Under Pressure: Getting Deep with DPOY

Under Pressure: Getting Deep with DPOY
Under Pressure: Getting Deep with DPOY
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

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.

Aldon Smith

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
Inside 5
Loop 4
QB holds ball 4
Bull rush 3.5
Speed rush 1
Left unblocked 1
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

J.J. Watt Sack Breakdown
Rips past OL 5.5
Bull rush 3
Speed rush 2.5
Confusion 2
Cleans up another's help 1
Inside move 1
QB holds ball 1
Spin move 0.5

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

Von Miller Sack Breakdown
Speed rush 7
QB holds ball 4
Loop 2
Inside move 1
Bull rush 1
Left unblocked 1

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)
Team Player Quick Sacks
MIA Cameron Wake 8
SF Aldon Smith 8
STL Robert Quinn 7
ATL John Abraham 6
SF Ahmad Brooks 5
BUF Mario Williams 5
DEN Von Miller 5
SD Shaun Phillips 4
SEA Bruce Irvin 3.5
TEN Akeem Ayers 3
TB Gerald McCoy 3
IND Robert Mathis 3
HOU J.J. Watt 3
DAL Anthony Spencer 3
TB Michael Bennett 3
MIN Jared Allen 3
ARI Daryl Washington 3

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, 4:01am

#1 by Karl Cuba // Dec 14, 2012 - 2:32pm

I posted this the other day on this week's scramble but it might play better here.

Von Miller reminds me of a cross between Greg Lloyd and Derrick Thomas, JJ Watt could well be the second coming of Doug Atkins but I find it pretty difficult to arrive at a comparison for Aldon Smith. For most 260 lbs end backer types their calling card is their ability to fire up field and use speed to beat the tackle to the quarterback. Smith just doesn't have that burst, he's no slouch but I'd be surprised if he has more than five or six of his career sacks from a speed rush. He's anomalous, he is a 260 pound strength and technique rusher and I can't think of a comparable example.

In the column it is questioned whether Watt batting down so many passes is due to luck. I don't think so, he's probably in the midst of a hot streak but he'll probably always bat a lot of passes. While there is an element that is due to luck, not to mention substantially beyond his control (ie where the qb is throwing the ball), he has said that a pass rusher knows early on in a play if he is going to whip his man and get to the quarterback and if he think's he's out of the play he watches the qb and then tries to elevate at the right time. Add in a good vertical leap, height and long arms and you have someone who's likely to block quite a lot of passes. The Pats showed how to try to stop it, stay on his chest and don't let him get free of you. Also, if we're comparing the three, playing in the middle of the line gives him more of a chance to bat the ball than either Miller or Smith but he'd be better at it anyway. (I do think that all batted passes should be treated equally, I am totally unconvinced that there is a skill to batting the ball so that it will be picked off)

I also think it's slightly unfair to criticise Smith for not getting tackles for a loss, he does a fantastic job setting the edge for the 49ers, who lead the league in run defense DVOA, and the niners rank third in runs at left end. Basically, he's a great run defender but the niners don't get many tackles for a loss because that's not how they defend the run.

Points: 0

#2 by jimbohead // Dec 14, 2012 - 2:58pm

"I also think it's slightly unfair to criticise Smith for not getting tackles for a loss [...]"

I agree. Watching a lot of 9ers defense from the endzone cam, I see a really solid run defender who sets a hard edge and makes solid tackles, and rarely gets just washed out of the play when it comes to his side. I also see teams running to the right a whole lot more than they run to the left. Presumably, teams are relatively uninterested in trying to run through the "Smithy".

Points: 0

#3 by Sifter // Dec 14, 2012 - 10:59pm

I just loved Aldon Smith getting described as "scrawny". By that scale, Todd Pinkston would have been an emaciated, anorexic, almost cadaverous, skeleton of a man. I don't mind really, it's just I'm scrawny myself (I'm 2 inches shorter than Aldon, but 100lbs lighter) - so I love a good scrawny observation. Beanpoles unite!

Points: 0

#4 by Tyler (not verified) // Dec 15, 2012 - 1:46pm

Aldon has such a rangy, long frame and arms that he could (I think at least) put on 10-20 lbs and still not look like an enormous fella. That's where a lot of his power comes from I think, his ability to use his reach to beat offensive players who are maybe bench-press stronger, but have a hard time leveraging that power when he's got his hands on them first, similar (but not as much so as) to JJ Watts

Points: 0

#5 by ptp (not verified) // Dec 15, 2012 - 2:40pm

Any thought to Richard Sherman? Seattle's holding opposing #1 WRs to, I believe, the lowest DVOA in history. That's gotta count for something, right?

Points: 0

#6 by bill (not verified) // Dec 15, 2012 - 4:21pm

A lot of Miller's tackles for loss come on runs going the other way - he's so fast at shooting the gap and chasing the ball. I don't see anyone else having nearly the skill at doing that.

Points: 0

#7 by cisforcookie (not verified) // Dec 16, 2012 - 9:50am

so it looks like aldon smith gets almost all his sacks from misdirection and scheme, whereas j j watt gets almost all his sacks from physically abusing the opposing player. Maybe I'm a purist, but the latter just seems hugely more impressive to me. Even more so when you consider that smith is playing on the left side of two other pro bowl linebackers and next to the best 3-4 end of his generation while watt plays with basically nobody and at a position that is much less benefited by scheme.

Points: 0

#8 by Karl Cuba // Dec 16, 2012 - 11:29am

That isn't remotely reflected in the data is it? Smith gets four of his sacks running a stunt with Justin Smith, he then gets another from being unblocked. Watt gets two sacks attributed to confusion and one to cleaning up after another player. Aldon Smith has some fine players around him but Antonio Smith, Connor Barwin and Brooks Reed are also pretty good. They play in different schemes but the Texans are more aggressive, making it pretty tough to double Watt while the 49ers like to rush three on third and long, which leads to getting so many coverage sacks.

Maybe I'm a purist but I don't think there's a great deal to be said for needlessly trashing a rival with baseless accusations.

Points: 0

#12 by cisforcookie (not verified) // Dec 17, 2012 - 8:22am

let's not get ad hominem. i have no dog in this fight, being a ravens fan. given the choice between the niners and the texans, i tend to root for the niners. that being said, I do think the data reflect exactly what I'm discussing, and I think aldon smith's sack totals are more a product of his situation than we might like to reflectively thing. conversely, I think j j watt is the better case for DPOY because I think his pass rush success is less dependent on teammates and scheme and because his position makes him extra-valuable because it's so hard to find 3-4 DEs who can rush the passer while still being solid against the run. (I'm not a fan of warren sapp)

the evidence of which I speak is written plainly in the data above. Smith got 5 sacks going "inside" which to me means the OT screwed up. There doesn't appear to be any evidence that smith is actually a lightning quick rusher like dwight freeney, so I can't imagine it's because of a rational choice to overcommit for fear of having no chance. Another 4 sacks on loops are scheme sacks, though running a loop is certainly a skill. 4 more sacks are coverage sacks, also scheme sacks. 1 left unblocked, and 1 ridiculous play against richie incognito, both of which sound like offensive linemen screwing up. So that leaves only the 3.5 sacks attributed to bull rush and the 1 sack listed as a speed rush. So 4.5 sacks that sound like aldon smith abusing his opponent and 15 sacks where his opponents screwed up and he took advantage. So sue me if that doesn't sound like DPOY. Am I saying he's bad? hell no. I'm just saying I thought watt was better. If I was drafting a 3-4 defense from existing rosters, watt, justin smith, lamarr woodley, and demarcus ware would all go ahead of aldon smith. also probably von miller and cameron wake.

Points: 0

#13 by Karl Cuba // Dec 17, 2012 - 11:20am

The 'inside' sacks are him using a swim, rip or club to beat the tackle, it's not a scheme thing at all. He is an outstanding technique rusher, he uses his very long arms and big hands as well as any young pass rusher I've seen. He also deserves credit for whipping Incognito with a swim move.

He doesn't rush as much as Watt, the niners rarely send more than four and often rush three (they sent two against the Pats yesterday) which leads to some of the coverage sacks, he also has to beat left tackles, the best pass blockers on most lines.

Points: 0

#9 by Mr Shush // Dec 16, 2012 - 12:59pm

Watt's already set the all-time single season record for passes defensed by a defensive lineman, and could well set the record for a non-DB. He could also plausibly break the record for sacks by a 3-4 DE (currently held by Bruce Smith with 19). He'll probably set the all-time defeats record (for any position) and quite possibly (I would guess) the all time stops by a defensive lineman record.

Smith, meanwhile, has a very real shot at the sack record, which obviously is a bigger deal than any of the above, and causes fumbles at a much higher rate.

My suspicion is that Smith's season may actually be fractionally more valuable, but that it will be considerably easier for other players to match, nearly match or better in the future than Watt's. Value vs. historicness, if you like.

Points: 0

#11 by theslothook // Dec 17, 2012 - 4:32am


If you live in the bay area(and I assume you do) we should watch a game together

Points: 0

#17 by Charles (not verified) // Dec 17, 2012 - 7:33pm

Slightly? Are Watt's 10+ additional tackles "slightly" ahead of Smith? Maybe his 15+ PD ahead of Smith are? Or you could be referring to J.J.'s 7 additional TFLs as being "slightly" ahead... mind you, all from a hand-in-the-dirt 3-4 with nobody else on his line that commands double teams. You don't even slightly make sense.

Points: 0

#18 by Mr Shush // Dec 17, 2012 - 9:01pm

Actually, I take it back. For some reason I had it in my head that Smith had forced an awful lot more fumbles than he actually has.

Watt, incidentally, has now (I'm almost certain) set the record for sacks by a 3-4 DE. He's far less likely than people seem to think to get the overall record, though, because unless the Texans lose to the Vikings I very much doubt he'll see much time in Week 17.

Points: 0

#19 by Charles (not verified) // Dec 18, 2012 - 1:11am

He most certainly has. Bruce Smith previously held the record of 19 set in 1990, followed by Fred Dean with 17.5 in 1983. To your point, the very top 22 3-4 DEs (since 1982) have only averaged 15 sacks/year. The top 24 3-4 OLBs, on the other hand, have averaged 17.5. You'd expect Smith and Miller to have more sacks than Watt given their position... but they don't. This thing isn't (shouldn't be) even close.

Points: 0

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