Under Pressure: Blossoming Sack Artists
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.