Prior to the 1970s, it was defensive linemen that were the primary pass-rushers—not linebackers. About half of the good pass-rushers in the NFL are now linebackers, and a big part of the shift is due to the contribution of Lawrence Taylor.
When you think of the best pass-rushing linebackers of all time, Taylor is always at the top of the list. Some people consider him the best defensive player of all time. Taylor is ninth on the all-time sacks list with 132.5, and that doesn’t include the 9.5 sacks from his rookie season in 1981 because the sack statistic wasn’t official.
"He changed the way defense is played, the way pass-rushing is played, the way linebackers play and the way offenses block linebackers." – John Madden, Hall of Fame coach and broadcaster via ESPN.com.
There have been a lot of good linebackers since Taylor, but none that have revolutionized the position like he did. The closest we may ever get to another Taylor is Denver Broncos outside linebacker Von Miller.
What Taylor did as a 3-4 right outside linebacker, Miller is doing as a 4-3 left outside linebacker. There isn’t another linebacker like Miller in the NFL, just like there wasn’t a linebacker like Taylor in the NFL.
A Statistical Comparison
Taylor was a fierce pass-rusher, but he only had 17.5 sacks (unofficially) through his first 31 career games compared to Miller’s 30 sacks. Miller also has more sacks in his first two seasons than Taylor had in his first three seasons.
Clearly the game has changed to favor the pass, but Miller is still off to an amazing start to his career. Only four players have compiled 30 or more sacks in their first two seasons since 1982 (Reggie White, Derrick Thomas and Aldon Smith are the others).
Unlike a guy like Smith that takes advantage of a great supporting cast as a 3-4 outside linebacker, Miller plays in a 4-3 defense. Miller looks very much like a 3-4 outside linebacker when he is rushing the quarterback, but he has a lot more responsibility when he is one of only three linebackers on the field.
ProFootballFocus (subscription required) graded Miller as the best 4-3 outside linebacker against the run and it wasn’t close. Miller’s run grade was also significantly better than any 3-4 outside linebacker or inside linebacker in the entire league.
Put plainly, Miller was not only one of the best pass-rushers in the league in 2012; he was also one of the best run defenders. Miller was asked to do more and was more productive doing it than any other linebacker.
Taylor was similarly able to do many different things and even played inside linebacker at one point because of injuries. Taylor had the ability to impact the game no matter where he lined up and Miller is no different. There’s not much Miller’s doesn’t do well on the football field.
Changing the Game
Naturally, offenses attack defenses, but Taylor turned that theory on its head during his career. Taylor was so disruptive that offenses had to devise new ways to defend against him.
We had to try in some way have a special game plan just for Lawrence Taylor. Now you didn't do that very often in this league but I think he's one person that we learned the lesson the hard way. We lost ball games.
Gibbs created the H-back, which was basically a tight end that lined up in the backfield that could provide additional pass-blocking help and started putting in slide protection just for Taylor.
Is Von Miller the closest we will get to Lawrence Taylor?
Bill Walsh, the legendary coach of the San Francisco 49ers, started a trend by having an offensive guard block Taylor. Believe it or not, it wasn’t until later that teams started using offensive tackles to try to slow him down.
The obsession with finding a franchise left tackle may trace back to trying to stop Taylor, since he predominately played on the right side of the defense. Slide protection and chip blocks were all a part of the plan that teams used to stop Taylor.
"I mean everything you did was predicated to where he was and what he was doing," former Denver Broncos quarterback and current team executive John Elway told Sports Illustrated.
Because of Taylor, offenses started to invest disproportionately on left tackles and other teams started to use more linebackers to rush the passer from the blind side. Miller’s dominance has swung the pendulum back in the other direction and right tackles are becoming more and more important as defenses try to put their best pass-rusher in position to get to the quarterback.
According to Steve Palazzolo of ProFootballFocus, 2012 saw a big jump in production from left-side pass-rushers. This could be attributed to other teams noticing how much success Miller had as a rookie going against right tackles.
Like Taylor, Miller is changing the way offenses think about offensive personnel and blocking schemes. Teams are looking for players more capable of blocking Miller and they certainly know where Miller is at all times. Even a plan devised to slow him down can be ineffective.
The AFC West Reacts
If anyone had inside knowledge on how to slow down Miller last season, it was Oakland Raiders head coach Dennis Allen. As defensive coordinator in Denver during Miller’s rookie season in 2011, Allen would—in theory—have more insight into any and every weakness in his game.
The Raiders devised a plan to slow down Miller when they played the Broncos in December, but still surrendered a sack and a key forced fumble in the third quarter. Right tackle Khalif Barnes was also called for two holding penalties against Miller.
With a right tackle like Barnes, the Raiders knew they couldn’t expect him to handle Miller alone. Even though the Raiders chipped Miller with the tight end, fullback and running back, he still ran roughshod over their offense.
After the game, Allen, via the San Francisco Chronicle, said of his team's efforts to stop Miller :
We had a plan to give Khalif some help and some chip (block) help. I thought we did a nice job in the first half. We weren't able to protect against him as well in the second half.
One way that the Broncos maximize Miller’s talents is allow him to attack from the left side of the defense. Right tackles are typically not athletic enough to handle Miller’s speed, and tight ends and running backs are not strong enough to handle Miller’s raw power.
The reaction to Miller is apparent just by looking at the way the AFC West teams drafted in 2012; every team in the AFC West drafted a right tackle in the first two rounds.
The Kansas City Chiefs selected offensive tackle Eric Fisher with the first overall pick, the San Diego Chargers selected offensive tackle D.J. Fluker with the 11th overall pick and the Raiders selected offensive tackle Menelik Watson with the 42nd pick. Fisher and Watson were both projected to play on the left side.
The trend wasn’t confined to the AFC West either. The Jacksonville Jaguars drafted offensive tackle Luke Joeckel second overall and Philadelphia Eagles drafted Lane Johnson fourth overall, and both will likely play on the right side. Clearly, Miller has had enough influence on the rest of the league to cause change.
The number of top-50 draft picks from the 2012 draft class slated to play right tackle is unprecedented, even if you disregard the fluky nature how many were drafted in the top five. The NFL is reacting and one obvious conclusion is that they are reacting to Miller and the revolution of pass-rushers now coming from the left side inside of the right side.