Word of Muth: Stopping Pass-Rush Moves

Word of Muth: Stopping Pass-Rush Moves
Word of Muth: Stopping Pass-Rush Moves
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Ben Muth

In the offseason I have a little more freedom to deviate from the standard game breakdowns you see here during the regular season. There aren’t new games to cover every week, so I have a chance to cover whatever interests me at the moment. So when I was looking at free agent tackles and saw Dwight Freeney beat Jake Long with a spin move, I thought that could make for the foundation of an interesting column. I wanted to look at a few different pass-rush moves and how they beat offensive linemen.

Now, since this column is ultimately about offensive line play and I sat in hundreds of hours of offensive line meetings versus zero hours of defensive line meetings, this piece will be more about blocking these moves than winning with them. But I’ll try to offer as much insight as I can as to what the defensive player is coached to do and why.

The first move I want to look at is something called a long- or straight-arm. It’s a simple-but-effective move that defenders probably don’t use enough. The basic idea is to turn your shoulders perpendicular to the blockers' shoulders, and stab the middle of his chest with your inside arm fully extended.

J.J. Watt probably uses this move better than anyone right now, so I watched the Week 17 Texans game to get a good picture of it. As I was watching the game, waiting for Watt to use the move, his teammate Connor Barwin pulled off a textbook long-arm and drew a holding penalty. So, let’s take a look at the new Eagle in action.

You can see the rush starts pretty normally. Not a great get-off by Barwin, and Colts tackle Anthony Castonzo is in good position. Then, right at the point of contact, Barwin turns his shoulders straight upfield and stabs Castonzo between the numbers with his inside arm. From there, he wants to use that hand like a pivot so he can flip his hips around the blocker and towards the quarterback. The key as a rusher is to make sure you get your shoulders turned.

By turning his shoulders, Barwin has made himself as small a target as possible for Castonzo. Barwin isn’t a little guy, but if all you have to punch is the very edge of his shoulder pad, you’re left trying to hit a seven-inch-wide moving target.

The other thing Barwin accomplishes by turning his shoulders is taking away Castonzo’s length advantage. As a first-round tackle, I can almost guarantee that Castonzo has longer arms than Barwin. But if Barwin is reaching straight out to his side with one arm, and Castonzo is reaching straight ahead with two, Barwin is playing longer. In the second part of the picture, Castonzo can’t reach Barwin’s frame. That’s what makes this move so tough. You’re trying to pass block someone that you can’t reach.

Castonzo has to get Barwin’s hand off the middle of his chest. It’s tougher than it sounds because it’s a role reversal. As an offensive lineman, you work a ton on not getting your hands knocked down when you punch, and replacing them as quickly as possible if you do. You aren’t used to being the one who has to knock the defender’s hands down.

Once someone lands square in your chest like this, there isn’t a ton you can do. Since Castonzo still has decent width in frames 2 and 3, his best chance would be to turn and try to shotput Barwin up the field as far as possible. He has to hope that he can push Barwin by the quarterback and go gather him up there. Castonzo doesn’t do that, though.

Castonzo tries to trap-and-snatch Barwin. That means he brings his arms down in a clubbing motion on to Barwin’s arm. The goal is to collapse the rusher’s arm and force him to fall forward into the ground or into your body space, where you can smother him. Snatching can be particularly effective against bullrushes.

But here it actually aids Barwin. By snatching right as Barwin is starting to flip his hips, Castonzo actually slingshots Barwin around and closer to Andrew Luck. The snatch actually does what it’s supposed to in the sense that it pulls Barwin off-balance and makes him fall forward, but since it also brought his hips around, Barwin is between Castonzo and Luck. So when Barwin does fall on his face, it looks like it is because Castonzo is holding the hell out of him. Which he was. But it wouldn’t look that way to the referee, which is all that matters, if Castonzo was between the rusher and the quarterback.

The next game I wanted to look at keeps us in Lucas Oil Stadium but takes us back to the Week 9 game between the Colts and Dolphins. This is the game I referenced earlier, where Freeney beat Long. I was tempted to just re-use the images, but in an effort to provide only the freshest content, I decided to use a move from Freeney's longtime teammate Robert Mathis.

Freeney and Mathis have both had a lot of success for a long time with one signature move; they just happen to have different signature moves. For Freeney, it’s his spin move; for Mathis, it’s a simple dip-and-rip move. I could (and I’m going to) explain it, but it’s always better to show you what I'm talking about first.

It starts with a great get-off. I go back and forth on just how important get-off is for pass rushers. In the end, I think it’s like straight-line speed for offensive skill players. You definitely need to be above a basic threshold, but after that there are only a handful of guys that are so quick that their speed changes the game. For edge rushers I’m thinking about guys like Von Miller, and for skill guys I’m thinking about Chris Johnson and Mike Wallace. Most NFL players fall in the meaty part of the curve where you’re quick enough to keep the opponent honest, but not quick enough to terrify anybody.

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Anyway, Mathis gets a good get-off and Dolphins tackle Jonathan Martin is a step behind when he goes to punch. It’s a bad position to be in, but not quite disastrous yet. He still has a chance to run Mathis by Ryan Tannehill.

A lot of rushers would see the clear path Mathis has to the quarterback in the second frame and turn on the jets to try to get there. It could work, but if Martin lands a decent punch, he’ll send Mathis flying by Tannehill as nothing more than a slight tower buzz. Mathis, being a crafty veteran, knows that, so he uses a move even though he seemingly has Martin beat.

All he does is dip his shoulder right as he starts to try to turn the corner. He drops his hips and inside arm like he’s trying to rip up some grass (or turf I guess). What that does is remove any surface area for Martin to punch. Just like when Barwin turned his shoulders perpendicular on the first play we looked at, Mathis’ goal is to minimize the lineman’s punch target. When Martin goes to try to shove Mathis by, he ends up with nothing but air.

Also notice the body lean Mathis has as he comes around the corner. The goal is to bend that edge as tight as possible to the tackle without getting blocked. One way they teach defensive linemen how to get used to bending that corner is to send them around giant hoops made out of PVC pipe.

From there, Mathis just has to rip through with that inside arm and finish to the quarterback. The rip actually accomplishes two things. First, it keeps you from falling over. You can only run full speed for so long at the angle necessary for a good dip move, so the rip helps straighten you up and finish to the quarterback. Second, it can also knock the tackle’s hands off you if he does happen to land his punch.

The best way to stop this move is to get a better initial kick, so you’re not behind the whole play. Here, Martin seemed a half-step late off the ball (probably due to crowd noise in the dome) and couldn’t recover. Even if you are in good position it’s a tough move to stop, but the key is that when you start to see the defender's shoulder dip (and notice you can tell Mathis is dipping in the second frame, but he doesn’t really get low until the third) you punch down, and not out.

If you punch out, the defender's body lean is so severe that you won’t really knock him off-course, you’ll just knock him upright. Then the defender can rip through and finish to the quarterback. But, if you land a punch with downward force, he can’t keep his balance and he falls straight down.

The other way to stop this move is to just fall on the defender and smother him like a grenade. That can be plenty effective too. It’s just that if you miss, you look like a fat, unathletic, toad.

I cut off the end of the play, but I think you can see where it’s going. It ends with Tannehill in the turf while Mathis does a dance for doing what he gets paid millions of dollars do.

I’m going to run this column back next week with a swim move from Watt, a hesitation move from Miller, and Jason Pierre-Paul using the best pass-rush move in any defender's arsenal. Until then, be sure to follow me on Twitter.


30 comments, Last at 22 Mar 2013, 6:29pm

#1 by theslothook // Mar 21, 2013 - 3:22pm

Simply remarkable stuff. Ben, I imagine you could eventually land a job in college if not the nfl teaching this stuff.

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#2 by Independent George // Mar 21, 2013 - 3:33pm

The footage probably isn't available, but I'd love to see Ben do a series breaking down some of the all-time greats on both sides of the line. It was illegal by the time he played, but I'd love to know how one is theoretically supposed to defend against the head-slap.

As a philosophical matter, is it generally better for a pass-rusher to be a specialist, or a generalist? I'm thinking about Strahan, who's said in numerous interviews that he really only developed two moves in his fourteen-year career: the bull rush, and the fake bull rush. On the other hand, while Reggie White and Lawrence Taylor had their favorites, they were known for developing different moves based on the lineman they matched up against.

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#3 by Ben Muth // Mar 21, 2013 - 3:40pm

Depends on what type of physical gifts you have. Dwight Freeney really only has two "moves". A spin move, and a double spin move. But he also was quick enough to just run around you (not really a move) and because you were so worried about his moves he could surprise you with a bull rush (also not really a move). Other guy do more, Chris' Long and Clemons and JJ Watt all come to mind as guys I've seen throw a lot of different stuff.

Personally, if I have any one dominant physical trait (strength, length, speed) I'd rather have 1 great move and a decent counter to it, than 4-5 average ones.

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#5 by theslothook // Mar 21, 2013 - 4:07pm

This might be a silly obvious question but: Is it harder for an LT to defend a standing edge rusher from a 3-4 or hybrid 4-3 than a standard 4-3 hand in the dirt defensive end? Think Aldon Smith versus Jared Allen.

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#8 by IrishBarrister // Mar 21, 2013 - 6:35pm

It really depends on the athletic traits and moves of the defender versus your own. Standing edge rushers tend to be quicker and tend to take greater outside angles as compared to their three-point stance counterparts, so you have to be more prepared for speed rush, delay, and extended arm moves. It helps to have a great kick step against these guys. "True" DEs tend to make a lot more physical contact with you, using more bull rushes, dips, and swim moves, so having quicker, stronger hands is of greater importance. Of course, this is just a generalization, and some DEs have good spin moves and some standing pass rushers have great dip moves. As I only played LT in high school, however (and felt no shame falling on defenders who used dip moves), you may want to take my opinion with a grain of salt.

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#10 by theslothook // Mar 21, 2013 - 7:09pm

That;s true...but it just feels like you can do more schematically with standing edge rushers than you can with 3 point stance rushers. The 49ers use that T T stunt to great effect - and for years the jets have been getting away with mediocre pass rush through creative blitzes. By contrast, it feels like most of the time, the vikings just ask jared allen to go win his matchup every week. of course he does mostly, but it does make me wonder what would happen if allen were to be used more creatively.

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#20 by IrishBarrister // Mar 22, 2013 - 2:30pm

It seems you are expanding your inquiry. If your question is: "Is it easier to block a standing edge-rusher or a down DE?" then the answer is "it depends." But your question seems to be: "Is it easier to pass protect against a 3-4 or 3-4/4-3 hybrid front or a standard 4-3?" then I would have to say that a 4-3 is definitely easier.

The reason that San Francisco's stunts are so effective is because of guys like Justin Smith, who is just phenomenal at "holding" the guard (its of borderline legality) and taking up two blockers while Aldon Smith loops through the open gap. Its not so much a "scheme" thing as Justin Smith being a great athlete.

Rex Ryan (no matter where he is) gets pressure by understanding how to make life difficult for an offensive lineman. Even some simple blitzes out of the 3-4 can be difficult for a LT. A four-man rush with the backside OLB blitzing, requires learning how to take the right angle to the OLB (depending on his get off) while not dropping back vertically so quickly that you put the LG in a difficult spot to take the DE (maybe if you have an All-State guard this isn't a problem, but the guy to might right did not have the quickest feet). Sounds easy on paper, but is quite difficult to do both practice. Rex also likes to throw overload blitzes as well, with the DE over the tackle slanting inside, and the ILB and OLB blitzing on the same side just around the tackle. Since the guard will take the DE, the tackle will take generally the ILB (depending on the angle), and the RB must take the OLB; but RBs (as much as I love 'em) are rarely good pass blockers.

I think that's why more teams are switching to 3-4 schemes.

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#21 by theslothook // Mar 22, 2013 - 2:59pm

See these are the sort of questions that I think about and the answers make sense. That said...the question of feasibility comes to mind. To me, it all went back to something I read when two football historians(i wanna say it was Dr.z and Ron Wolfe) were comparing the two best pass rushers they had seen(deacon jones and LT). They both agreed deacon was the better pass rusher because his competition was always the left tackle while LT often got matched against tight ends and rbs.

What I wish I had asked them or really any team was - well the why hell run a 4-3 anymore? Why hasn't the evolution to the 3-4 happened sooner? On top of that, finding a 3-4 attack outside linebacker feels much easier to find than a true 4-3 de end.

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#22 by Aaron Brooks G… // Mar 22, 2013 - 3:21pm

It's easier finding 4-3 DTs than a 3-4 NT, and your run defense needs a 3-4 NT.

Also, it's not like you can't run schematically complex plays out of a 4-3. It's just most teams don't.

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#25 by RobertM (not verified) // Mar 22, 2013 - 4:50pm

Availability of different types of athlete can change, too. My memory of the proliferation of the 3-4 look in the 1980s was that teams were having a hard time finding enough good d-linemen to run a 4-3.
Good article, Ben. Looking forward to part 2.

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#23 by Karl Cuba // Mar 22, 2013 - 3:50pm

The best defense in the game by FO's stats was Chigago's 4-3.

Both schemes have needs that are hard to fill, the 3-4 nose is an often cited example but to really run the scheme you also need 5 technique ends that can two gap against the run while being able to get pressure against the pass. I also think it's going to become increasingly difficult to find inside linebackers who can bust up a guard while running with a tailback or tight end, as the rise of spread concepts is just going to make coverage more important.

That might be where the 4-3 will find an edge moving forwards, it's much easier to defend the run behind a four man line which will allow smaller, fleeter linebackers who can shut down the underneath passing game. Their downside is the absolute requirement of having down linemen who can win consistently in both phases.

I've thought for a while that the next big thing in defense will be the increased use of 2-4-5 packages like those deployed in Green Bay. If you recall the Patriots (nearly) all conquering offense in 2007, it took half a season for a defensive coordinator to come up with a plan that remotely slowed them down and it was the late Jimmy Johnson who deployed a big tackle, a hybrid tackle end, a speed rush end and a rush linebacker in a four man line which allowed him to alternate between a four man rush, zone dogs and his beloved double a-gap pressure packages. I'd like to see more teams using that aggressive deployment of speed to try to disrupt the spread of the spread.

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#24 by theslothook // Mar 22, 2013 - 4:20pm

That might make sense...but to be honest, I'm not quite sure you need a 5 tech to be effective. The cowboys for years relied on their superstar edge rusher. Ditto for the steelers, for the broncos(who run a hybrid) and even other teams that feature standing edge rushers. The 5 tech of course is the difference maker, but I don't think its an absolute necessity the way a 4-3 pass rushing team HAS to have a great 4-3 end to make it work.

Btw- the bears were the best pass defense but that could have been a major function of their coverage players too.

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#26 by IrishBarrister // Mar 22, 2013 - 5:21pm

I think you've gone down the rabbit hole and are trying to convince yourself that the 3-4 or some variant is always the best option. This is simply not true, or at least not true in a universal sense.

Determining the best defensive formation for a team is like asking different people to pick the “best” car. Mario Andretti may select a Ferrari; a college student may choose a Volkswagen Beetle; a family of six a mini-van. A Minnesotan’s choice will doubtless have four-wheel drive; a Floridian’s might well be a convertible. The choices would turn on how the decisionmaker weighed competing priorities such as cost, mileage, safety, cargo space, speed, handling, and so on. So too for defenses.

An aggressive coach with large, physical players may opt for a 3-4; the same coach with smaller, quicker players may opt for a 3-3-5. A coach focused on fundamentals would doubtless choose a 4-3. A team concerned with the spread might choose a 4-2-5. Coaches might make different choices based on their personnel, playbook installation time, opponents, and their own personality.

At the end of the day, its about putting the players you do have in the best position to succeed. For the Bears and Seahawks, that was a 4-3. For the Texans, it was the 5-2. For the Niners and Broncos, it was a 3-4/4-3 hybrid. Understanding why different systems work better for certain personnel groupings is what is critical.

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#28 by Karl Cuba // Mar 22, 2013 - 5:36pm

What you say is true and a good coach will always adapt to put his players in the best position to succeed. However, a general manager might well have to think about what is the best way to deploy his limited resources.

The Patriots move away from a rigid 3-4 has been interpreted as having been done for those reasons (though personally, I can't work out quite what they do on defense). I have always admired the cover two because by basing their coverage on zone they have mitigated the need to spend their resources chasing after corners with the speed to lock up with any type of receiver in man coverage. Tampa 2 teams were further helped by being able to target 260 lbs edge rushers that can't cover and 290 lbs defensive tackles that can't anchor against the run, guys that conventional 4-3s and 3-4s have no use for.

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#29 by theslothook // Mar 22, 2013 - 6:25pm

I'm not doing that at all. I am merely pondering things in an open ended sort of way. And no, I don't think there is a once size fits all, but I also don't think football is quite as every has a niche and should stick there. We've definitely seen trends evolve where if teams are stuck in the old ways, they lose. A great example of this is the shotgun - but its also been manifested with tight end evolution, screen game evolution, and I would say the short passing game in general. Where once no huddle was entirely run by Manning, we're seeing a number of teams trying it now. Some(NE) run a speed no huddle that will also probably be mimicked.

As for pass rush - Yes, I don't want to make it sound like every team should switch to the 3-4, but I did want to raise the point of asking - the object of pass rush is to get pressure with as few people as possible.

Id rather ask it this way. Say you're starting from scratch - you really have no talent at all and you want to build your defense. What would be the most optimal way? Obviously get talented players but that is somewhat out of your control. So focus on what you can control? Thats why I ask questions like - is it harder to find players to make a 4-3 work versus a 3-4? Is the 3-4 better than the 4-3 at pass rushing once you find decent players? Etc etc. And i think the answer is sort of being born out in front of us. About 10 years ago, the league was predominantly 4-3. Now there are a slew of teams that run 3-4(of some variation), but plenty of teams that run hybrids - like the broncos and the seahawks and even the patriots.

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#27 by Karl Cuba // Mar 22, 2013 - 5:30pm

Well the Cowboys had DeMarcus Ware and any plan that starts with 'we just need to get a player like DeMarcus Ware', is probably not going to work for most teams. As for the Steelers, for years the unsung hero of that defense was Aaron smith, who would ship in with eight sacks, providing the inside pressure that prevented qbs from stepping up away from all of those linebackers, who were replaced much more frequently. You don't NEED that guy but it makes it much easier to get production from the other players.

(I have a pet theory that it's getting the third pass rush threat that makes a pass rush great because most pass plays have four men releasing on a route, leaving six men to block for the qb. That means that if you execute then you can give extra help against two pass rushers on a four man rush and still run your offense but you can't help three guys without making some major changes to you offensive scheme.)

Re the Btw: Of course, you're not going to have a great defense without several very good players.

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#30 by theslothook // Mar 22, 2013 - 6:29pm

No i mean, I get all that. And yeah, Aaron smith was the unsung hero on that line. Let me put it this way - and again this purely my conjecture - for a 4-3 pass rush defense to work - it is a necessary but not sufficient condition to have an elite two down 4-3 end. For 3-4 it is not a necessary condition to have a 5 tech 3-4 end. And as the jets seemed to display at times, its not even a necessary condition to have an elite 3-4 edge rusher.

I also want to ask - which type of player does it feel harder to find - a jared allen/julius peppers type - or an aldon smith, von miller, cameron wake type? I honestly don't have any definitive evidence to claim one way or the other, just conjecture.

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#7 by Bobman // Mar 21, 2013 - 6:12pm

Ben, Halfway through your comment above I was about to disagree with you, because I have seen Freeney bull rush very effectively. I wondered if it was considered a move. And then as I read on you gave two great qualifiers--his bull rush probably worked so well because of his spins and... it's not "really" a move anyway. I loved watching him and Mathis.

This was a super, super piece which I plan to cram down my 12 year-old son's throat until he's coughing up QBs. At his his post-season team party, the coach reviewed each kid's season; about my son, he said "he must have had 650 sacks for us." Well, more like 5... but at that evel, teams only pass 5-10 times a game anyway.

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#4 by DEW (not verified) // Mar 21, 2013 - 3:45pm

Another great column. The subtleties of line play are something that just doesn't get the kind of coverage it ought, which is why this column is one I always look forward to.

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#6 by RickD // Mar 21, 2013 - 4:24pm

Hear, hear!

FO should appreciate Ben because at some point one of the networks is going to grab him. You would think that the NFL Network would hire a few position specialists to explain fundamentals like this.

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#17 by turbohappy // Mar 22, 2013 - 12:06am

My favorite column by far every week, just great stuff.

After watching at least a little film here, what do you think of Castonzo? How can he seem so athletic and strong in the run game and so yet so slow and weak in the pass game?

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#11 by CBPodge // Mar 21, 2013 - 7:40pm

So Ben. I've managed to get into a situation where I have to pass rush against you. I've got one snap, and I have to get a sack. What move should I use on you?

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#12 by Ben Muth // Mar 21, 2013 - 7:51pm

Bull-rush to snatch. Never could anchor, so if someone bull-rushed I had to go all in to stop it. If they tried to snatch me down right after, I'd fall on my face every time.

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#14 by LionInAZ // Mar 21, 2013 - 11:12pm

How much was Jonathan Martin hinder by the fact that he had #80 (a TE I assume) between him and Mathis? It looked to me that Mathis was lined up way outside the TE.

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#15 by Ben Muth // Mar 21, 2013 - 11:27pm

Not much, it was more that he was late off the ball. Blocking wide rushers is tougher (hence teams running wide-9s even though it kills your run defense) but as a tackle it's pretty common in today's game.

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#16 by Grae // Mar 22, 2013 - 12:02am

Good stuff, fun to see these plays and the pass rush moves broken down.

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#18 by David T (not verified) // Mar 22, 2013 - 9:50am

Another sensational column.

As I was reading it, I was really hoping it would be at least twice as long: Show one example of the defensive move working, and one example of the move failing because of good offensive lineman play. Oh well, I'll take a great column and be grateful for it.

Great work, Ben.

Points: 0

#19 by bravehoptoad // Mar 22, 2013 - 1:53pm

My favorite of your columns so far.

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