Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

13 Mar 2008

White, Smith a Cut Above Today's Great Pass-Rushers

This is a fantastic little bit of game tape analysis by K.C. Joyner, breaking down the strengths and weaknesses of the game's top pass rushers, then comparing them to the top guys of the 1990s. Lost in the bull rushes and rip moves, however, is my favorite pass rush technique, which I saw only used by Bruce Smith, and only one time: He simply leapfrogged the blocker to get into the backfield.

Posted by: Vincent Verhei on 13 Mar 2008

30 comments, Last at 18 Mar 2008, 6:12pm by Kellerman


by Nathan (not verified) :: Thu, 03/13/2008 - 7:03pm

really an excellent read. Would love to see some youtube videos of them performing each move you explained, particularly White's special bullrush/club

by Kenneth (not verified) :: Thu, 03/13/2008 - 7:23pm

From the "Rush Linebackers with limited moves" section:

"In 2007, Thomas and Ware both tended to rely heavily on their natural talents and not on moves."

Thomas' name should definitely not be in that sentence, or the year should be removed from it. Or maybe there was another player originally in this section that got moved to a different one?

by Quentin (not verified) :: Thu, 03/13/2008 - 7:23pm

I think I saw some film of White doing that last year. You could probably find it on youtube if you look hard enough.

by langsty (not verified) :: Thu, 03/13/2008 - 7:49pm

The article links to another interesting piece along these lines - Chuck Smith (former Atlanta DE and radio presonality) runs a pass-rushing camp in the offseason and asserts that the technical skills of today's pass rushers are really diminished compared to those of 10-15 years ago. This part was most interesting to me:

'Said Titans defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz: "There is still a place in today's game for what Chuck Smith teaches, but it has to be more of a supplement to the player's ability level. The main reason you don't see pass-rushers making all these beautiful moves anymore is that players don't have as much time to get to the quarterback."

Schwartz is one of the NFL coaches who believe technique isn't vanishing from the game.

He listed Kansas City Chiefs defensive end Jared Allen (who led the NFL with 15½ sacks last season), Miami Dolphins defensive end/linebacker Jason Taylor and Titans defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch, who also has worked with Smith, as examples.

Schwartz also said he has a hard time not referring to a perennial Pro Bowler like Indianapolis Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney as great.

"I wouldn't say pass-rushers aren't as good as they were in the past," Schwartz said. "I'd say they're just evolving."'

by James, London (not verified) :: Thu, 03/13/2008 - 7:53pm

That was good stuff. It's just a shame most of his content is "insider".

by Theo, Netherlands (not verified) :: Thu, 03/13/2008 - 8:22pm

I'm watching old Super Bowls now.
What I learned is not to compare players from different eras.
I mean, the receivers line up in 3 point stance.
The linemen stand like I don't know what. EVERY linebacker is doing the hop-stap. Qbs backpadle or dont finish PA plays.
Lineplay? That has improved faster than computer hardware.
Although, after watchig Montana for the first time in my life, for 4 plays in Super Bowl XVI... I understand why he is considered so good.

by Independent George (not verified) :: Thu, 03/13/2008 - 8:50pm

It's interesting that he mentions Strahan using fewer moves than in past seasons. In interviews, Strahan has stated he only uses two: the bull rush, and the fake bull rush. Of course, a 'fake bull rush' can mean any number of things, so they might not necessarily be contradictary.

by Mike (not verified) :: Thu, 03/13/2008 - 9:01pm

The piece is skewed toward the 90's since they are pulling 10 years of players or seasons and comparing the cream of a decade to a random season in time.

I also agree with the evolving techniques and improved skills of both sides of the ball. Send any of today's elite players back to 1991 and they would terrorize the league.

by Terry (not verified) :: Fri, 03/14/2008 - 1:34am

I have to ask- why does it matter how many different moves a pass rusher uses effectively? Aren't there only two real points-- ability to play the pass, and ability to play the run? Ceteris paribus, if Player A uses 1 move to get 20 sacks, and Player B uses 5 moves to get 10 sacks, who's the better pass rusher? The methodology of this article seems to suggest that Player B is better, but I don't see why.

by mm (not verified) :: Fri, 03/14/2008 - 2:19am

if Player A uses 1 move to get 20 sacks, and Player B uses 5 moves to get 10 sacks, who’s the better pass rusher? The methodology of this article seems to suggest that Player B is better, but I don’t see why

Well, if player A learned a 2nd move well he might get 25 sacks, and if player B learned another 3 moves he might get 12 sacks. This sort of thing probably won't make a poor player average or an average player great, but it can make each of those players slightly better.

This is like a starting pitcher adding a 3rd or 4th pitch. He was probably getting hitters out before, but if he learns the new pitch well, he'll get even more outs. (Of course, I'd imagine it's much easier to learn a new rushing technique than to learn a new pitch).

by Karl Cuba (not verified) :: Fri, 03/14/2008 - 5:56am

"Of course, I’d imagine it’s much easier to learn a new rushing technique than to learn a new pitch"

I dunno, the worst thing that happens if you mess up a new pitch is that it'll get clobbered. If you mess up a pass rush move then you get clobbered. I know that I'd rather be stood on the pitcher's mound than running into a NFL tackle.

by Ted Max (not verified) :: Fri, 03/14/2008 - 9:02am

This piece mentions Smith's (I think) combination of strength and power.

I wonder this every time somebody says that: What's the difference between strength and power?

by dryheat (not verified) :: Fri, 03/14/2008 - 9:37am

11. Power is more of, in a manner of speaking, acceleration of strength. Starting at rest and torquing up to full strength quickly (think of the derivation of the word horsepower.

Or you could think of it as strength being top speed, and power as the effort needed to reach top speed.

by MDZ (not verified) :: Fri, 03/14/2008 - 10:48am

I think that #12 has it pretty close, in that power has to do with explosiveness, while strength is more of a constant. For example, Reggie White displayed tremendous power as he bullrushed the OT on his way to a sack, however it is his strength that allows him to hold his ground and stop the RB for no gain.

by Pacifist Viking (not verified) :: Fri, 03/14/2008 - 12:20pm

Growing up, I always thought Bruce Smith was the face of the 90s Buffalo Bills. That team now has a QB and a RB in the HOF, but I always thought Smith was the team's best player, one of the defenders in the league I really feared (if I was rooting for the opponent).

by johonny (not verified) :: Fri, 03/14/2008 - 1:01pm

7 I wonder as game video has gotten better if having a ton of moves is really more important than having two good moves that can't be easily distinguished. I.E. a bull rush and a fake bull rush. Where the fake starts as a similar move so not to tip off the lineman which move is going to take place.

by Fire Millen (not verified) :: Fri, 03/14/2008 - 1:20pm

Power versus Strength. Going back (way back) to college physics, power is work over time or equivalently it is force times velocity. Strength is certainly the same as force so power is how quickly you can apply your strength. So Smith was strong and fast.

by b roo (not verified) :: Fri, 03/14/2008 - 2:43pm

No love for Charles Haley in the top 5 list from the 90s? I realize Super Bowl rings may not translate to greatness for pass rushers like it does for QBs but Haley's 5 has to mean something. Perhaps this year's Super Bowl helped prove great pass rushers can mean as much or more as a QB. Haley was the best speed rusher after LT and had very good bull rush and spin moves to go along with it.

by Flounder (not verified) :: Fri, 03/14/2008 - 3:26pm

Reggie White was really something to watch. He wasn't quite as dominant when I was paying the most attention (the GB as I'm a GB fan) but still just amazing.

Perhaps most impressive was his ability to do it when the game was on the line. I remember one game I think towards the end of the regular season. Its the tail end of the game and GB is up a few points and the other team is around midfield. White has consecutive sacks on third and fourth down. I think it was on the third down play, Reggie throws the offensive lineman close to five yards through the air.

Also, I never really considered the "hump" move to start with a pure bull rush. I always recalled it as a power rush, but distinctly to the outside edge. Reggie had the unique ability to stop on a dime and throw all his power + the tackles natural momentum to literally throw them. This was, to say the least, spectacular.

by PatsFan (not verified) :: Fri, 03/14/2008 - 4:21pm

Vrabel should also be considered in '07. 10+ sacks. Way better than Strahan.

by Dom (not verified) :: Fri, 03/14/2008 - 7:01pm


Vrabel is nowhere near as good a pass rusher as the rest of the players listed. Yes he got a lot of sack but quite a few were coverage sacks or in garbage time. Don't get me wrong, Vrabel's a fantastic player and he richly deserved his Pro Bowl spot, but he's a competent, rather than devastating, pass rusher.

by Bobman (not verified) :: Sat, 03/15/2008 - 12:48am

9/10, also, if the league figures out Player A's bread and butter move, he's sunk, whereas OLs have to prepare for the kitchen sink approach when Player B comes to town.

Or if Player A faces an OT who is a supreme stud at his one strength, he's neutralized for that game with nothing to fall back on. Yet Player B, with a bag of tricks, will likely have more success against the same guy.

In addition, when Player A ages and loses some of his key speed or strength, again he has nothing to fall back on. No trickery, no using one move to set up another. Everybody knows what's coming but instead of fearing it, they just laugh instead.

It's a little like saying if your QB throws the best long ball in the league, why ever throw anything else? Well, if your OL gets crushed and there's no time for long plays to develop, or maybe if you only need 5 yards on 3rd down, but he's throwing 40 yard bombs.... diverse skill sets are useful.

by BDC (not verified) :: Sat, 03/15/2008 - 1:31am

20: You meant that as a joke, right?

by TomHat (not verified) :: Sat, 03/15/2008 - 6:06pm

22- Well i dont totally agree. First, the example given, player A is much better because player A has so many more sacks, so lets make it more simple. Lets say they both have the same number of sacks, but player A only used 1 move to get it...

The real important thing here is which player would be better in the playoffs? (the way to determine this is to determine which player is more likely to do better against a better on average player). The case for player B being better is that player A is simply overpowering the OL, and once he meets someone stronger than him, he is done, but I actually think the opposite. A good OL will know all the tricks, and player B will get shut down because the OL will be able to simply overpower him, whereas a turnstyle OL, or a rookie OL might get tricked by him. Honestly this entire argument feels like a silly traditionalist argument. Im sure it can be figured out by variance statistics, so none of us really *know* which one would be better.

Now I think the purpose behind the article is not to necessarily say that the older guys are better in the sense that we are thinking (which one would you want on your team?), it really is...which one is better because of practice? I mean, player A would be the "natural skill", the guy who is bigger faster and stronger than everyone else. Player B would be the "passion for the game", practices all day nerdy bastard that traditionalists eat up (think David Eckstein. "I must be good because I practice BUNTING a lot") It all reminds me of baseball. a 5 tool player is not necessarily better than a 1 tool player. I mean, if they get the same number of sacks, they are just as good, just one of them is getting them in the more "well rounded" way.

(by the way, I think player B is wayyyyyyyy cooler.)

by Sebastian the Ibis (not verified) :: Sat, 03/15/2008 - 11:41pm

RE: 1 - Click my name for Reggie White's club/bull rush move, it is about 20 seconds in.

RE: 20 - You should take a look at this too, to see what a real pass rusher can do. This is pre-Brady so most pats fans probably have not seen it.

by Or (not verified) :: Sun, 03/16/2008 - 2:30am

Ware can do some pretty scary things when the ^&*( hits the fan. During the very end of the game against Detroit earlier this year, a stop was absolutely imperative. It was 3rd and 8, I believe, and the Cowboys hadn't registered a sack all game. The rusher who's said to be all physical ferocity and no finesse pulled off one of the most perfect spin moves I've ever seen and forced Kitna into a throwaway.

by JeffD (not verified) :: Sun, 03/16/2008 - 2:56pm


I am of the opposite opinion. I think that player A could me nutralized easily by scheme with moving the pocket or help ie RB chipping. Not to mention that if a player knows what is comming they can prepare and practice it. With player B being equal to A in sacks his moves are just as effective but he has more of them making him much harder to counter. If chipping starts to slow him down he would have the option of changing rush moves and countering the counter being disruptive once again. This would also make it harder to scheme agains him so the team would have to spend more time practicing a multitude of counters and less on other areas.

by Jesus (not verified) :: Mon, 03/17/2008 - 8:45am

I hate to say it... but I still think Gastinaeu was the fiercest pass rusher of all... he had a combination of speed & power that I don't remember seeing since ...

by ian (not verified) :: Mon, 03/17/2008 - 2:13pm

reggie white was truly an amazing pass rusher. but his real gift was as a statesman and orator. his speeches inspired me to see how many people i could stuff into one house and whether i could turn a tv into a watch

by Kellerman (not verified) :: Tue, 03/18/2008 - 6:12pm

I always liked Jumpy Geathers and his "forklift" move.