Commentary

There's a premium on sack machines

Draft, trades, signings reflecting emphasis on adding more QB baggers

Originally Published: August 19, 2009
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

Everette Brown/Larry English/Jason TaylorAP Photo/Getty ImagesSome teams have put a premium on improving the pass rush: Rookie Everette Brown (left) will be counted on in Carolina; San Diego hopes greenhorn Larry English (center) excels; Miami wants a rebirth of Jason Taylor (right) in his second Dolphins' stint.
For most of the league's existence, the top priority for defensive excellence in the NFL has been stopping the run.

That remains the primary goal for every defense, of course, even in this era of high-tech offenses. But as the game has evolved into an aerial sideshow, one three-word admonition is closing the gap on "stop the run" as the mantra of choice for many defensive coordinators.

Get the quarterback.

Indeed, it has become a rallying cry of sorts.

"If it's not the [first] name for defenses now, then it's certainly the middle name," said longtime league defensive coordinator Ron Meeks, in his first season with the Carolina Panthers after seven years with the Indianapolis Colts.

"It's just the way the game has become, you know? You've absolutely got to be able to get [to the passer]."

It's hardly a coincidence that eight of the NFL's top 10 individual sack leaders in 2008 played for teams that advanced to the playoffs, or that the postseason included seven of the 10 defensive units that led the league in sacks. By comparison, just one (the San Diego Chargers) of the lowest 11 teams (counting ties) in total sacks qualified for the playoffs last season.

Notable is that six of the 12 playoff clubs from 2008 ranked among the top 10 in both stuffing the run and sacking the quarterback. In the past five campaigns, 20 of the 28 teams among the top 10 in the NFL in both categories were postseason participants. By comparison, however, just two of the 22 defensive units (counting ties) that rated among the bottom 10 in both stopping the run and sacks went on to postseason play.

Still, there is plenty to be said for a defense's ability to apply consistent pressure to the opposing quarterback, even if there are some deficiencies in effectively stopping the run. In the five-season stretch from 2004 to 2008, only once have fewer than six top-10 sack teams advanced to the playoffs, and only 11 of the league's 53 bottom 10 teams in sacks recorded (counting ties) made the playoffs.

During the past three seasons, just four of the bottom 33 sack defenses (counting ties) made the playoffs. From among the 55 top-10 sack teams (counting ties), 30 qualified for the postseason in the 2004 to 2008 seasons.

That impressive 54.5 percent playoff-qualifying success rate isn't far behind the 60 percent level (30 of 50 clubs) posted by the top-10 teams in rushing defense during the same period.

"It's not a fluke," said defensive coordinator Jim Bates, who's in his first season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers but with his sixth different NFL franchise.

"The statistics show pretty convincingly that if you can sack the quarterback during a series, more often than not, your defense gets off the field. And that's what every [defense] wants. Every defense wants to get to the quarterback and then get to the sideline."

The significance of bringing suffocating heat on the quarterback has, to some degree, altered the schematic philosophies and the overall emphasis of defenses during the past several seasons. And as this spring's draft clearly indicated, it has forced franchises to rethink their stances and priorities in selecting lottery prospects.

The offseason also saw several severely sack-challenged franchises add veteran pass-rushers via either trade or free agency.

Seven of the 11 teams (counting ties) that rated among the NFL's bottom 10 in sacks in 2008 invested a draft choice in the first or second round aimed at improving their pass rushes for the coming season.

On the veteran side, the Miami Dolphins re-signed defensive end Jason Taylor to augment a pass rush that notched 40 sacks in 2008 (eighth-most in the league) but didn't have a single player beyond linebacker Joey Porter (17 sacks) with more than five sacks.

Two weeks ago, the New England Patriots, who had a disappointing 31 sacks last season and only one defender with more than five individual sacks, traded for Oakland defensive end Derrick Burgess.

The ninth-year veteran is coming off an injury-filled 2008 campaign, when he totaled just 3½ sacks. But Burgess collected 35 sacks in the three seasons from 2005 to '07, including 16 in 2005, and his 3½ sacks last season still eclipsed the sack totals of all but three Patriots players.

Not surprisingly, as teams sought to retain prized pass-rushers, just two of the NFL's top 40 individual sackers from 2008 - tackle Albert Haynesworth and linebacker/end Greg Ellis -- changed teams during the offseason. From a scheme element, more teams such as the New York Giants now remove their tackles in third-and-long situations and use four ends as upfront rushers in their "sub" packages. The Jacksonville Jaguars, for instance, will rely on quicker, more athletic defenders to improve their rush than they employed in the past.

"It's imperative anymore that you be able to rush the quarterback," said Tampa Bay first-year head coach Raheem Morris. "That's a negative play, and it's a huge momentum-changer for both teams … and you've got to have those [pass-rushers], and do just about anything within reason to get one of them if you don't have one."

In an era when one premier pass-rusher often isn't enough, for some teams it's important to add to even more pass-rush specialists. That more-is-better mentality of rushing the quarterback was obvious with some of the choices made in this past spring's draft.

Despite the expected return of linebacker Shawne Merriman to good health, the San Diego Chargers grabbed another edge rusher in the first round, linebacker/end Larry English from Northern Illinois. The Green Bay Packers already have one outstanding pass-rusher in end Aaron Kampman, who will move to outside linebacker in the Packers' new 3-4 alignment in 2009. Still, the Packers had just 27 sacks last season, so they used one of their two first-round draft choices on Southern Cal rusher Clay Matthews.

The Buffalo Bills, also among the NFL's bottom 10 teams in sacks last season, snatched end Aaron Maybin of Penn State in the first round, and the Bills are counting on him to aid veteran Aaron Schobel in getting to the quarterback. After totaling 32½ sacks from 2005 to '07, Schobel notched just one sack in 2008, when injuries limited him to playing only five games.

In the second round, the Houston Texans chose sack man Connor Barwin of Cincinnati, and Texans coaches hope he can team with end Mario Williams to improve a pass rush that garnered only 25 sacks last season.

Among units that rated in the top 10 in sacks last season, the Carolina Panthers used a second-round pick on speedy defensive end Everette Brown, who should pair with Julius Peppers to provide the Panthers an upgraded pass rush.

How much of a difference can it make if a team has multiple lethal pass-rushers?

In 2007, his first season as a starter, Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison had 8½ sacks. Last year, the Steelers promoted solid outside pass-rusher LaMarr Woodley to the starting lineup, and with opponents unable to concentrate solely on one defender, Harrison bumped his sack total to 16 and was the NFL's defensive player of the year.

"Having more than one big-time [pass-rusher] on a defense makes a tremendous difference," said Woodley, who had 11½ sacks in 2008, his first season as a starter. "Teams can't put all the emphasis on stopping just one guy. It's kind of become a game of 'get the quarterback' now, and the more [pass-rushers], the better."

Len Pasquarelli, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.