This article is my chance to dispense some knowledge I've acquired throughout the years, to those who have any interest whatsoever in such details. I hope to provide at least a glimmer of insight, into both what it takes to be a pass rush specialist and, perhaps, what you yourself can do to become one. Either way, it should provide you with a bit of sports-worthy enjoyment.
Throughout my football career from high school to the pros, I was never thought of as a great athlete. Nor was I blessed with incredible height, strength or a body made of steel.
In fact, the package I'm left with on the football field has forced me to excel in alternative areas beyond athleticism. Digging deep, I began to distinguish my game and style, developing strategy, technique and discovering for myself the true art of the pass rush.
Learning not from coaches, but by creating a style all of my own, I was able to achieve things in the body I was given, I never should have been capable of . For all things in this world I may be ignorant to, and for all the weaknesses I may possess, I say with great confidence, that there are few people in this world who know more than I about rushing the passer.
When you put your hand in that dirt, peeking out across the line, and see a tower of a man, who has prepared years to be a master in his own right, now here to shut you down for 60 straight minutes, there are many things running through your head. It's this battle of the mind that most never see, and others are oblivious to.
Within that battle, you must dissect your opponent, piece by piece, keeping him on his heels, constantly guessing and never sure what's coming next, except for one thing and one thing only...a tornado of high energy and unyielding ferocity.
Amidst all of this, as the imposing giant begins to wear down, the tactician inside carefully calculates every move of his opponent, learning his tendencies, hand placement and footwork—the list goes on forever.
The in-game analysis is not just applied towards the guy blocking you, but rather the entire offensive scheme.
This style of play leaves no room for trash talking. In fact, it has very little room for talking at all—only business. There's no wasted energy for a celebrations or verbal sparring matches. These are worthy sacrifices one makes in exchange for a motor that never quits and a mental edge in the battle of wits.
This is the mindset that propels just an average guy into the realm of a record-breaking performer.
Peripherals are key in this game. Very rarely in a football game should you ever be visually focused on one thing. The speed of this game is so fast, one must train their eyes to see everything all at once.
Even before the snap, maintaining a broad visual awareness on multiple things is crucial. Keep a close eye on the offensive lineman's hands—they're his primary weapon, and they'll always try to find their way onto your body. At the same time, the corner of your eye should have a clear picture of the ball's movement, waiting for the snap.
Once the play begins, you must learn how to follow the quarterback by looking through the lineman. Most defensive linemen are overly focused on the guy in front of them.
Never take your eye off of the guy with the ball—fight your opponent using your peripherals. This may seem counter-intuitive, but I assure you, if you can predict the quarterback's next move, you're fighting a much more efficient battle with the guy trying to keep you from him.
The only thing you need to focus on in regards to the guy in front of you are his hands. His hands will be the hardest movements of his to predict, and the most dangerous obstacles in your way.
The Battle of the Hands
Beat the hands, and you beat the man!
Offensive linemen across the nation are constantly coached to get their hands inside your chest and latch onto your shoulder pads. This can be the "grab of death" for any defensive player headed towards the QB.
Coaches on the defensive side of the ball love to counter this by teaching their pupils to get their hands into the chest of the offensive lineman first, so that you have control over him and can then “strike and shed” once the ball declares itself. This is a nice theory in concept, but the reality is much different.
When the defensive player gets his hands in the lineman's chest, the offensive lineman's typical reaction is to grab underneath the defensive player's shoulder pads, thus locking him into his body, preventing any ability to shed the block. Your only hope at that point is to “bull rush” him back into the QB in attempts to collapse the pocket.
Never commit both hands to the inside of an offensive lineman's chest unless you're content with a bull-rush move. Try to keep one arm free and available to fight off the arms of your opponent.
Think of the Michael Jackson “Beat It” video where those two guys have their hands tied together, while their free hands are used to engage in a knife fight. This is the idea of keeping one hand free.
Personally I prefer not to waste any time putting my hands on the lineman's chest because as long as I have my hand there, that means he is still in front of me, which is exactly where he wants to be and I don't want to be. So I formulate strategies to eliminate this all together.
When I shoot out towards the blocker in front of me, I do so with the intent to quickly wrap around him. This takes amazing timing and skill to do, but when the lineman launches his arms forward to stop me, I use my inside arm to knock his outside arm down as my outside arm simultaneously reaches around to grab underneath his outside shoulder pad.
Just as I get a hold of his shoulder, my body is already in motion, flowing to the side of him as a red cape flows around an impeding bull, all while I pull him forward and off-balance, using his momentum to slingshot past him on a direct path to the QB.
There is another way to avoid the hand battle, a way attempted by many but rarely perfected—it's called the dip.
The Art of the Dip
This technique requires masterful abilities to anticipate the blocker's rhythm, not to mention a great deal of quickness. Many players today are taught to dip into a blocker as they throw a rip underneath their armpit. This rip is supposed to lift the blocker up and allow you to bend a corner leaning into his body as he stumbles off-balance.
I have no memories in my career of getting a sack this way, although I have seen it executed effectively by very physically gifted individuals.
My version of the dip is based off of trickery and timing. The first thing I do is set myself in motion up the field, giving off all the body language of an attempt to speed-rush around him by turning the corner after beating him to the spot.
The natural muscle-memory reaction of the blocker, based on years of coaching, is to shoot his hands at me, knocking me off my path. Knowing this is coming, I maintain my up field path gaining depth, but intentionally run with my chest high as well, baiting the blocker with a nice visible target, waiting for the tiniest sign of a hand strike.
Once I see the beginnings of this motion, I drop my upper body as if ducking under a punch. Meanwhile, at the same time as the drop, I change directions towards the lineman's outside hip with a dramatic body lean, enabling me to slide right past him on a direct line to the quarterback.
At this point, I'm too low to the ground and too close into his body for him to derail my trajectory. He's rendered helpless as I slide right underneath him and deliver a knockout blow.
Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis of the Indianapolis Colts must share knowledge and learn from each other because they're the only other players I've ever seen effectively use this technique. They have become masters of this. But as with every effective rush move; it must be worked in at just the right time.
This leads me to the setup...
The Art of the Setup
The setup is key to any good pass-rusher. He must be a master of setting up his move. Very few moves work effectively in a vacuum. They are often the product of many plays that came before it.
In some cases, such as my focus here, the setup can be years in the making.
Players play very similarly across the board. Everyone teaches the same techniques and watches the same things on film over and over again. Muscle memory can be an invaluable asset. But I have always tried to use it against my opponents, making it their biggest weakness when they need it the most.
Generally speaking, every player, in every position, has learned that "juke" moves are typically done by faking one way, then going the other. There is a distinct rhythm to this, and it happens almost every other play. This pattern repeats itself constantly in a predictable beat-sequence throughout a game and is met with marginal success by defensive linemen.
My thought process here was simple; just take this to the next step by adding one additional change of direction at just the right time. Every blocker is ready for the step-one-way-then-go-the-other move. So I simply give them the illusion that they are getting this approach.
Their body confidently reacts and settles into the pending move as if they've already won. It's that subtle micro-second of anticipation on their end which cues me for the final move. I quickly step back to the original direction that I was headed in, as they're left flat-footed and terribly out of position.
The key for this move to be successful is all in the selling of the second phase of the juke. This causes the the Lineman to bite hard on that move and should free up a path for you.
Seems simple enough, but for some reason, this basic alteration to a common rush move is rarely attempted by even the best pass rushers in the game.
General Dos and Don'ts of Rushing the Passer
Do have a plan before the snap.
Don't have a predetermined strategy without reacting to what you see.
Do practice, and do it often. And remember, sometimes practice can be mental processing and visualizing new ways to beat your opponent.
Don't run yourself out of the play!
Don't freelance and commit yourself inside the offensive tackle unless you're going to make the play.
Do watch the ball.
Don't listen to the snap count.
Most Overrated Skill of a Sack Specialist: The Fast Get-Off
Too many times in my career and throughout life, I hear people talk about the amazing get-off Player X has. There are countless drills dedicated to improving this feature. But very rarely does the guy with the best get-off win in a one on one match-up.
In realty, the get-off is a decently effective tool to be utilized sparingly, perhaps after you have set your opponent up or can catch him off guard.
Guys who rely on a fast get-off are far too often found running themselves right past the QB and out of the play.
The “Must Have” List
Of course there are always exceptions to any rule, but here is a list of basic tools and skills a pass rusher must have in order to be successful:
In order to be truly great, a pass-rusher must be relentless. He must go full-throttle every single play from snap to whistle. This is perhaps the single most valuable trait for any defensive lineman to have. No skill or mindset will have a stronger correlation to production than having a high motor. For this there is little to no substitute.
Long arms are crucial for a pass-rusher. With them, you stand a chance at winning the battle of the hands by keeping the offensive lineman under control and at length.
You don't necessarily need a blazing 40 time, but you absolutely must have quick feet in order to negotiate the small spaces, tight windows and ticking clock if you 're to have any shot at getting your hands on the quarterback before the ball is gone. Besides, very few rush moves are effectively executed with slow feet.
Fluidity of movement and balance are critical to any master of the pass rush.
You may be asking what this is. Movement fluidity refers to how loose, graceful and smooth your body moves. Few things will limit the potential of a pass-rusher more than robotic, rigid movements, preventing proper bending and dance-like rhythms and allowing the defender to slide by the blocker, managing often awkward body positioning. None of this is possible without exceptional balance.
Basically, a pass rusher with the size and power of a lineman, who can move like a shifty running back, is a deadly combination.
Hopefully now you have all the tools you need to get started on becoming a pass-rush legend. I wish you luck.
But for the fans out there: The next time you see a guy getting a sack, and he makes it look easy, just remember, that sack probably took a lot more work than you'll ever grasp from watching it on TV.