about getting beaten to the outside. If Smith can catch an offensive tackle on his heels, he has the strength and burst to put the tackle on his butt. We saw that just this week when Smith knocked Jonathan Martin backwards on his way to Ryan Tannehill.
|Aldon Smith Sack Breakdown|
|QB holds ball||4|
|At DT, dodges punch||1|
In fact, offensive tackles fear Smith’s speed to the outside so much that it has allowed him to generate most of his sacks by either ducking inside tackles who overplay to the outside, or by using his bull rush. Only one of Smith’s 19.5 sacks this season has come when he simply lined up and beat a tackle to the outside, but five of his sacks have come when he’s beaten a tackle who gave him a gap to the inside because he was overcompensating to try to counter Smith’s speed.
Smith’s also shown his versatility. This past week against the Dolphins, the 49ers actually lined up Smith as a standup defensive tackle, giving guard Richie Incognito the fright of his life. Figuring that his superior strength was his best defense to slow down Smith, Incognito didn’t take a drop at the snap, instead, he lunged forward to try to give Smith a good punch. But Smith dodged the punch, which left Incognito flat-footed against a pass rusher with a massive speed advantage. Smith flew by Incognito for his second sack of the game and his 19(.5)th of the season.
If you are desperate to knock a hole of some sort in Smith’s amazing sack numbers, the best argument is how much help Smith gets by lining up outside of Justin Smith, one of the best defensive linemen in the league in his own right. When the Smiths run twists and loops, they cause massive problems for offensive linemen. Both are talented enough to create havoc if the guard and tackle don’t have near-perfect communication and timing on their pick-ups as one pass rusher leaves them and another comes looping their way. Four of Aldon Smith’s sacks have come when working a two-man game with Justin Smith.
But Aldon Smith doesn’t need to run any games with Justin Smith to get free -- he causes problems by himself, which is obvious by the fact that he’s on pace to break Michael Strahan’s single-season sack record of 22.5.
|J.J. Watt Sack Breakdown|
|Rips past OL||5.5|
|Cleans up another's help||1|
|QB holds ball||1|
Comparing Smith and Miller is much easier than comparing either of them with Watt. If Watt is the DPOY, it will only be in part due to his sacks. The pass deflections he gets by utilizing his massive wingspan in a quarterback’s throwing lanes are something of a trump card in this debate. He’s also a beast against the run, and just a few weeks into the season, he became a player offenses felt they had to game plan around, putting double teams on him.
But Watt is also second in the league in sacks. On early downs, he plays defensive end, and in passing situations, he slides inside to defensive tackle. He’s effective as a pass rusher at either position. Watt is more apt to beat his man by using his strength and his massive arm length to keep the blocker from ever getting a good punch to slow Watt’s pass rush. Watt has used a rip, swim, or arm over move to beat his blocker on 5.5 of his sacks this season.
He also has used his bull rush to drive his blocker into the backfield on three sacks, and his speed to get around the edge for another 2.5.
|Von Miller Sack Breakdown|
|QB holds ball||4|
Unlike Smith, tackles trying to slow down Von Miller should be worrying about getting beaten around the edge. Much like Steelers linebacker James Harrison in his prime, Miller is able to dip his shoulders and get low enough that he makes it hard for a less-agile tackle to bend down and stop his run around the corner.
Seven of Miller’s sacks have come when he simply beat his man with a speed rush around the edge. Miller also showed that he works well with others: he picked up a pair of sacks where he looped inside on a stunt. Miller’s easiest sack came when he was simply left unblocked.
Partly because he is so good at reading a tackle’s drop and determining if he can cut back inside, Aldon Smith leads the NFL in quick sacks. (Quick sacks are defined as sacks that take under 2.5 seconds.)
On the other end of the spectrum, Smith also has seven sacks that took three or more seconds to record (known as "long sacks").
|Quick Sack Leaderboard (Through Week 14)|
Miller is similarly relentless. Six of his sacks occured when the quarterback held the ball for three seconds or longer. To break it down further, four of Smith’s sacks could be categorized as coverage sacks where the quarterback held the ball for an extended period of time. Miller also had four of that sort. Only one of Watt’s sacks could be classified as a coverage sack, although he did have 4.5 overall sacks that took three seconds or longer.
Raiders’ safety Mike Mitchell is most famous for drawing the ire of NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock when Oakland drafted Mitchell in the second round of the 2009 draft -- most draft experts saw Mitchell as a late-round talent at best.
To Mitchell’s credit, he has lasted four years with the Raiders. To Mayock’s credit, Mitchell has never been a starter by design, which seems to indicate he was more of a late-round talent. But this week, Mitchell got a very easy sack, his first of the season, when he came off the edge unblocked against Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning. When Manning saw that it was too late to get rid of the ball, he simply tucked and covered, taking the sack with no fuss, 1.8 seconds after the snap.
There were three other 1.8-second sacks this week, but Mitchell’s was the only one where the pass rusher came unblocked. Eagles tackle King Dunlap, Patriots tackle Nate Solder, and Jaguars lineman Eben Britton all botched blocks badly.
Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton is prone to holding the ball too long, and once again this past week he was logging some long sacks. Dalton had a 6.3-second sack where he took off and was caught at the line of scrimmage, and for good measure he added an 8.6-second sack where he was also caught from behind after taking off on a scramble. Dalton does hold the ball, but in both of these cases, he ended up with a grand total of one yard lost. So while it doesn’t do any favors for his offensive linemen’s stats, it didn’t hurt the Bengals much.
20 comments, Last at 18 Dec 2012, 5:01am by Mr Shush