There is something unbelievably beautiful about a well-executed pass rush. The speed off the ball, the quickness of the hands, and the bone-crunching hit on a quarterback. I’m getting goosebumps just thinking of some of the prettiest pass rushes I’ve seen. Few things can make an opponent look so helpless, and a player look so powerful, as a good pass rush.
There are so many tiny details that go into an effective pass rush. How close can you get to the line of scrimmage? How should you align your feet for maximum acceleration? What move should you use to beat your opponent? How do you adjust your rush to the depth of the QB? When should you abandon your pass rush and get your hands up to try and bat the ball down? With that in mind, I wanted to look at how you can build a great pass rusher. There are 3 main steps to winning a pass rush:
- Get to the blocker
- Beat the blocker
- Sack the quarterback
Get to the blocker
The NFL Next Gen Stats team has created a metric called defender Get-Off time. This measures how quickly a defender is able to cross the line of scrimmage. This is really useful information in that it can help surface a player's explosiveness out of his stance. However, it does not tell you everything about the first stage of a defender's pass rush. A defender may have a great initial two steps but has trouble timing up his hands and feet. He may have a good initial burst but takes too long trying to read what the blocker is doing. There is no data about actual blocks in the NGS data, though many have tried to impute blocks, there is too much fuzziness in these assigned blocks to be utilized in any truly thorough manner.
At StatsBomb we are collecting data on every block, where it happens on the field, who is involved, when it starts, where it ends, as well as when it ends. Using our line battles data we can find out how long it actually takes a defender to get engaged with an offensive player. This gives us more detailed information about the first phase of a defender’s pass rush.
Top of the list for Edge defenders is Grayson Murphy from UCLA. I looked up some of his draft breakdowns because he is not widely considered a top draft pick. One thing kept coming up in his profile: speed off the line of scrimmage. “He explodes off the line with a quick first step”, “He’s explosive off the line of scrimmage, showing the quickness that sets blockers back on their heels”, “ Showed initial quickness”. This shows up in the data.
Kyon Barrs leads the list for Interior DL. He was one of the top DL targets in the transfer portal after this past season with a final 3 schools list of USC, LSU, and Miami. He ended up committing to USC and has had an impressive spring so far. Another name on this list to keep an eye out for in the future is Troy Rainey from Rutgers. Switching from OL to DL will give him an insight into the position that can help him take his game to the next level.
Beat the blocker
Once a player gets to a block, the obvious next step is getting off the block as fast as possible! There are many ways defenders can go about beating a blocker: bull rush, speed rush, swim move, club & rip. A good defender has as many of these in his arsenal as possible. Having multiple moves will help keep a blocker guessing, and keep power in the hands of the rusher.
There are currently 5 Edge defenders who are projected as potential first-round draft picks. Let’s take a look at how each player did in getting off blocks.
Nolan Smith was limited in the 2022 season with an injury, and limited reps, but his ability to get off blocks was impressive from this past season. It’s also easy to see why Will Anderson is considered one of the top two defensive players in the draft, and many see him as the best player overall available in the draft (sorry to all of the quarterbacks). He is able to get off blocks consistently and quickly.
One of the other more intriguing prospects is 2022 NCAA sacks leader Tuli Tuipulotu. Below is a chart showing how quickly a defender is able to get off blocks, as well as the percentage that a defender was able to get off a block. Tuipulotu was one of the very best players in college football last season at getting off blocks quickly and won at a high level as well. NFL.com’s player page on Tuipulotu says that one of his strengths is that he “Pops and sheds opponents with twitchy upper body”.
We’ve talked about the first two steps of a successful pass rush in today’s article. As we finish up, let’s take a look at the top 10 Edge defenders and Interior defensive lineman in time of the combined two steps.
One of the players I am most excited to see play at the next level is Pittsburgh’s Calijah Kancey (and not just because he terrorized us at UVA when I was there). The comps to Aaron Donald make sense because of the similar undersized nature of the players, as well as the fact that they both went to Pitt. His numbers from the Combine and Pro Day are scary good, and he should be able to make an immediate impact to whatever team drafts him.
We are still at the tip of the iceberg utilizing our line battles data, and breaking down a pass rush is just the beginning. These tools are the first step of many that we are going to take in the near future. Things like incorporating double teams, quarterback movement, time to throw, and game state are all coming in future versions of pass rush modeling and statistics. These however are a good first step for teams and people looking to understand pass rushing. The truly great pass rushers understand each step of a pass rush, and are able to put these tools together consistently.
Head of American Football Analysis