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20 Nov 2014

Film Room: Rams Pass Rush

by Cian Fahey

Based on early results, it looks like the 2014 NFL draft class is going to be a good one.

While most of the focus has been on the starring wide receivers and faltering quarterbacks, this year's class has also produced a number of outstanding defenders. It's easy to discount the value of Khalil Mack because he only has one sack and the Oakland Raiders are still winless, but he has been consistently disruptive and disciplined this year. Anthony Barr's statistics stand out more, as Mike Zimmer and the Minnesota Vikings have found the perfect way to show off his athleticism. Fellow linebacker C.J. Mosley is a more understated type of athlete, but his consistency and versatility has made him a potential Defensive Rookie of the Year in Baltimore.

Of the rookies drafted on the defensive side, No. 1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney comes with the highest expectations because of his talent and his landing spot. Together, Clowney and 2011 first-rounder J.J. Watt together should prove to be a dominant duo moving forward. Clowney's early impact has been hampered by his health, though, opening the door for another combination of first-round picks from 2011 and 2014 to become the best pass rushing duo in the NFL.

Aaron Donald fell to the 13th overall pick of the 2014 draft, largely because of his size. Donald is just 6-foot-1 and 285 pounds. At those dimensions, without great length, he was never going to be a favorite of scouts. Robert Quinn dropped one pick further than Donald when he was coming out during the 2011 draft. Quinn didn't have size concerns, but rather medical and off-field concerns. Quinn had a benign brain tumor removed from his head while in high school, and was suspended for his final season in college.

If you haven't noticed, none of those negatives are specific football traits. Both Quinn and Donald are outstanding football players. Quinn has taken time to develop, while Donald has adapted to the NFL as well as any rookie in recent times.

When Donald was added to a Rams defensive line that already boasted Quinn, Michael Brockers, Chris Long, Kendall Langford, Eugene Sims, and William Hayes, the Rams defense appeared set to take a huge step forward. Donald's skill set suggested that he could be the perfect complementary defensive tackle to Brockers on the inside. Brockers is a much bigger body who excels more against the run than he does as a penetrating pass rusher.

Yet, when the season started, the Rams not only struggled as a whole defense, the defensive line set a record for futility rushing the passer.

The Rams registered just one official sack during their first five games of the season, something no other team through history had done. This happened for many reasons, but some were more significant than the rest. Firstly, Donald wasn't being heavily featured in the rotation during the first couple weeks of the season. The Rams were easing him into a greater role. While Donald was only a bit-part player, starting defensive end Chris Long was sidelined through injury after Week 1. He hasn't returned to the field yet. Quinn was dealing with some questionable officiating calls, as well as an overall dip in effectiveness. As Peyton Manning learned this past week, that dip in form was definitely only temporary.

Manning and the Denver Broncos offense scored just seven points against the Rams. The 38-year-old quarterback completed 34 of 54 passes for 389 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. He was sacked just two times and Quinn didn't register a tackle, never mind a sack. The pass rusher did have three pass deflections, but much more importantly, he was consistently beating left tackle Ryan Clady to disrupt Manning in the pocket. Manning was often forced to act more quickly than he wanted to and, as such, he played one of the worst games he has in recent memory.

Manning is used to covering up the poor play of his offensive line, but without Emmanuel Sanders and Julius Thomas, this became much more difficult. While Manning was able to throw for 389 yards, that yardage wasn't turned into points because the Rams' pressure turned key plays in the favor of the defense. Furthermore, Manning's numbers were bloated by the starting field position and number of drives that the Broncos had. Excluding kneeldowns, the Broncos had 12 drives. Only two of those drives started passed the 20-yard line, and four began at or behind the 15-yard line.

On the very first snap of the game, the Rams' pressure was evident.

The Broncos initially line up Julius Thomas (80) to Quinn's side of the field. Thomas is in good position to support Clady (78) and lessen the impact of Quinn's initial burst at the snap. However, at the snap, Quinn (94) is aggressive with his burst, surpassing Clady's outside shoulder, while Thomas moves across the formation to the other side of the field. It's important to note that Quinn and Donald (99) line up on the same side of the defensive line on this play, and both players immediately get outside of their blockers at the snap. Quinn beats Clady clean with his burst, while Donald is quick enough and smart enough with his hands to beat Orlando Franklin (74). Franklin is a former offensive tackle who should have more athleticism than your average starting left guard. Donald's role is important here because he draws the extra blocker, the running back coming across the formation. With Donald drawing the double-team, Quinn is left alone in space against Clady.

Once level with Clady down the field, Quinn wastes no time in dipping underneath the offensive tackle to bend the edge towards Manning in the pocket. Quinn's athleticism on this play is phenomenal because not only does he use his initial burst to establish a good position, but he then uses his balance and strength to fend off Clady while working towards the quarterback. It's this kind of well-rounded pass rushing ability that allows Quinn to beat even the more talented offensive tackles in the NFL on a consistent basis.

Neither Quinn nor Donald get to Manning, but they do move him off his spot and force him to throw the ball before he wants to. Manning has no chance of completing the pass he wants to complete, the deep comeback down the left sideline, so he is forced to just throw the ball away.

In this game, the Broncos did their best work throwing the ball down the field. They were unable to call those plays aggressively because this kind of pressure was consistently applied to Manning in the pocket. Therefore, even though Quinn wasn't getting sacks, he and Donald had a major positive impact on this game. In this game specifically, Quinn stood out much more often than Donald.

As with most offensive linemen who were high draft picks, Clady is often an overrated player. He is a physically gifted talent who has shown plenty of pass blocking ability in the past, but his consistency and overall ability have not been worthy of a top-five player at his position. Instead, Clady is an above-average player who can dominate lesser pass rushers but will struggle a lot with talented pass rushers such as Quinn. In this game, Clady trod a very fine line between legal and illegal use of his hands. He got away with it throughout the game, as officials continued to overlook plays when Quinn was blatantly being held.

Donald was relatively quiet in this game, save for wrapping up Manning for a sack in the fourth quarter after Quinn failed to bring him down. That hasn't been the norm for him this season.

Donald is, rightfully, celebrated for his exceptional pass rushing skill set. However, like Bengals lineman Geno Atkins, his (relatively) small size doesn't prevent him from being an effective all-around defensive tackle. He has a large number of tackles for loss this season because of his ability to penetrate the backfield against the run. On this play against the Arizona Cardinals, Donald is able to expertly break through a double-team attempt from the Cardinals offensive linemen with very quick hands and significant strength. Once he has beaten one of the blockers, he has the speed to blow past the other and meet the runner in the backfield for a 4-yard loss.

Sharing physical traits and dimensions with an all-pro talent such as Atkins is one thing, but the technical ability and comfort that Donald shows off is what made him a special prospect.

Atkins was a fourth-round pick who played sparingly during his rookie season. He spent most of his early career developing into the superstar he would eventually become. Donald was taken in the first round because of his more advanced technical ability. He is making plays against double-teams and penetrating the pocket in one-on-one situations. He is demonstrating less consistency than Atkins did during his best season, but he is showing off the same level of ability in different situations. Atkins can beat double-teams to get to the quarterback or find his way to the running back against extra attention. That isn't something your average NFL defensive lineman can do.

Donald is just 23 years of age. Quinn is 24, and Michael Brockers is 23. Chris Long is the old man of the starting lineup, and he is only 29 years of age, which is relatively young in the grand scheme of things. With Donald's quick transition to NFL caliber play, this group has the potential to be a dominant force for the St. Louis Rams for the next decade or so. Donald and Quinn will likely be the focal points; Brockers only needs to be above average, and Long will eventually need to be replaced, but that shouldn't be too difficult with the other pieces already in place.

Both Quinn and Donald are likely going to be overshadowed by two Texans from their respective draft classes over the coming seasons, but that doesn't mean that they won't form a frightening pass rushing duo.

Posted by: Cian Fahey on 20 Nov 2014

2 comments, Last at 20 Nov 2014, 8:03pm by bravehoptoad


by jtr :: Thu, 11/20/2014 - 2:06pm

Was there something physically wrong with Quinn earlier this year? I haven't watched too much of the Rams this year, but in their first matchup against the 49ers it seemed like Staley was kicking his ass. I don't think Staley is a shut-down left tackle, but Quinn made him look like one that game.

by bravehoptoad :: Thu, 11/20/2014 - 8:03pm

Quinn's never had any success against Staley. The guy's just got his number.

This year has been Staley's worst since he was a rookie, but last year and the few before that I'd say he was indeed a shut-down left tackle.