Not to Be Overlooked: A Pass-Rusher's Natural Advantage to Being Short

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystDecember 9, 2016

Nov 23, 2014; San Diego, CA, USA; St. Louis Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald (99) celebrates against the San Diego Chargers during the fourth quarter at Qualcomm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports
Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Prizefighter Jack Dempsey stood 6'1", but he said it best about facing taller opponents: "Tall men come down to my height when I hit 'em in the body."

Pass-rushers don't need prototypical size to pack a punch. 

From the moment the pads are strapped on for the first time, a simple truth is taught to everyone who ever plays football: low man wins. Pad level and leverage are crucial to success. Offensive and defensive linemen exhaustively practice to hone their technique while coaches bellow, "Stay low!" 

Yet a disconnect exists between this simple concept and how defensive linemen are evaluated. 

The NFL prefers its pass-rushers to be long and tall, even though a natural advantage exists for shorter defenders. 

The average professional offensive tackle stands 6'5" with arms over 33 inches long. Size is needed at the position to counteract a lack of athleticism. For example, San Diego Chargers left tackle King Dunlap stands 6'8" and weighs 310 pounds. He's as big as they come, and it takes approximately an hour to run around him on a defender's way to the quarterback. 

But if the pass-rusher can get those big blockers to bend, it makes their lives a whole lot harder. 

Every NFL team prefers the prototype. The Green Bay Packers' Julius Peppers is a freak at 6'6" and 283 pounds. He's also the NFL's active leader in sacks. However, teams can't build their expectations on such a rare athlete. 

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The ability to sack the quarterback is a skill, not a genetic trait. 

"I must understand my attributes and be able to rush the passer based on those," said Buffalo Bills linebacker Lorenzo Alexander, who stands 6'1" and is currently tied for third with 10 sacks. "For example, I'm not going to come up with the same game plan as Julius Peppers, because we're built totally different with different abilities.

"It's about being honest with who you are as a pass-rusher and then attacking linemen using your strengths."

The idea a defensive lineman should be 6'3" or taller with long limbs remains the preference, but the overall train of thought has become antiquated. 

NFL offenses continue to lean more heavily on the passing game. The game isn't played from tackle to tackle anymore. Thus, defenders who would have been (or are still) considered undersized are now garnering more opportunities and allowed to showcase their skills. 

Buffalo Bills linebacker Lorenzo Alexander
Buffalo Bills linebacker Lorenzo AlexanderBill Wippert/Associated Press

Alexander proved to be the perfect example of an unappreciated, undrafted defensive lineman who continued to work hard throughout his career and experienced a breakout campaign at 33 years old. 

As a collegiate defensive tackle-turned-edge defender, he faced bias placed on those who don't fit a certain body type. 

"Most definitely," Alexander said. "I had a few coaches tell me that I'm a good player, but I'm on the short side.

"I thought, 'Alright, I can't do anything about that.' I had someone in Carolina and Washington tell me that. What do you want me to do? I can't make myself grow. God blessed me at a certain height."

A quick look around the league shows this mentality is changing, albeit at a glacial pace. 

Reggie White and Bruce Smith fit the ideal. They were hulking men who dominated at every level and retired as the two most successful pass-rushers in NFL history. 

But there's room for the little(r) guy. If an individual shows he can play, everyone will take notice. It doesn't matter if he hovers around 6'0". 

Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald is the best in the business right now. He doesn't come close to fitting prototypical standards. 

During the predraft process, the defensive tackle measured just under 6'1". He also weighs 285 pounds, which is at least 10-15 pounds lighter than a typical interior defender. 

Before being drafted, the Pitt product scoffed at the notion his size would be a hindrance. 

"Size doesn't mean anything," Donald told me at the 2014 Senior Bowl. "If you can play the game of football, you can play.

"I don't feel like I have to prove myself. Everything teams need to see is already on film."

In his final three seasons at Pittsburgh, the lineman registered 63 tackles for loss and 27.5 sacks. His play and production translated to the pros. Today, Donald is a wrecking ball that obliterates offensive game plans. 

Four consistent traits show up among undersized players who overcome physical limitations: explosiveness, natural leverage, technique and an understanding how to play to one's strengths. 

Donald exemplifies all four, as seen during the Rams' contest against the New Orleans Saints, per the team's Twitter account: 

The Scouting Academy provided a different angle: 

The defensive tackle's natural leverage is easily recognizable since he's lower than anyone else across the line of scrimmage. Donald was also quick into the blocker and ready to shed the 6'7", 312-pound Andrus Peat before the guard even had a chance to react. 

One play can't encapsulate an individual's entire skill set, but these types of plays are typical when keying on the All-Pro performer. 

"When you turn on the tape of him, it's not always tackles for loss and sacks," said Saints defensive lineman Sheldon Rankins, who measured 6'1" at the NFL combine, per ESPN.com's Mike Triplett. "He may get into the backfield and knock off pullers, get into the backfield and throw a running back into a quarterback, make the quarterback move his feet and somebody else gets a sack."

Donald's play is relentless. Over the past two seasons, he leads all defensive tackles with 17 sacks. Pro Football Focus graded him as the game's best defender regardless of position over the same period. 

"He is outstanding. Just pick a game, put it on," Saints head coach Sean Payton said. "You combine all of these thingsyou combine extremely athletic and then you combine smart and then you would say his effort and energy. ... When you get that combination of all those critical factors, you end up with an elite player."

Payton never once mentioned Donald's size. It's now an afterthought. The defensive tackle can play the game at a very high level. As long as he does, he'll continue to open doors for others. 

"Maybe we should re-evaluate how we look at things," Baltimore Ravens outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil said. 

Baltimore Ravens linebacker Elvis Dumervil (58) celebrates with his teammates.
Baltimore Ravens linebacker Elvis Dumervil (58) celebrates with his teammates.Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

The Denver Broncos drafted the 6'0", 255-pound edge defender in the fourth round of the 2006 NFL draft after he registered 20 sacks as a senior with the Louisville Cardinals. Despite elite production, the defender still fell during draft weekend. 

In his six seasons with the Broncos, the linebacker registered 63.5 sacks. In a twist of fate (and a fax snafu), he signed with the Ravens after the 2012 campaign. Dumervil planned to re-sign in Denver, but his representation sent the paperwork into the team minutes after the deadline passed. 

"When I came to Baltimore, (general manager) Ozzie Newsome told me, 'I missed on you the first time around, but I wouldn't let it happen a second time,'" Dumervil said. 

"If you look around, there have been those who have opened the door a little bit for everyone else like Dwight Freeney and John Randle. Their play allowed things to start happening. Then more exposure came with the likes of Robert Mathis and Aaron Donald.

"It's crazy because leverage is important."

Dumervil provided the game-sealing strip-sack during the Ravens' 19-14 Week 12 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals. The leverage he created with a speed rush off the edge proved to be far too much for Bengals right tackle Eric Winston to handle, as seen in the series below: 

Elvis Dumervil off the snap against Cincinnati Bengals right tackle Eric Winston.
Elvis Dumervil off the snap against Cincinnati Bengals right tackle Eric Winston.Credit: NFL Game Pass

Elvis Dumervil turns the corner against Cincinnati Bengals right tackle Eric Winston.
Elvis Dumervil turns the corner against Cincinnati Bengals right tackle Eric Winston.Credit: NFL Game Pass

Elvis Dumervil reaches for the strip-sack against Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton.
Elvis Dumervil reaches for the strip-sack against Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton.Credit: NFL Game Pass

First, Winston was clearly bent over and not comfortable in his pass set against the much smaller Dumervil. This placed the 6'7" blocker is a precarious position from the start.

"The bigger the lineman, the better," the Louisville product said. "I don't like going against the shorter guys, because I lose my leverage advantage and what I do. When I see the opponent's depth chart and the offensive tackle is 6'7", I get way more excited.

"I know at the end of the day, he prepares for those defenders who are 6'4" or 6'5". He's got to get out of his technique against me. He's accustomed to blocking taller players. When I get lower, the blocker gets out of his comfort zone. That's when they have issues."

As Dumervil turned the corner, the tackle clearly reached in an attempt to stop his speed rush. 

Finally, the defender cleared the block and put an end to any hope of a Bengals comeback. 

With the sack, the five-time Pro Bowl performer has 97 in his career, which ranks eighth among active players. 

A pass-rusher with Donald or Dumervil's build is much like a power lifter. The world's best strong men aren't long-limbed. Those who have shorter arms and barrel chests are built for short-area explosiveness. The same can be said of smaller defensive linemen. 

"Those guys with shorter limbs get into their technique quicker," Dumervil said. "Those who don't get into their technique quickly often lose the battle. A shorter guy is usually very quick and explosive. When he gets on a guy, he's already in a good position, too. Taller guys must get off the snap, then get low. Meanwhile, I'm already low. That's a second I'm not wasting. When it comes to explosiveness off the snap and rounding the corner, I see a correlation."

No one exemplifies this point more than the Pittsburgh Steelers' James Harrison. Harrison entered the league as an undrafted and undersized defender. Even in Pittsburgh's storied history, he'll leave the game as franchise's all-time leading sack artist. 

Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison
Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James HarrisonJustin K. Aller/Getty Images

Harrison stands 6'0", and he's an absolute powder keg. His work ethic and weight room escapades are legendary. 

"I see him every day, so I'm less amazed by him," Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said after Harrison broke the team record, per the Associated Press' Tom Withers. "Maybe I should be amazed by it, but we know that his production is not haphazard. It's not something mystical. He works extremely hard and does so on a daily basis."

A misnomer exists that an undersized pass-rusher must rely solely on his speed. Harrison is as strong or stronger than anyone in the league. His bull rush can be overwhelming. 

"It comes down to [an] understanding of your weaknesses and using your strengths to your advantage," Alexander said. "I'm not going to run down the middle or long-arm guys who are naturally longer than me. I wouldn’t be able to separate and extend like I wanted to if I did. It doesn't mean I can't long-arm a lineman; I just need to properly set it up with speed, speed, speed and try to catch him with a long-arm or be precise with my hands.

"There are just things I need to focus on differently than someone who has the natural advantages."

A natural skill does exist in a player's ability to get to the quarterback, but it has nothing to do with height or length. An understanding develops of how to create pressure. 

"If I know I can get a lineman moving, he must respect my speed," Dumervil said. "I can then counter with a power rush. It's all about what they give me. I don't force things or premeditate my moves. It's an art determined by the flow of the game."

As such, all prospects should be evaluated based on their film and not their measurables. Alexander, Donald, Dumervil and Harrison all flashed dominance during their collegiate careers, yet their lack of size was held against them to varying degrees. 

This year's draft class won't be any different. 

Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett is the favorite to become the No. 1 overall pick. He fits the prototype. Alabama's Jonathan Allen, Tennessee's Derek Barnett, Michigan's Taco Charlton, Stanford's Solomon Thomas and Alabama's Tim Williams are all projected as first-round selections. Each one of them is 6'3" or taller. 

Pitt's Ejuan Price is something altogether different, and he'll likely be selected a few rounds later during the April event. He's 6'0" with an injury history and doesn't even wear full football pants on game days. 

Pitt Panthers defensive end EJuan Price
Pitt Panthers defensive end EJuan PriceJoe Sargent/Getty Images

Panthers head coach Pat Narduzzi even referred to Price as "little No. 5" after the team's stunning victory over the second-ranked Clemson Tigers.

But the first-team All-ACC performer can get to the quarterback and create disruption. He's tied for second in the nation with 21 tackles for loss and sixth with 12 sacks. 

"You will hear it from everybody," Price said. "But I don't see the disadvantages of being shorter. When others talk about length, I always looked at it from the opposite perspective. To me, a lower pad level is a bigger advantage. Every now and then, you'll go against a tackle with long arms, and he locks you out for a play here or there. But I think 60 or 70 percent of the time, I'm beating them because I'm shorter with better quickness, leverage and power."

"Being shorter is better, honestly."

Leverage is the common theme between all of these talented pass-rushers. Price can dip his shoulder and turn the corner with the best, as seen below against Penn State senior Brendan Mahon: 

Pittsburgh Panthers defensive end Ejuan Price bends the edge.
Pittsburgh Panthers defensive end Ejuan Price bends the edge.Credit: ESPNU

However, the Panthers defender relied on more than just his pad level and speed rush. He ripped under the attempted blocker for the sack. 

"For someone like me with shorter arms, hand placement is key," Price said. "A good pass-rusher will tell you that you don't have to hit your mark every time, but you need to have your hands in the combat zone. When you get close enough for an offensive tackle to touch you, your hands better be up and ready to swipe, dip and rip, or do whatever you plan to do.

"If the blocker lands his punch and locks his arms out, that's when a shorter guys is at a disadvantage. They'll catch you one or two times a game, too. I make sure I'm the one striking first, and I'm quick into my moves."

Sometimes a defensive end is so quick off the snap that he doesn't need to set up a move. One false step or poor angle can spell doom for the blocker.

Price's burst was on display during Pitt's meeting with the North Carolina Tar Heels. On the Panthers' very first defensive snap, the defender blew into the backfield and registered a safety. North Carolina's right tackle isn't a slouch, either. Jon Heck is a four-year starter and one of the better strong-side blockers available for the 2017 NFL draft. 

"As a pass-rusher, the No. 1 thing is get-off," Dumervil said. "Once you have a good get-off, you have to know what works for you. ... I stick to what I do. I use my leverage, arm length and quickness to my advantage. In turn, those things create power. But it starts with a player's get-off."

NFL's sack leaders (2016)
No.PlayerHeightSacks
1.Von Miller6'3"12.5
2.Vic Beasley6'2"10.5
3.Lorenzo Alexander6'1'10
3.Cliff Avril6'3"10
3.Dee Ford6'2"10
3.Ryan Kerrigan6'3"10
3.Khalil Mack6'3"10
NFL.com

Price is part of the next generation inspired by Freeney, Dumervil and Donald. He won't be the only one in this or future classes, though. 

There will always be those who are downgraded or counted out because of their size. Those same individuals will fight to dispel any negative perceptions. These vertically challenged sack artists come into the NFL with chips on their shoulders. 

"It's not a big chip, but I do believe you need a different mentality," Alexander said. "I definitely feel like I have something to prove when you hear what people say about shorter pass-rushers. I feel I can be just as productive or more so than someone with better size than me. Every game I go into, I try to bring it. It's something you have to deal with, and I understand that. I try not to make it a big deal."

Size and length don't make a great pass-rusher. Leverage, explosiveness, technique and work ethic do. Anyone who displays those qualities won't be knocked down for the count. Instead, their hands will be held high after yet another sack. 

    

All quotes obtained firsthand by Brent Sobleski, who covers the NFL for Bleacher Report, unless otherwise noted. Follow him on Twitter: @brentsobleski.