Pass Rusher Profile: Carlos Dunlap and Brandon Graham
So far in our series of Pass Rusher Profiles, the focus has been on full-time starters, the league’s top-line pass rushers that carry the load for the defense week in, week out, series in, series out. However, not all of the league’s pass rushers are entrusted with such responsibility or utilized in such a way to maximize their productivity. Some teams use a rotation to maximize the situational play of each player while others run to a pitch count to ensure that they are always fresh on the field or protected from potentially aggravating old injuries.
Two players who fall into this category are our focus for this edition of the Pass Rusher Profile examining two of the most productive but perhaps underused pass rushers in the last two seasons: Carlos Dunlap and Brandon Graham.
Dunlap and Graham both entered the league as part of the 2010 draft class but have as yet failed to nail down the sort of workload that might have been expected from them. In Graham’s case this can be in large part attributed to a torn ACL which derailed his career towards the end of his rookie season. After a promising rookie season where he shone when given the chance in a crowded Eagles’ defensive line rotation Graham re-emerged in 2012, finally clear of injury, and was the only pass rusher to record pressure more frequently than Von Miller.
In Dunlap’s case the under use is to an extent harder to understand and appears more down to a coaching decision than any area where he may be short of productivity. Dunlap is without question the Bengals’ best pass rusher and whilst he might not have put up the sack numbers in the last two seasons he has led the Bengals in terms of Pass Rushing Productivity both years. Even with his run defense being far from a weakness, Dunlap is still not entrusted with a full-time starting role, splitting snaps with the likes of Robert Geathers who is no better a run defender than Dunlap and a sizeable downgrade when the opposition drops back to pass.
The volume of pass rushing opportunities might have precluded these two from yet entering the league’s elite pass rushers, but in terms of efficiency they have shown that they are ready to handle that leap.
Dunlap: Outside pass rush (23 total pressures, pressure every 17.5 pass rushes)
Graham: Outside pass rush (20 total pressures, pressure every 10.3 pass rushes)
It should come as small wonder that two of the league’s better situational pass rushers are top drawer when it comes to generating pressure to the outside of opposing pass blockers. Players like Dunlap and Graham don’t tend to be on the field for long enough in a game, particularly consecutively, to really set up opponents with a string of moves and counters. Instead, they’re on in obvious pass rushing situations and looking to pin their ears back and turn the corner to the outside. In such situations you’re not much use to a team if you can’t just burn a tackle to the edge and that is exactly what these two are so proficient at, especially Graham in the Eagles’ wide-9 alignment toward the end of last season. Dunlap was even better in this regard in 2011 registering outside pressure once every 12 pass rushes, placing him ahead of the likes of Cameron Wake and Clay Matthews and inside the league’s Top 10.
Dunlap actually recorded less outside pressure on more pass rushes in 2012 but was still part of the league’s Top 20. His biggest problem on outside pressure this season was his ability to convert that outside pressure into hits and sacks. While his rate and 23 total pressures both saw him rank 18th in the league in terms of generating pressure to the outside, he only converted five of those (three hits, two sacks), a 21.7% conversion rate that placed him 84th in the league among edge rushers. This was also a problem for him in 2011 as he turned 33.3% of his 24 total outside pressures into outside sacks, a better mark but still below the league’s average.
This weakness is a trait shared by others in the Bengals’ pass rushing fraternity with Michael Johnson also falling short of the league average converting only 30% of his outside pressure in 2012. Though Wallace Gilberry and Robert Geathers bettered that mark, they got nowhere near Johnson and Dunlap in terms of production and as a group the Bengals’ edge rushers converted only 30% of their outside pressure last season.
Compare that to Graham who converted 40% of his 20 outside pressures into hits and sacks and you start to see that this wasn’t a problem for the league’s most efficient pass rusher in 2012. Despite rushing the passer only just more than 200 times (t-83rd most among edge rushers) Graham’s 45 total pressures tied him for 33rd-most among edge rushers and in terms of outside pressure his 20 total pressures put him in the Top 30. Simply put, no edge rusher generated more pressure from such precious few opportunities as Graham managed.
His solid conversion rate had him inside the league’s Top 30 and his five sacks to the outside of opposing pass rushers was Top 15. Whichever way you slice it Graham was a simply terrifying prospect for tackles to block when he was looking to beat you to the edge and he was doing his work almost exclusively against tackles as well. Of his total pressures 10 were uncharged but of the remaining 35 that were assigned to an offensive player, 32 were charged to tackles. This wasn’t a situational pass rusher profiting from favorable matchups, this was a situational pass rusher just demolishing everybody he faced.
Dunlap: Inside pass rush (6 total pressures, pressure every 67.2 pass rushes)
Graham: Conversion rate (31.1% of total pressure)
One important thing to consider with both of these players is that they are not faultless edge defenders or pass rushers that their coaches are simply limiting the snaps of to spite their own defense — whether or not they are worthy of more snaps is open for debate. Beyond the questions over Dunlap’s discipline and ability as a pass rusher, he has not developed an inside move over the course of the last two seasons in Cincinnati. In that time he has recorded only 14 total pressures to the inside of opposing pass protectors and though his bullrush is somewhat stronger, he struggles to convert a similar amount of total pressure into hits and sacks.
The league’s top pass rushers are famed for their speed and power to beat opposing tackles to the edge but as our previous profiles have explored they are not one-pace threats and, in fact, the very best profit from that change of pace to inside and power moves that the speed rush sets up. Dunlap has proven that he has the outside in hand but in order to take the next step he needs to show that he can develop that second move to capitalize on his terrifying speed to the edge.
The most obvious challenge for Graham has simply been staying healthy and in the mix with the Eagles’ defensive end rotation. He is yet to play his 1000th career snap in the NFL (973 through three seasons) — if you look back to our previous installment, Jared Allen is averaging that mark per season over the last five years.
Any time he has hit the field he has been productive in terms of generating pressure, but he has thus far not really hit the high notes and converted that pressure into hits and sacks at a high rate. His 31.1% overall conversion rate in 2012 was better than his rookie season but still below the league average. He does a solid job of converting outside pressure as already mentioned, but is let down by his conversion rate of bullrush and unblocked pressure, both of which he only converted on one-in-seven opportunities last season.
Due to his severely stunted growth early in his career Graham still has plenty of time to develop but he also has some clear things to work on as he continues to evolve as a pass rusher and edge defender.
Tyler Polumbus: 6 total pressures (Dunlap, Week 3)
Andre Smith: 7 total pressures, including 3 sacks (Graham, Week 15)
Having missed the first two weeks of the season, Dunlap couldn’t have had much of a better welcome back to the action in Week 3 than he got facing up against Tyler Polumbus. While he didn’t record a sack he did register three hits and three hurries in what would prove to be his highest-graded game of the season as he fell short of matching his 2011 performance as a pass rusher.
This was a rare game in which Dunlap balanced his attack registering his three hits each by different means; one by bullrush, one to Polumbus’ inside and one to his outside. He would add a further two hurries to Polumbus’ outside and one by bullrush as he had little trouble hitting the ground running and using the Redskins’ right tackle as a perfect warm up. For the rest of the season Dunlap would rarely victimize a single pass protector only beating Kevin Haslam and Cameron Bradfield for more than a pair of pressures.
Graham, meanwhile, had his big day in front of a national audience against one of Dunlap’s team-mates, Andre Smith. One of this season’s best offensive tackles was made to look ordinary at best by Graham who used the game as his big announcement that he was once again healthy and ready to fulfill the potential that you expect from a first-round selection.
Only just over a week earlier Graham had also taken the Cowboys to pieces with six total pressures (two sacks, two hits, two hurries) but his work against Smith (three sacks, four hurries) was a real eye-opener that he was capable of putting in that kind of performance against any caliber of tackle. As you would expect Graham chiefly worked off of his outside pass rush (two sacks, two hurries) but also showed that he has got the potential to really develop a second move collecting three further pressures by bullrush (a sack and two hurries).
Orlando Franklin: No pressure (Dunlap, Week 9)
Washington Redskins: 3 hurries in 2 games (Graham)
As if to extend the links between these two players waiting for the opportunity to take a full-time role, a victim for one was the other’s troublesome opponent. While Dunlap used the Washington Redskins as his jumping off point for a delayed start to his season, they proved to be one of the few thorns in the side of Graham’s season.
You do have to be careful when categorizing “troublesome” for Graham as he only graded negatively as a pass rusher three times all season and on each occasion that grade was only a -0.1, however, with the third of those coming against the Redskins he only had that high a grade courtesy of a batted pass. Whether it was down to quality performances by the Redskins’ pass protectors or Graham and the Eagles simply being unsure on how to attack their new offense, Graham was unproductive in each game, a real rarity this season.
For Dunlap, his troublesome opponent saw him miss out on the opportunity that Graham took with both hands against Andre Smith, the chance to get a big game against one of the league’s better pass-protecting right tackles. At the time he faced Orlando Franklin and the Denver Broncos Dunlap had been back for five games so rust should not have been a concern, but that home outing saw Dunlap shut out as a pass rusher for only the fourth time in his NFL career.
Dunlap was not alone in that regard with the entire Bengals defense failing in any attempt to get pressure on Peyton Manning and the Broncos backfield. Only three defenders recorded any pressure, one each, and of those three only Nate Clements graded positively as he collected a hit on one of his two blitzes. Even Geno Atkins recorded his only negative pass rush grade of the season in that disappointing home loss for the Bengals.
Both pass rushers are to an extent known quantities, both have proven that in well-managed or situational roles they can be tremendously productive, but there is a great unknown yet to come of whether they will be entrusted with — and able to grasp — the opportunity to play a more extended role in their respective defenses.
For Dunlap, the Bengals have the air of a team on the brink and with the opportunity there to really press on and become contenders. To do that the perceived wisdom is that the offense led by Andy Dalton needs to take a step forward but outside of Geno Atkins the defense really lacks a consistent play-making presence and one has to wonder whether now is the time for the Bengals and Mike Zimmer to roll the dice, give Dunlap an extended role in the defense and see if he can spark some more big plays alongside Atkins.
Too much of the time the Bengals’ defensive line is filled with players like Domata Peko and Robert Geathers doing nothing more than occupying space and offering very little in the way of penetration. The Bengals have the talent to get more aggressive and try to make things happen.
For Graham there are perhaps bigger question marks, just as he appeared to be answering questions about his return to health the Eagles new coaching staff are introducing a 3-4 defense where the role of many players holding over from the previous scheme is unclear. They aggressively (and in my opinion, unwisely) went hard after Connor Barwin in free agency which presumably will leave only one starting spot open to a host of players, including Graham, converting from defensive end to outside linebacker… unless they get “creative” and run a 4-2-5 nickel defense with two edge rushers like Graham and Trent Cole having their hand on the ground in sub packages.
Though the switch to a 3-4 may sound like a frame shift for the Eagles there is no reason that, with sub packages overtaking base defenses as the most used by NFL defense, Graham couldn’t find himself in a situation by which he is labeled as a 3-4 outside linebacker but spends as much or more time rushing the passer with his hand on the ground.
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