It’s always been a popular position on the field. As fans, if we aren’t watching highlight reels of long touchdown passes, it’s usually demolition jobs by the D-Line for sacks. In the draft, if it isn’t an explosive skill position player we crave, it’s a destructive edge rusher – or at least someone to stop them. So when a few visited these shores, we thought we’d find out how you create the perfect pass rush from those who know best.
Pressure up the middle
Despite the hype around defensive ends and beating Michael Strahan’s sack record of 22.5, it’s hard to do it without pressure up the middle. The difference it makes to established quarterbacks, even the greatest of all time, is stark. Tom Brady is almost human when the defence creates regular pressure up the middle, forcing him to get the ball out early and eliminating the opportunity for him to make his reads. Chicago Bears’ Akiem Hicks has the perfect summary for the importance of interior pass rush.
“If you don’t have that penetration up the middle, a quarterback has a lot more room to manoeuvre and stop the outside rush. Hopefully you’re creating enough pressure to the interior of the offence that it gives guys on the outside a chance to get there, and give the corners less time to have to cover.”
Every pass rusher has their preferred move. Mario Addison told me: “I like the long arm technique to create leverage to the lineman,” but so many moves have proved effective. It ranges from simply beating your man for speed or sheer power, to using guile and cunning. Former Cowboy and Bronco, Demarcus Ware, was known for his spin move and offensive lineman started working out a plan to protect against it. What did Ware do? He developed the infamous ‘fake spin’ move to devastating effect.
Developing secondary moves beyond your favourites is key to success as a pro. Pass rushers like Vernon Gholston and Shane Ray have been ferocious threats in college football because they can beat players with raw athletic ability but have flamed out in the NFL against bigger, stronger lineman who know how to counter their best move. In order to be a top pass rusher, you need to keep developing your skillset and be unpredictable.
Working as a team
While edge rushers get the glory and the pay cheques, ultimately it is a team effort to shut down an offence and get the quarterback to the ground. The secondary needs to jam receivers at the line and eliminate any quick pass routes, or cover for long periods of time if the play develops. Meanwhile the front seven needs to keep the QB contained in the pocket and stick to their role. In true ‘do your job, Patriot way’, rookie Chase Winovich is already showing great ability in doing this. He never rushes up beyond the QB, which would enable the QB to step up and avoid the rush.
Samson Ebukam knows the importance of the team ethos on defence, even if credit is heaped on the individual.
“Whenever you get a sack, it’s not just you doing all the work. There’s people behind you locking up wide receivers, and teammates right next to you blocking the quarterback’s vision, so it’s all a team game. Unless you’re Aaron Donald!”
Importance of the ‘Tweener’
While players need to evolve their roles to avoid being predictable, the prototype has evolved in recent years too. Michael Sam fell in the 2014 draft before being drafted by the Rams despite previously being SEC Defensive Player of the Year. Of course there were other factors at play here, but one of the reasons he fell to the end of the seventh round was being branded as a ‘tweener’, which at the time was not a desired body type for the position.
Now teams are looking for smaller, faster pass rushers and adding more players to utilise depth as a pass rushing weapon.
“It’s a game of speed. That’s why you see some pass rushers are starting to get smaller; you get a little bit quicker and a little bit faster. You need to keep everybody fresh to keep getting after them,” Ebukam says.
For him, building the prototype pass rusher is simple.
“Speed, speed, power, more speed and then more power!”
Coaching & Leadership
The focus may be on the field, but effective pass rush can be created on the sidelines too. Head coaches and DCs use creative play calling to trick the offence, attack from unexpected areas, and play to their defence’s strengths.
Samson Ebukam has the perfect situation. He has a legendary DC in Wade Phillips, who he has developed under. He also has a maverick head coach in Sean McVay. While McVay is known as an offensive mind, he plays a key role in the defence functioning too, and his contributions are not lost on Ebukam.
“You don’t see many head coaches that know both sides of the ball like he does. He comes into the meeting and teaches us how to play techniques. I’ve never seen anything like that. To retain all that is his mind like that is pretty amazing.”
If McVay’s input on technique wasn’t enough, he also has the input of “legend” Wade Phillips with the Rams, adding 40 years of coaching experience and allowing players to play fast.
“He makes it so easy for you just so you can play fast. People might think it’s complicated but it’s really easy if you just focus on your job at that one time.”
Akiem Hicks has played under Bill Belichick and Sean Payton.
Hicks says the key to them being great coaches is that they are “focused, diligent and willing to do anything to make sure their teams are successful.” From Hicks point of view, what made former DC Vic Fangio such a mastermind “[he has] football wisdom, [he’s] been around the game his entire life and just adds to whatever a defence has.”
While coaching is important to developing pass rush, you also need leadership among the players too. Oakland’s Tahir Whitehead is quick to point out that you need leadership on the field too.
“You need not only great players, but good locker room guys, good leaders.”
For Akiem Hicks, he credits the veterans he was around as a young player with the player he has become today.
“I had a great group of defensive leaders when I first came into the league. I had guys like Roman Harper, Jonathan Vilma, Jonathan Casillas, Will Smith, guys that love the game, played the game in a way which taught me.”
Another area that the coaches can make a difference is prior to the game, in meetings and identifying weaknesses in the offensive protection and identifying tendencies. Players have to look for the smallest details when it comes to a lineman’s tell.
While not relating to pass rush, when Antonio Brown was a young, secondary receiver for the Steelers, he would check his gloves were secure at the line of scrimmage if he was the primary receiver on a given play. Defences picked up on this and would know where the ball was heading when he did this. Brown and the Steelers won out though. Once it was noticed, he would start fiddling with his gloves as a decoy. This would leave the defence focusing on the wrong man, and the team able to exploit this for a big play. This is the level of detail teams and players have to get in to when searching out offensive tendencies.
This is where good pass rushers become great too.
They work hard on knowing linemen, and blocking skill position players, better than themselves. Great players will spend extra time, beyond the team’s expectation, studying film on their opponent each week as well as working on their physical strength. While not yet a superstar linebacker, Samson Ebukam sees the importance in putting the work in during the week.
“I just try to watch film early in the week and figure out what their tendencies are and find a way to get them.”
Simulating reps on the practice field is key to game preparation. For Hicks, he had a baptism of fire, practicing against Drew Brees and Tom Brady for his first five seasons.
“In practice it’s an every day battle when you’re playing offences like that. You gotta make sure you’re locked in or they’re gonna make you look silly.”
Reactions are key for two reasons to a pass rusher. Firstly, a rusher needs to be quick to reacting to the snap of course, otherwise the offensive line will be set and the ball will be gone before they can affect the play. Therefore, quick step off the line is key to an effective rush. After that though, reactions come into play again. Once the rusher gets off the line, he now needs to react instantaneously to the lineman’s stance, not to mention whether it’s a run or pass play – including wrinkles like play action or RPO plays.
Samson Ebukam, believes the game is too fast to have a plan pre-play.
“I don’t really think about a way to get the QB in one place.”
Panthers’ Mario Addison explains the predicament for rushers:
“If you have a plan before the play, and it won’t work against the offensive lineman, you’re stuck. You have to watch what they are doing, and choose techniques that work against what they are doing.”
These split second decisions decide the ineffective from the MVP on the defensive line.
Get all of this within a front seven, and you have a league leading defence.
If you get it within a single player, you have a generational talent. There is a reason that GMs and scouts wax lyrical over pass rush. It’s why top talent rarely hits the market. It is almost impossible to find a flawless rusher. The trouble is, as we have seen with Khalil Mack and Jadeveon Clowney over the last 12 months, once they have proven themselves at the highest level, you have to pay them to the highest level.
To stay within budget, because there are so many elements to a strong pass rush, the goal for any team has to be identifying the strengths of those on your roster and how you can utilise them, add supplementary talent when it is available and when you do find generational talent, keep them happy and in the building. If you can do that, the opposing QB will be running scared, no matter how good of an arm they have.