Believe It or Not, We're in the Golden Age of Pass-Rushers

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Believe It or Not, We're in the Golden Age of Pass-Rushers
Scott Halleran/Getty Images
J.J. Watt is just one of the great pass-rushers in the NFL today.

For every yin there must be a yang, every zig a zag, every tick a tock and for every pass, a corresponding pass rush. Thanks in large part to rule changes in the NFL, more passes are being thrown than ever before. That means more completions, touchdowns and interceptions than ever before, but it also means more pass-rushing opportunities.

We are currently in the golden age of quarterbacking, but that’s not hard to believe. As many as six active quarterbacks could currently make a case for the Hall of Fame when they are done playing. There are also a bunch of hyper-talented young quarterbacks and another tier of solid veterans. As they always do, defenses have countered by placing a premium on pass-rushers.

As the NFL shifts to the pass, it has also given birth to a new golden age of pass-rushers. J.J. Watt, Von Miller, Aldon Smith, Jason Pierre-Paul, Clay Matthews and Geno Atkins are just a few of the names of the next generation of pass-rushers in the NFL.

 

The Statistics Tell Two Stories

In a golden age, you expect records to fall. More pass attempts should equal more sacks across the board, but that’s not really the case. We may be in the golden era, but the sack statistic is letting us down a bit as a good overall representation of the abilities of these players.

Over the last five years, there have been just 5,624 sacks, which is fewer than the two five-year periods preceding it. From 2003-2007, there were 5,736 sacks and from 1998-2002 there were 6,059 sacks in the NFL. The period from 1993-1997 had the fewest sacks, buoyed by the best sack season in the last 20 years in 1997.

Sack trends over 20 years. (Data via pro-football-reference.com)

Overall, sacks are barely on the rise over the last 20 years, despite huge increases in the number of pass attempts. In the past two decades, 2008 was rivaled only by 1994 in terms of the lack of sack production across the NFL. Taken at face value, it would appear that this isn’t the golden age of the pass-rusher.

However, statistics are telling two stories. Across the league, sacks may be down, but that’s only because pass-rushers are more specialized than ever before. In the past five years, the sack record has been threatened seven times.

Six active players over the past five years have recorded over 18 sacks in a season and DeMarcus Ware has done it twice. The players with 15-plus-sack seasons over the past five years are averaging nearly two more sacks than their counterparts from 1993-2007. Translation: There are a bunch of elite pass-rushers playing in the NFL right now.

Rule changes are also hurting sack statistics across the entire league. Pass-rushers can’t hit the quarterback high or low for risk of a 15-yard penalty and fine from the league office. The league has also ramped-up enforcement of illegal contact on defensive backs over the past decade, which has given pass-rushers very little time to get to the quarterback before they find an open target.

Sacks per attempt numbers are on the rise, despite great quarterback play and rule changes.

Great quarterbacks, good receivers and favorable rules are all suppressing the ability of pass-rushers to get to the quarterback. Throw in an influx of mobile quarterbacks and you have the worst-possible environment for sacks, but league-wide, sack percentages have rebounded since 2008, and the elite continue to thrive.

 

Schematic Changes

Elite pass-rushers in the NFL don’t just play one position. Of the top six players in sacks last year, only two played the same position in a similar scheme. Typically speaking, pass-rushers are 4-3 defensive ends or 3-4 outside linebackers, but that could be changing.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Justin Smith (right) has helped Aldon Smith (bottom) to get to the quarterback.

Watt had more sacks than anyone last year, playing 3-4 defensive end, and Atkins had 12.5 sacks playing 4-3 defensive tackle.

Two years ago, Miller took the league by storm as a pass-rushing 4-3 outside linebacker. Defenses are starting to think outside the box to try to create pressure, and the result has been more pass-rushers playing positions not usually considered to be pass-rushing positions.

NFL defenses have also gone away from two-gapping across the entire defensive front, resorting to using dominant interior defensive linemen to provide elite pass-rushers with better opportunities. Justin Smith, Derek Wolfe, B.J. Raji and Haloti Ngata all play defensive end and make life easier for the pass-rushers playing behind them.

Defensive schemes are now designed to feature the team’s best pass-rusher, which is something that didn’t always happen in the past. It’s vital to be able to get pressure on the quarterback, and six of the top eight teams in sacks in 2012 made the playoffs. The three worst teams in the league were three of the four worst teams at sacking the quarterback.

 

Influx of Youth

During the 2013 NFL draft, at least nine first-round picks were pass-rushers at defensive tackle, defensive end or linebacker, and three of the top six picks were edge rushers. Just like quarterbacks, good pass-rushers are being produced with increasing regularity.

Justin Edmonds/Getty Images
Von Miller is just one of several pass-rusher to enter the league in the last few years.

Every year for the past five years, the college ranks have produced at least one elite pass-rusher, and they are seemingly getting better every year.

The list includes Chris Long (24.5 sacks the last two seasons), Matthews (42.5 sacks in four seasons), Pierre-Paul (16.5 sacks in 2011), Miller (30 sacks in two seasons), Watt (26 sacks in two seasons) and Bruce Irvin (eight sacks as a rookie as a situational pass-rusher).

Jadeveon Clowney is a once-in-a-decade prospect who will likely enter the NFL next season, so the string of great young pass-rushers isn’t coming to an end anytime soon. If anything, these great pass-rushing prospects are becoming more common.

 

Reaction by Offenses

The obvious reaction to the golden age of pass-rushers is to find quarterbacks who can move in the pocket and gain positive yardage with their legs. We’ve seen in recent seasons the value that has been placed on the mobility of quarterbacks.

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
EJ Manuel's ability to move his feet is a big reason why he was drafted so highly by the Buffalo Bills.

The rise of the running quarterback may not be a reaction to pass-rushers, but the value of a quarterback with mobility is a reaction to pockets that collapse quicker than ever before. EJ Manuel and Geno Smith were the most capable quarterback prospects when it came to escaping pressure, and they were not coincidentally the first two quarterbacks off the board.

Pocket passers are falling behind, and it’s harder to be successful without one (although not impossible). Look at the successful quarterbacks around the league, and chances are, the best ones can move around the pocket. The added dimension of the running quarterback forces pass-rushers to read run first, which slows down the pass rush.  

Only an elite few pocket passers can survive in the NFL without great blocking, so the other obvious reaction to the golden era of pass-rushers has been to beef up the offensive line. As we witnessed in the 2013 draft, teams were willing to draft players that will play right tackle with premium picks to protect their quarterbacks.

 

Looking Forward

Will someone break the sack record in the next few years?

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As the passing game in the NFL continues to evolve to reflect the college game, the need for pass-rushers is only going to rise. The NFL is currently entering a golden area of pass-rushers, but they will need to continue to keep pace with the quarterbacks to maintain some type of balance between offense and defense.

Further rule changes that favor the passing game could impact pass-rushers negatively, but these great players have already been able to overcome a lot of hurdles that have been put in their way. Expect at some point in the next few years for a player or two to eclipse the current sacks record.

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