Top edge rushers through Week 4
There is little believed to affect a game and an opposing QB like a player who is constantly disrupting the timing of pass plays. Running an up-tempo offense that is willing to rely solely on the passing game seems to be a growing ideal in football. This, coupled with more exotic defensive schemes to counter such offenses, has made pass rushers—and in particular, edge rushers—all the more important in today’s NFL.
There are a slew of good edge rushers, and so far this year, most of the players you would expect to stand out do so. Although it’s early, the best edge rushers based on PFF grades contain the likes of Von Miller (+19.8), DeMarcus Ware (+12.7), Cliff Avril (+9.6), Justin Houston (+8.5), and Khalil Mack (+8.1). This group is full of skilled players and good athletes, but when it comes to pass rush, they share a couple of distinct qualities. Mainly, how they attack offensive lineman, and in particular, offensive tackles.
Most people think of edge rushers and immediately relate it to speed. How fast can this rusher turn the corner outside the tackle? Can he bend to get back to the level of the QB? These are basics of edge rushing, but in the NFL, there is so much more to winning a rush than that. Putting aside the technique aspect, such as hand use and rush moves, these rushers attack the tackle in very similar ways. Our data shows that, so far on the year, Von Miller has won a rush 10 times with an outside rush, six times with an inside rush, and five times with a bull rush. For a rusher who came into the NFL known as a speed rusher, those are very balanced numbers.
This trend continues as you examine the elite edge rushers in this group, as shown below.
|Outside win||Inside win||Bull rush win|
|Von Miller, DEN||10||6||5|
|DeMarcus Ware, DEN||9||5||2|
|Cliff Avril, SEA (three games)||5||6||4|
|Justin Houston, KC||5||5||8|
|Khalil Mack, OAK||8||2||2|
NFL tackles are very good at what they do. If a player is solely reliant on one particular rush, eventually their productively will sharply fall because of how quickly tackles can adjust their sets. On top of that, there is also another layer of scheme and coaching adjustments that allow NFL teams to tinker with protections if a player is only capable of winning on one style of rush. With the exception of Khalil Mack, the edge rushers on this list are very balanced when attacking tackles. It creates an issue where a tackle has to respect the outside rush, but also be extremely disciplined in their set. If not, they can get hit with an inside counter or speed to power rush and lose. There is little offensive tackles (and QBs) fear more than getting beat inside.
Khalil Mack’s distribution of rushes so far this year may lead some to think his productivity may slow as the season progresses. Although he is a very explosive rusher, part of the reason he has been able to win outside that often with little inside or bull rush reliance is due to the 2014 season. Opposing tackles have been studying last year’s tape in the early stages of the season, and his distribution in 2014 was 13 outside, seven inside, and 12 bull rushes. That is a much more evenly spread, and I am certain as the year goes on, inside and bull rush pressures will open up for him.
The last outlier of the group above is Justin Houston with eight bull rush pressures. That is a pretty large amount for only being four games in. Once again however, if you turn to 2014, you will see Houston’s monstrous year was pretty evenly distributed. Houston had 33 outside wins, 24 inside wins, and eight bull rush wins, which creates conflicts for opposing offensive lines.
As the season progresses the distribution of these rushes will surely fluctuate. I will be very surprised if Justin Houston does not start winning big with outside rushes after setting up tackles inside, and if Khalil Mack does not begin using a quick inside counter and speed to power rush. The key to being a top tier edge rusher through 2015 is to threaten tackles with not only multiple rushes, but also multiple points of attack; so far in 2015, this group has done just that.