Under Pressure: Blossoming Sack Artists

Under Pressure: Blossoming Sack Artists
Under Pressure: Blossoming Sack Artists
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by J.J. Cooper

A lot of familiar names populate the sack leaderboard this year. League leader Jared Allen’s 17.5 sacks are the best of his career. It's no surprise to see players like Jason Babin, DeMarcus Ware, and Terrell Suggs near the top of the leaderboard either.

But just beyond those names are some young players who are establishing themselves as pass rushers to be afraid of. Here’s a look at five young edge rushers who have emerged this year, as well as a look at what can be learned from their sack stats.

Von Miller, OLB, Denver

Coming into the 2011 draft, Miller was considered the best pass rusher available, something backed up both by NFL draft analysts and Football Outsiders' SackSEER projection, but he’s managed to exceed even those lofty expectations thus far. He's the best pass rusher on a defense that has turned Tim Tebow into a cult hero, and his 11 sacks rank seventh in the league.

Miller has very few cheap sacks this year. He’s taken less than 2.5 seconds to get to the quarterback on more than half of his sacks, and only one of his sacks took longer than three seconds. Miller isn’t picking up garbage sacks, where a quarterback takes off and runs to him -- he’s beating his man off the ball and quickly dragging down the quarterback.

Miller has not relied on any one pass-rushing move. He’s beaten double teams for sacks (a two-tight end team up by the Chiefs), used his speed (two sacks), has a nice spin move (one sack), and owns a bull rush that almost knocked Jets right tackle Wayne Hunter off his feet. His counter move back inside after showing a speed rush is also impressive, as are his loops and stunts.

Aldon Smith, OLB, San Francisco

Like Miller, Smith (10.5 sacks) has an outside shot at breaking Jevon Kearse’s NFL rookie record of 14.5 sacks. He ranks eighth in the league in sacks, and is easily first on the 49ers. Unlike Miller, he’s not an every down player yet, but as a defensive end who largely plays on passing downs, he's doing his main job: getting to the quarterback.

Smith does that very well, but what the numbers don’t show is that he’s getting more of his sacks from effort and mismatches than great pass-rushing moves. Of his 10.5 sacks, 4.5 have taken more than three seconds.

Smith’s pass-blocking victims aren’t exactly a group of A-list linemen either. He’s abused Eagles guard Kyle DeVan, Browns guard Shawn Lauvao, Lions left tackle Jeff Backus, Bears right tackle Lance Louis, Rams tackles Adam Goldberg and Thomas Welch, and Cardinals left tackle Levi Brown.

Backus is probably his highest-profile victim. Against the Detroit lineman, Smith used excellent hand-fighting to keep Backus from locking him up off the snap. From there, Smith’s superior speed allowed him to beat Backus to the corner on speed rushes for a pair of sacks. His most impressive sack was probably his domination of Goldberg with a bull rush -- he fired off straight at Goldberg, knocked him on his butt, then stepped over Goldberg’s body to pick up a sack.

There’s a lot to like in watching Smith’s game. He has a very good first step, a motor that ensures that he doesn’t give up on a play if he gets stoned at the snap, and some understanding of pass-rushing moves. However, his moves haven't been as impressive as Miller's repertoire, and as a pure pass rusher, he isn't as close to him as the sack numbers suggest.

Connor Barwin and Brooks Reed, OLBs, Houston

When Mario Williams was lost for the season in Week 5, it was supposed to gut the Texans’ pass rush. However, Barwin (and Brooks Reed) have ensured that the Texans haven’t really missed a beat without Williams.

Barwin’s 9.5 sacks are already more than Williams recorded in four of his six NFL seasons. Reed has picked up all six of his sacks since replacing the injured Williams in the starting lineup in Week 6.

Some of Reed's success has to be attributed to Wade Phillips. One of his six sacks came when he went unblocked because of confusion in handling a Texans’ blitz. Another came when he cleaned up after a safety blitz flushed the quarterback from the pocket. A third came when he properly read a play-action bootleg coming his way, which served up Josh Freeman to him on a plate.

But Reed has shown a quick first step. Barwin also primarily uses his speed -- four of his 9.5 sacks have come by beating offensive tackles to the corner. Every other sack he has this year has come when the quarterback held the ball for 3.4 seconds or more.

Aaron Maybin, OLB, New York Jets

In two seasons with the Bills, first-round pick Aaron Maybin never recorded a sack. If you’re drafted for your pass-rushing skills, that’s a pretty good sign that you’re a bust.

But since being picked up by the Jets, Maybin has six sacks in limited playing time. Was he really a bust, or was he simply misused by the Bills? The numbers may say that he was an untapped talent, but a closer look at Maybin’s sacks seems to indicate they are more a function of good coverage than great pass-rushing skills.

Of Maybin’s six sacks, only one has been recorded in less than three seconds. Three of them have taken longer than 3.5 seconds. Two of them have come on bootlegs where Maybin eventually ran down quarterbacks as they ran out of room to run at the sideline. Those are closer to sacks of opportunity than a demonstration of any real skill at rushing the passer. Maybin isn’t beating linemen head up as much as he’s working his way to sacks by simply never giving up on a play.

To his credit, when he does catch up to a quarterback, he makes things happen. On three of his six sacks, he has forced a fumble.

Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, New York Giants

Now we come to SackSEER's great embarrassment. When the Giants took Pierre-Paul in the first round in 2010, the South Florida product was considered the ultimate high-ceiling, high-risk pick. He had a strong junior year at South Florida, but that was his only season of Division I football. Even in that year, he had only 6.5 sacks. Despite what looked like freakish athleticism on tape, his measurables were only good, not great.

As a rookie, there were times where Pierre-Paul’s inexperience was on display. Despite that, he did record 4.5 sacks, which was as many as SackSEER projected for Pierre-Paul over his first five years. A year later, Pierre-Paul is among the league leaders with 12.5 sacks. Watching the sacks, Pierre-Paul’s most notable trait is his persistence.

Of his 12.5 sacks, 5.5 have come when he hit the quarterback four seconds or longer after the snap. That’s not as bad as it seems, as on three of those sacks, Pierre-Paul beat his man off the ball, flushed the quarterback, then eventually ran him down. He’s essentially creating the pressure that forces a sack, missing that initial sack, then keeping his teammates from vulturing the sack.


40 comments, Last at 30 Dec 2011, 5:46pm

2 Re: Under Pressure: Blossoming Sack Artists

Aldom Smith beating Lance Louis for a sack? But the Bears & 49ers haven't played each other this year... That being said, I can totally envision a scenario in which the Bear's O-Line gives up a sack to a team they haven't played.

4 Re: Under Pressure: Blossoming Sack Artists

I was hoping to see his name as well, but I can understand how he didn't make the cut. Seems like a lot of first-year pass rush talent is emerging this year.

Plus, McPhee's work is getting somewhat overshadowed by the overall dominance of everyone else on the line. He's been great, Kruger has (finally) emerged, Jones has been a beast, and JJ, Ngata, and of course Suggs have all been on fire as well. What I've liked most about McPhee is his consistency; he's been huge since the early preseason, and hasn't shut it off at all since. It seems like every game where he gets ~10 snaps or so results in at least one sack and several hurries. I'm looking forward to seeing him progress.

6 Re: Under Pressure: Blossoming Sack Artists

That Ravens pass rush is scary. It seems for years, their pass rush was really just Suggs ever since they let Adalius go. They could still get after the passer, but nowhere near like this.

In 2006, with the foursome of Suggs, Scott, Lewis, and Thomas, and Trevor Pryce playing insane up from the Ravens had a 61 sack season with a 9.4 asr. In 2008, it feel to 6.2, then to 5.8 in 2009 and then a low of 5.5 last season. This season it is 9.1, tops in the league, and a lot of it has to do with Kruger really taking it up a notch, and the suprising play of McPhee. Of course, Suggs playing better than ever helps, as does Ngata still being an absolute monster. Even Cory Redding is having a really nice season.

7 Re: Under Pressure: Blossoming Sack Artists

Agreed on all counts, and I'm hoping things get better as the young guys develop more. Kruger was slower than expected, but it's good to see him finally breaking loose. I'm curious what happened to Sergio Kindle, however; he's been active in only one game (that I recall) this season, and he didn't do anything. Something's odd, there.

All that said, a lot of the sack numbers have come against weak-to-average lines (notably against SF in November). Against decent lines (Tennessee, Houston), they'd get decent pressure, but few actual sacks, which leads me to suspect that some of the raw numbers we're seeing are coverage-based sacks rather than actual pressure. I don't really have any evidence of this so much as it just being a gut feeling.

One thing that bears mentioning: while the line itself deserves enormous credit, Pagano's been a huge difference over Mattison too. If the defense continues this kind of play next season, I can easily see him bouncing into a head coaching gig somewhere.

27 Re: Under Pressure: Blossoming Sack Artists

Well, yes, a skull fracture, but he's been off of the injury list all season. He was medically cleared in early preseason, I believe; it's been over a year, after all. But I'm more curious about the silence around his status. If he's cleared and not on the report, it stands to reason that he's eligible, but benched for other reasons. I'm just curious what they might be.

36 Re: Under Pressure: Blossoming Sack Artists

He's slowly working his way into the rotation. His fall hurt his hearing in one ear which is one more challenge he has to overcome. He played on defense towards the end of the Colts game, and he'll probably get more snaps if the Ravens have more comfortable leads down the stretch, but he's behind too much talent right now to see much more action this year. Right now the Ravens are really deep with pass rushers, so I'm hoping he develops into a run-stopper and he gets more snaps next year on non-passing plays.

8 Re: Under Pressure: Blossoming Sack Artists

I realize this is more about outside rushers but it would be nice to see the Bear's Henry Melton get mention as one of the best DTs this year basically out of no where.

20 Re: Under Pressure: Blossoming Sack Artists

I don't agree with you that he's been "one of the best DTs"---at least not yet. He flashes amazing ability (and remarkable savvy for a guy that was a running back a couple of years ago), but he's way too inconsistent. He was definitely part of the problem in the early-season losing streak where nobody could get to the QB and people were ripping off 50-yard runs because Bears' defenders weren't in their gaps.

26 Re: Under Pressure: Blossoming Sack Artists

Pro Football Focus has Melton rated as a top 10 pass rushing DT, but he's only average at Run D which drops him to 24th out of 84 DTs overall. There are actually a lot of good young DTs; here are PFF's top 11 pass rushing DTs:

1 Geno Atkins CIN (2nd year)
2 Cullen Jenkins PHI
3 Pernell McPhee BLT (rookie)
4 Marcell Dareus BUF (rookie)
5 Richard Seymour OAK
6 Tommy Kelly OAK
7 Ndamukong Suh DET (2nd year)
8 Jonathan Babineaux ATL
9 Kevin Williams MIN
9 Henry Melton CHI (3rd year)
11 Karl Klug TEN (rookie)

9 Re: Under Pressure: Blossoming Sack Artists

It's true that many of Maybin's sacks have been coverage/persistence sacks rather than pure wins over guy blocking him. Besides the sacks, however, Maybin has created a significant amount of pressure. As I recall, before the game against KC (who did a good job neutralizing him) Maybin was generating pressure every 6.5 rushes according to PFF. That compares favorably with the best rushers in the league. That overstates Maybin's effectiveness somewhat because he only plays on obvious passing downs and therefore can pin his ears back every time where guys like Ware that play every down often have to play the run first and then rush. But still, as a Jets fan I love what Maybin brings to the table, especially since they are paying him almost nothing.

11 Re: Under Pressure: Blossoming Sack Artists

Von Miller has been nothing short of dominant. I can't remember a defensive rookie being this dominant so early in their career. Assuming no injuries, i think we are looking at a real hall of famer.

16 Re: Under Pressure: Blossoming Sack Artists

White's "rookie" year was his third year as a pro, however. He had 11 sacks in either 16 or 18 games (I've found both and really have no idea which sources are right) in his rookie season with the USFL's Memphis Steamboats, then had 12 sacks in 18 games the next year before joining the Eagles in 1985.

24 Re: Under Pressure: Blossoming Sack Artists

I think Miller's been better than either, but both Suh and Willis looked pretty dominant as rookies, too.

As an aside, remember all the hype last year about how last year was one of those rare years where the top two picks in the draft clearly looked like the top two players in the class? It's interesting this year to see the shine come off Suh and Bradford a bit while Newton and Miller manage to look even more dominant still.

12 Re: Under Pressure: Blossoming Sack Artists

Given that we're discussing the SackSEER swing and a miss on JPP, I'm curious what's been realized in hindsight about that result and how the system could have been so off on the guy. Should there be less emphasis on things like the three-cone drill (which I seem to recall was a big reason for why the system was so low on him)?

23 Re: Under Pressure: Blossoming Sack Artists

I've been working on some improvements to SackSEER, but I've found it difficult to improve Jason Pierre-Paul's projection much without a) decreasing the overall predictive power of the model as a whole or b) being disingenuous by adding dummy variables for very Pierre-Paul-centric factors such as "had a popular YouTube video" or "has a hyphenated name."

I've spent many a solitary moment pondering how Pierre-Paul managed to exceed his projection so fantastically, and while I have come up with a number of theories, it probably has a lot to do with what tuluse mentioned: we're ultimately projecting the performance of human beings here so we'll always have some misses and Pierre-Paul did have the type of career path that sometimes gives SackSEER problems. I mean, Pierre-Paul had only one season of Division I football, and he didn't even start the whole year, which I'm sure contributed to his relatively low sack totals in what was a low sample size of games played.

Connor Barwin, on the other hand, had a very strong SackSEER projection and also had a promising rookie year. Serious injuries like the one that Barwin suffered last year can really destroy an edge rusher's career, so it is nice to see him have a sort of break out season.

Sorry JPP!

28 Re: Under Pressure: Blossoming Sack Artists

There is some evidence that situation can have a large effect on edge rusher development and productivity. As J.J. notes, Maybin did nothing with the Bills for two years, but put him together with Rex Ryan, and--bang--six sacks. Jason Babin was a non-factor for the Texans and his first stint with the Eagles, but he has since strung together double-digit sack seasons, further suggesting that prior franchises had failed to tap his potential.

Sorry JPP!

38 Re: Under Pressure: Blossoming Sack Artists

If I remember correctly, most of the combine drills SackSEER focuses on translate to having a quick first step or burst off of the line of scrimmage. From what I've seen, I don't know that they missed on JPP in that respect. I haven't seen an exceptional first step from him. His freakishly long arms appear to be his most useful athletic weapon. He also appears to have some kind of unique pass rusher pocket awareness where he hangs back and as soon as the quarterback starts moving around in the pocket, he pounces. Though I'll admit the last observation is impossible to incorporate into the projections, anecdotal, and probably inaccurate.

40 Re: Under Pressure: Blossoming Sack Artists

I just reviewed the SackSEER analysis of Aldon Smith and it appears to be further afield than JPP's. The freshman to sophomore decrease in sack productivity was most likely attributable to Aldon playing out the season with a broken leg (not mentioned in your analysis, just skittish on redshirt sophomores in general). This "toughness" characteristics won over coach Harbaugh and GM Baalke.

Now let's hope that the poor predictive record of SackSEER in Aldon's case is not impacting FO's DROY selection of Von Miller over Aldon.

I propose you compare the two rookies in a new thread.

With Aldon neck and neck with Von Miller for the DROY honors, a head to head comparison should be enlightening. However, as Aldon is also 1/2 sack from tying Javon Kearse's rookie sack record for the entire NFL, I propose to include Kearse's accomplishments in the comparison. His totals would be for the entire 1999 season. The two current rookies would be for season to date now, and refreshed again next week right after this weekend's games.

Statistical categories could/should include: sacks, QB hits, QB hurries, tackles, TFL, safeties (why aren't these included in your stats?), fumble recoveries, forced fumbles, passes defensed (batted/tipped), and interceptions/TDs (if any subject
players have one).

Then adjust key categories (ones with high counts, e.g. sacks and QB hits) by dividing the number of plays from scrimmage by the total in the category yielding plays per sack, QB hit, etc.

You could also divide plays from scrimmage by the combination of all categories yielding "plays per impact", or "plays per impact plays". These will take into account the fact that Aldon was not a starter, or every down player, making his effectiveness (or impact for time on the field) more evident. Once the numbers are laid bare it will be hard to argue that Aldon is not deserving at least to be in the conversation, and probably comes out on top, irrespective of SackSEER analysis.

15 Re: Under Pressure: Blossoming Sack Artists

Adrian Clayborn has been a lonely bright spot in the midst of Tampa's execrably bad year. 6.5 sacks and he's been in the backfield more and more as the year has gone by. Really has looked impressive and hasn't stopped pushing hard even though the season is clearly shot.

22 Re: Under Pressure: Blossoming Sack Artists

i know he has missed the past 4-5 games, but do you guys have any thoughts on carlos dunlop of the bengals? every game i see him in (when hes healthy or the game isnt blacked out) dude has been a monster, especially late in games