Pass Rusher Profile: Cameron Wake
In the coming weeks, PFF’s Lead Analyst, Ben Stockwell, will bring you in-depth analysis of the game’s top pass rushers and pass protectors, breaking down the strengths and weaknesses of their play and highlighting what sets them apart. The series begins with this look at Miami’s Cameron Wake.
There has been no more consistently excellent outside pass rusher in the NFL over the past four seasons than the Miami Dolphins’ CFL-import Cameron Wake. Ever since a breakout 2009 season, when he recorded an astonishing 33 total pressures on a mere 130 pass rushes, Wake has been ultra-consistent in terms of his pass rush grade. In each season he has earned a grade of +23.1 or better before peaking with his stunning +37.7 grade this past season at left defensive end in the Dolphins’ switch to a 4-3 defense.
Many pass rushers grab your attention by having the occasional big game or big splash play, but Wake’s great strength is his consistency in getting into the opponent’s backfield and relentlessly disrupting the quarterback. In his four-year NFL career, Wake has been shut out only twice when he has played more than 10 snaps in a game. Whether playing with his hand in the ground or standing up, Wake is a task too much for the tackles that square off with him.
Outside Pass Rush: 45 total pressures, pressure every 11.8 pass rushes
It should come as absolutely no surprise to hear that Wake is among the league’s elite pass rushers when it comes to beating pass protectors past their outside shoulder. Wake has an incredible burst off the snap and the speed and agility to beat the tackle to the corner. This lets him turn his speed into pressure rather than being seen past the back of the pocket as the tackle or tight end rides that outside rush.
The only pass rushers who got outside pressure more frequently than Wake last season were Brandon Graham (10.3 rushes per outside pressure) and Victor Butler (11.5) on 300 and 400 fewer pass rushes, respectively. This year’s performance was an improvement on even his 2011 form when he was among the league’s Top 10 at getting pressure to the outside of opposing blockers.
The big improvement that Wake made to his outside rushing this season though, was improving his closing percentage, converting the pressure that he got into hits and sacks. While only 30.0% of his outside pressure in 2011 (6 sacks, 6 hits, 28 hurries) was converted into sacks and hits, he pushed that number way up to 48.9% in 2012. His 12 sacks and 10 hits from outside pass rushes were both league-leading marks and even without adding his 23 hurries, those 22 knockdowns were more than the likes of Julius Peppers, DeMarcus Ware and Jason Pierre-Paul got from outside pressure. Jared Allen in 2011 is the only other pass rusher to record double-digit sacks courtesy of outside pass rush in a single season in the past two years.
Bullrush Pass Rush: Eight total pressures, pressure every 66.4 pass rushes
Unblocked/Pursuit/Clean Up: 10 total pressures, pressure every 53.1 pass rushes
All things are relative when it comes to Cameron Wake, and his rate at getting bullrush pressure (a minimal part of his arsenal anyway) still places him 25th league-wide which only serves to illustrate just what a well-rounded pass rusher Wake is. A pure bullrush pressure might be the most physically dominant type, but NFL tackles have to be able to anchor against a bullrush to keep opponents from running through them every down, so they aren’t particularly common. Wake’s pressure rate on bullrushes places him just in front of pass rushers like Lamarr Houston, Justin Tuck and Mario Williams — none of whom you would consider to be particularly lacking in power as part of their pass rush.
His other weakness in terms of picking up “free” pressure is also far from surprising. His rate of getting unblocked pressure is a little better than the league average (seven pressures) but his work on clean up and in pursuit is almost non-existent. That, of course, could be as much a factor of the relative lack of pressure from the rest of Miami’s defensive front as anything that is necessarily lacking in Wake’s game.
Bobby Massie: 12 total pressures
Austin Howard: 11 total pressures
It has to be said that Wake was blessed with the good fortune of facing off against Massie before his mid-season turn around, and he took full advantage of that matchup by collecting 12 (6 sacks, 6 hurries) of his 13 total pressures that he recorded against the Cardinals. This was one of the games where Wake could have earned the moniker of being a one-trick pony as he brought Massie’s early-season struggles with speed into sharp focus, collecting 9 of his 12 pressures to the outside, while keeping Massie off balance with two pressures via bullrush and one to his inside. This was the one-game peak of Wake’s season and the ultimate nadir of Massie’s around a month before his season turned through 180 degrees.
The other man to feel Wake’s wrath to the tune of double-digit pressures was Austin Howard, who surrendered 11 pressures (one sack, five hits, five hurries) to Wake across the Jets’ two encounters with the Dolphins.
David Stewart: One Hurry (Week 10)
With another quarterback under center you might think that there was an element of quick throws depriving Wake of the opportunity to get after the passer in this encounter, but the Titan’s quarterback in Week 10 was Jake Locker and he certainly wasn’t in any hurry to get rid of the ball. That week only two quarterbacks (Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick) took longer than Locker’s average of 3.25 seconds to throw, and he had 18 drop-backs where he held on for 2.6 seconds or more.
Nor did Wake see a plethora of tight ends staying in to help Stewart protect, with Craig Stevens staying in for just four pass blocks on the right side of the formation.
This was simply one of those occasions of an elite pass rusher being stymied by an elite pass protector. Stewart may not be the run blocker he was in 2008 and 2009, but he is still a quality pass protector and his game against Wake and the Dolphins was one of his five with a pass protection grade of +1.5 or better, and one of only two games for Wake all season with a pass rush grade of -1.5 or worse. The other came in Week 17 when Sebastian Vollmer extracted some revenge for the six-pressure game that Wake recorded when Vollmer returned (too early?) from a back injury in Week 13.
You can’t beat the consistency that Wake has shown, and in spite of receiving his big payday last offseason, his play not only didn’t drop away, his total pressures increased in-line with his playing time and he maintained his Pass Rushing Productivity score from 2011. In fact, in spite of his payday our Performance Based Value study even suggested that he was the best value player on the Dolphins’ roster last season.
With the Dolphins’ aggressive move to trade up for rookie Dion Jordan in the NFL Draft a few weeks back, the only remaining question mark over Wake also becomes somewhat moot as well. Almost all of Wake’s time in the NFL has been spent, unusually for a speed rusher like him, rushing the quarterback from the left side of the Dolphins’ defense. In four seasons with the Dolphins Wake has rushed the passer only 171 times from the right side, recording 17 total pressures (one sack, eight hits, and eight hurries) in those chances.
Many would suggest that you want your most devastating pass rusher on the right side of your defense, though our own Steve Palazzolo would dispute that, but if the Dolphins’ latest move can improve their pass rush from the right then why mess with what is working? If Wake can continue to be so relentlessly devastating from the left, is there any need to tinker and risk reducing his production in a position that he is potentially less comfortable rushing the passer from?
Follow Ben on Twitter @PFF_Ben