Ranking the NFL's Most Unblockable Pass-Rushers
A generation ago, the primary challenge offenses faced from the game's best pass-rushers was physical. At that time, both offensive and defensive players had more stationary roles and didn't move from area to area nearly as much as they do now.
In today's NFL, pass-rushers come from everywhere on the field, regardless of the down or situation. Just as 260-pound edge-rushers move inside to use their speed and agility to overmatch guards and centers, defensive tackles move out to the edge to physically dominate offensive tackles. And on passing downs (which is every down), a defensive lineman may kick back to linebacker depth and come at the quarterback based on the gaps created by the rest of the defense, much as a running back would follow the openings created by his offensive line.
A recent statistical study conducted by Pro Football Focus indicated edge pressure is generally more important than interior pressure when it comes to stopping an offense from scoring, but that kind of value is also situationally dependent. Elite interior defenders require more double-teams by offenses than edge-rushers, and therefore, interior defenders create openings on the outside that edge-rushers can exploit. So, this particular list pays more attention to unblockable interior defenders than others might.
Sacks are important to pass-rushers, but more important is the constant stream of quarterback disruption by a player who finds his way through the offensive line to not only take the quarterback down but also to hurry his throws or move him from his ideal position.
No matter where the pressure comes from, certain defenders stand above the rest when it comes to creating it. Here are 12 who do it better than anybody else.
12. Ryan Kerrigan, OLB, Washington Redskins
Ryan Kerrigan has been one of the most productive edge-rushers since the Washington Redskins drafted him out of Purdue with the 16th overall pick in 2011. He's never registered fewer than 7.5 sacks in a season, and that was in his rookie year. Over the last four seasons, only Von Miller (48.5) has more sacks than Kerrigan's 47.0, and Kerrigan can get pressure just as easily from the left side as he can from the right.
But as they say, pressure isn't just about sacks. When you watch Kerrigan's tape, you see how many opportunities he creates for his teammates with the attention offensive lines have to pay him on every down. He gives relentless effort on top of everything else.
Kerrigan's most obvious attribute is his speed to the turn around the tackle from the snap. He explodes out of his position in two-, three- and four-point stances, using his burst to establish the first move against his blockers and his agility and balance to stay quick when he's turning to the quarterback. He's also great with the inside counter, using tackles' leverage against them when they're too focused on his outside moves.
And just when you think you've got him figured out from a technique perspective, Kerrigan will go to pure power and bull-rush his blocker right into the pocket. If you're blocking Kerrigan and you don't have your foundation together from his first move, he's strong enough to send you to the ground quickly.
11. Calais Campbell, DE, Jacksonville Jaguars
One of the most unique players of his generation, Calais Campbell has enjoyed a stellar career with the Arizona Cardinals and Jacksonville Jaguars. He posted 56.5 sacks in nine years in the Valley of the Sun and a career-high 14.5 in his first season in the Sunshine State.
The Jags got more out of Campbell as a big (6'8", 300-lb) end, but throughout his career, he has shown a rare ability to penetrate from every gap. The Cardinals placed him everywhere from nose tackle to end, and he succeeded everywhere. It's rarer still for any defensive lineman to have a serious uptick in sacks so late in his career—Campbell will turn 32 in September.
He can engage with all the power you'd want from the 4-3 end or 3-4 end positions, but he's smarter than that—he understands the best way to get through the offensive line is to avoid being blocked at all. So, he's developed an incredible ability to read gaps as they open, and he travels as many gaps as he needs to. Then, he shoots through to the quarterback much quicker than you'd expect for a man his size.
When he does bull-rush, Campbell uses his long arms to establish position and his upper-body strength to move his blocker backward to the pocket. And he's especially fierce on stunts and twists, switching gaps after the snap with a teammate and leaving his blockers wondering where he went as he records another sack.
10. Fletcher Cox, DL, Philadelphia Eagles
One of the most dominant defensive tackles over the last half-decade, Fletcher Cox is just as powerful a run-stopper as he is a dynamic pass-rusher. He also faces a ton of double-teams, even in the Philadelphia Eagles' multiplayer rotational fronts, which is why his sack totals aren't quite up there with some on this list—he has just 34 in his six-year career. Tape tells a more complete story, though—and the story is that Cox uses power to present an unblockable force as well as anyone in the league.
Cox's brute strength is the first thing that pops off the tape—it's what makes him just as formidable a run defender as he is a pass-rusher. When he's aiming to get to the quarterback, Cox uses his initial hand strike to push the blocker back into the pocket, and then he'll use his upper-body power to further take the leverage advantage away. This allows him to penetrate from every gap he's placed in—from 5-technique end between the guard and tackle to over the center.
Add in his impressive speed, agility and ability to find openings, and it's easy to see why Cox has become one of the league's best interior pass-rushers despite the number of double-teams he faces.
9. Melvin Ingram III, DE, Los Angeles Chargers
When Melvin Ingram III was a star at South Carolina, I was most impressed by his versatility—the Gamecocks would put him everywhere from off-center nose tackle to outside linebacker, and he'd play more than credibly at each spot.
Injuries sucked the life out of Ingram after the San Diego Chargers drafted him 18th overall in 2012, but he's rebounded nicely in the last few seasons and has 29 sacks since 2015, including 10.5 in 2017. He pairs with Joey Bosa to form perhaps the league's most dominant outside pass-rushing duo.
The secret to Ingram's unblockability is his athleticism. At the snap, he has a great sense of where the gaps are going to be, and he has the speed and agility to move laterally in a hurry to take advantage of that awareness. He also has a terrific inside counter and uses it after taking tackles outside with fakes.
When he turns on the jets to move back inside, he's tough to catch up to. And for his size (6'2", 247 lbs), Ingram has impressive upper-body strength, enough to push tackles back into the pocket. Few edge-rushers have a more complete set of skills. If he played in a defense that used his gap versatility, Ingram could be even more formidable.
8. DeForest Buckner, DL, San Francisco 49ers
More than any player on this list, DeForest Buckner is proof positive that sack totals aren't the ultimate arbiter of a player's dominance at the line of scrimmage. Though he has just nine in his two seasons, Buckner racked up 52 pressures last season alone, per Pro Football Focus. And the San Francisco 49ers defensive line wasn't nearly as effective when he wasn't on the field—which wasn't often.
Also per PFF, Buckner played the most snaps of any interior defender over the last two seasons with 1,873, and the 49ers went from 11th in the league in pressure rate to dead last when he wasn't out there.
He has all the size (6'7", 300 lbs) and strength you'd want in an interior pass-rusher—he fits the physical profile perfectly—but what makes him so effective is his development of technique. Watch him move past a guard with a perfect rip move, swatting through the chaos to get to the pocket. Or, when necessary, he'll use a spin move to get by a guard.
At his height, Bucker doesn't always come off the ball as low as a shorter player would, so these little things are incredibly important. In an era when so many young defensive linemen enter the league with little knowledge of how to use their hands to establish position, it's encouraging to see Bucker add to his game with outstanding mechanics.
7. Joey Bosa, DE, Los Angeles Chargers
It's unusual for a collegiate defensive lineman to come into the NFL hyped as a generational player and actually live up to the noise—for most rookies and second-year players, the adaptation to the pro game proves tough, and it takes a while for them to display the same attributes they showed in college.
Joey Bosa is an exception. He's racked up 23 sacks over his first two seasons—in that span, only Chandler Jones, Ryan Kerrigan and Von Miller have more. To do that as a young player is singularly impressive, and what's even more impressive is how Bosa has learned to work both inside and outside in conjunction with fellow Los Angeles Chargers pass-rusher Melvin Ingram.
Bosa uses an awareness of angles and leverage to get a lot of his outside sacks and pressures. He's incredibly quick off the ball, and when he turns to move to the pocket, he knows how to drive the blocker he's facing right into the pocket. He's also incredibly persistent—when a tackle does move him outside the pocket, he keeps churning through the play, and every so often, he'll break loose and take the quarterback down from the back side.
He'll also use his hands to fend off blockers and with the space he creates will blast through for yet another pressure. Bosa can also get pressure with inside counters and from a pass-rushing tackle position as well as from a spot with his hand on the ground. His combination of upper-body strength and short-area burst is rare.
6. Geno Atkins, DT, Cincinnati Bengals
Most of the players on this list were high draft picks who were expected to make serious impacts from the start. Geno Atkins, however, was seriously undervalued when he came out of Georgia in 2010. He lasted until the fourth round in part because teams didn't think the 6'1", 293-pound tackle had the power to deal with NFL blockers.
Eight seasons, 61 sacks and six Pro Bowls later, 31 organizations have been proven wrong—and the Cincinnati Bengals got lucky.
As has been the case for shorter defensive tackles from John Randle to Grady Jarrett, Atkins is great when he's using leverage against a blocker because he gets under the opponent's pads and just drives him back into the pocket. The 30-year-old intuits when he'll face a single-team against a weaker blocker, and he'll take advantage accordingly.
Atkins can split double-teams just as well as he can bull-rush, and his underrated footwork allows him to maneuver through opposing lines with quick counters and spin moves.
5. Cameron Jordan, DE, New Orleans Saints
The New Orleans Saints defense has hardly been a bastion of consistently over the last few years, but Cameron Jordan is the rare player who can be counted on to provide outstanding performances week after week.
Last year, per Pro Football Focus, he was one of 16 edge-rushers who recorded double-digit figures in sacks, hits and hurries. He notched 14 sacks (PFF counts half-sacks as full sacks, which is why this differs from Jordan's official total of 13), 14 hits and 47 hurries.
That he's been this effective without a complementary rusher for so long is testament to both his consistency and his effectiveness—despite being the focal point for every opposing offensive line, the 6'4", 287-pound Jordan remains highly effective as an outside rusher who can also kick inside from time to time.
The primary difficulty in blocking Jordan lies in his versatility—not only can he rush the passer from inside and outside, but from the edge, he challenges linemen with a combination of forward lean to create leverage, hand power and movement; the speed to turn the edge that you'd expect from a player 20 pounds lighter; and the power to bull-rush that you'd expect from a player 20 pounds heavier. It's hard to know how to counter all he does.
4. Cameron Heyward, DL, Pittsburgh Steelers
Cameron Heyward has been a great player for a while, amassing 22.5 sacks as a starter from 2013 through 2016. But he reached a new level in 2017, and his positional versatility allowed the Pittsburgh Steelers to put him anywhere on the line from nose tackle over the center to an edge position. It didn't matter where he was; Heyward thwarted blockers and wrecked plays everywhere. The result? A 12.0-sack season, and Heyward's first Pro Bowl and All-Pro nods.
He isn't just quick and strong; he's also smart. He understands how to use offensive linemen who are retreating in pass protection as landmarks, keeping a hand on them until he sees an opening and is ready to blast through to the pocket.
When he does take off, Heyward hits his blockers with great hand technique and a nasty disposition—he relishes the opportunity to put a guard or center on skates with an excellent bull-rush. But what's really impressive about Heyward's game is how he's developed as a situational edge-rusher—at 6'5" and 295 pounds, he shows unusual speed for his size around the pocket, and he has great agility to counter inside when he finds an opening.
3. Von Miller, OLB, Denver Broncos
When Von Miller's played 16 games, he has made the Pro Bowl—and in three of those six seasons (2012, 2015 and 2016), he's also been an All-Pro. And none of that has been based on reputation—if anything, Miller has been highly rated for so long that he's almost underrated at this point because we're so used to his greatness. His 10 sacks in 2017 marked his fourth straight season with double-digit sacks, and last year, per Pro Football Focus, he had 12 quarterback hits and 61 hurries as well.
Pure speed is still Miller's calling card off the snap—even into his late 20s, he can still stun an offensive tackle with his burst before the opponent can even get his hands up. But Miller is in this for the long haul, and he wants to be known for more than just speed and quickness. He has a lethal spin move and an outstanding "dip-and-rip" (getting low around the edge of the pocket to avoid a block), and he's also opportunistic enough to burst through an open space a gap or two away.
Miller turned 29 in March, and at an age when most speed rushers are starting to lose their edge, he's expanding his palette in ways that should benefit him well into his 30s.
2. Khalil Mack, OLB, Oakland Raiders
Last season, the Oakland Raiders defense finished 29th in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metrics. The unit was particularly vulnerable to opposing passing games, and from a pass-rush perspective, things weren't so great, either. Oakland finished 23rd in FO's adjusted sack rate metric.
Now, think of how ghastly those numbers would be if the Raiders didn't have Khalil Mack. Not only did Mack record 78 pressures, per Pro Football Focus, he also led all edge defenders with 53 stops. That's an indication of how well-rounded his game is, but of course he's best-known for his ability to get to the quarterback, and there are many reasons why he's perhaps the league's most consistently dominant edge-rusher.
If you've heard the phrase "converting speed to power" and want to know what it means, watch Mack turn on the jets at the snap, build up a head of steam, and bull-rush a blocker back into the pocket. More than most who do this, Mack can reverse the technique—he'll start with power, engaging a blocker with his formidable upper-body strength, and then he'll just rip his opponent away and speed through to take down the quarterback.
No other outside pass-rusher has Mack's combination of speed and strength, and Mack has distilled his attributes in ways that make him impossible to negate on a down-to-down basis.
1. Aaron Donald, DL, Los Angeles Rams
Aaron Donald has made the Pro Bowl in each of his four seasons and has been named a first-team All-Pro for the past three. The only question is: What were the All-Pro voters thinking in 2014? Because Donald has been dominant since the day he hit the field in his rookie season, and he seems to get better every year.
Lost to a point amid the team's coaching (and subsequent winning) issues under Jeff Fisher, Donald found his day in the sun in 2017. The Los Angeles Rams won the NFC West, and new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips maximized Donald with his creative blitz packages and multiple fronts.
The addition of defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh in free agency should make the 27-year-old even more unblockable than last season, when he amassed a league-leading 91 total pressures, per Sam Monson of Pro Football Focus—an astonishing feat for an interior defender.
The NFL's version of a needle in a haystack? Try to find something Donald doesn't do at a plus level.
You want power? Watch him come low off the snap and demolish a guard. You want quickness? Donald can blow past blocks as quickly as you see edge-rushers do it—his burst off the ball requires multiple replays to believe. You want hand technique? Donald can get past enemy blockers with rip and swim moves as well as anyone.
And against double-teams, the 6'1", 280-pound Donald presents a combination of balance and strength that allows him to not only slice through blockers but also embarrass them on his way to the quarterback. It's why he's able to create pressure in any situation, in any defensive front, from any gap.
Not only is he the best defensive player in the league and the most unblockable, but Donald can also make a claim that no one else matches his consistent effectiveness from down to down.