Clay Matthews, Elvis Dumervil among NFL's top 10 pass rushers
Taking notice of this truth may be difficult given the NFL's offensive explosion in recent years -- hard to see the forest for the trees and all -- but the league finds itself amid a pass rushing heyday. Up-tempo, creative offenses have forced defenses to counter with more nimble athletes all over the field and hybrid defenses that increase responsibilities for those in the front seven.
Hand in hand with the evolution have come edge players who are faster, stronger, better at finding the quarterback. Last year alone, 24 defenders finished with 10 or more sacks, the highest total since 1992.
QBs are under constant pressure. These players are usually bringing the heat ...
Honorable mention: Mario Williams, Bills; Terrell Suggs, Ravens; Calais Campbell, Cardinals; Cam Jordan, Saints; Jared Allen, Bears; Charles Johnson, Panthers; DeMarcus Ware, Broncos; Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan, Redskins.
Well, that's quite a list, particularly when we take into consideration just how long Suggs, Allen and Ware have been wreaking havoc on offenses around the league. Williams, with 13 sacks last season, and Jordan, at 12.5 as his development fueled the Saints' defensive turnaround, may have been the toughest omissions looking ahead to 2014. Suggs was not far back either, off a bounceback 2013 that saw him sip from the fountain of youth.
Ware might be the next longtime NFL stalwart to rebound. The former Cowboy should thrive in Denver. He flashed some of his unblockable ways of old last season, despite being hampered severely by injuries.
10. Robert Mathis, Colts: Hard to have a list of the NFL's top pass rushers without including the 2013 league-leader in sacks. Mathis took to a more free-wheeling rush linebacker role in the Colts defense last season, setting a new career mark with 19.5 sacks. He had not topped 11.5 sacks in a season prior to that, though he has long been a steady source of disruption -- his 111 career sacks are a Colts' franchise record.
9. Clay Matthews, Packers: When Matthews is at his finest, he arguably is as dynamic as any player here. He has had a tough time staying healthy of late, however, with a combined nine games out of the lineup over the past two seasons. Matthews has 20.5 sacks over that timeframe nonetheless, doing yeoman's work for a Green Bay defense that has had its fair share of hiccups. If he stays healthy for a full 16 games, Matthews should reclaim his previously locked-down Pro Bowl spot and might challenge for Defensive Player of the Year.
8. Tamba Hali, Chiefs: Kansas City ought to be the envy of most teams in the league when it comes to pass-rushing prowess, due to the presence of Hali and Justin Houston together. Between them, they've totaled 58.5 sacks since Houston joined the Chiefs as a rookie in 2011. Hali and Houston also were responsible for a whopping 100 QB hurries last year, according to Pro Football Focus.
Houston, 25, probably has a brighter future than the 30-year-old Hali, but the veteran Hali remains a reliable headache for offenses. He has hit double-digit sacks in three of the past four seasons, counting his 11 last year.
7. Greg Hardy, Panthers: Fans outside of Carolina may not have been as familiar with Hardy, a sixth-round pick in 2010, as they were with others on this list. Hardy offered a proper introduction last season, as his 15 sacks and dominant work at DE helped Carolina take the NFC South crown. Of course, those that had been paying attention could read the tea leaves earlier -- Hardy had 11 sacks during 2012, one year after batting down 11 passes as a disruptive end.
On Wednesday's SI Now, Sports Illustrated legal analyst Michael McCann discusses the domestic abuse charges against Greg Hardy, how the NFL will handle the situation and if this shows a pattern of bad behavior.
6. Elvis Dumervil, Ravens: The MMQB's Greg Bedard tracked the effectiveness of every pass rusher in the league last season using a ratings formula called "Pressure Points." Dumervil, in his first season with the Ravens, was at the top of the heap. That's no real surprise given the ex-Broncos' past work -- his 17 sacks paced the league in 2009 and he averaged more than 10 sacks as a DE in '11-12, after missing the '10 season with an injury.
5. Aldon Smith, 49ers: On the field, Smith has established himself as one of the NFL's more dominant defenders. Off the field is where the problems continue to arise for Smith, who is facing a likely suspension to start 2014 after taking a five-game leave of absence in '13 to attend rehab. Getting his life in order is a more important challenge for Smith than playing football, but the 49ers hope that the ultra-talented Smith does not let his abilities go to waste.
With 42 sacks in 43 NFL games, Smith is on an early pace to distinguish himself as one of the best sack artists ever. But he must be in the lineup to do so.
4. Cameron Wake, Dolphins: Now five years removed from making the CFL-to-NFL leap, Wake remains one of the Dolphins' all-time great finds. He secured his third overall and second consecutive Pro Bowl bid in 2013, after landing on the '12 All-Pro first team. Few, if any, defensive players are as quick off the edge as Wake, who has made a habit of undressing tackles by dipping his shoulder and turning on the jets.
Wake has averaged 11.5 sacks and 42 QB hurries over the past four seasons, with the Dolphins switching from a 3-4 to a 4-3 defense midway through that time.
3. Robert Quinn, Rams: Strictly in terms of getting to the quarterback, Quinn may have established himself as the NFL's top dog in 2013. Certainly, there was not a better 4-3 defensive end in that regard last year.
In his third NFL season, Quinn enjoyed a breakthrough to the tune of 19 sacks -- up 8.5 from the year prior -- as he and Chris Long (8.5 sacks) combined to form arguably the league's top pass-rushing duo. Already locked up through 2015 thanks to the Rams' picking up his fifth-year option, Quinn is trending toward a massive, perhaps record-setting payday come 2016. The arrival of rookie Aaron Donald at DT, where he joins Michael Brockers and Kendall Langford, will mean O-lines have to take some attention off Quinn, a scary proposition for often helpless quarterbacks.
2. Von Miller, Broncos: Miller's season-opening suspension and season-ending injury limited his contributions to a fleeting nine games in 2013. Per usual, Miller took full advantage of his time on the field, compiling five sacks and constantly harassing opposing QBs. Over 40 career games, Miller now has 35.5 sacks, buoyed by the 18.5 he managed back in 2012.
Though the lines are becoming more and more blurred in distinguishing defensive ends versus outside linebackers, Miller's frequent positioning as the fifth man on a 4-3 line stands out. He is not a pure DE; he is not a traditional 3-4 OLB.
But no matter how he is designated, Miller continues to be a wrecking ball for the Broncos.
1. J.J. Watt, Texans: If you're looking just at the statistics, Watt was not the best pass rusher in the NFL last season -- not even close, really. He finished with 10.5 sacks, tied for 16th-best and down a full 10 sacks from his Defensive Player of the Year performance of 2012.
There still is not a defensive lineman capable of impacting a game in more ways than Watt can, and that very much included getting after the quarterback during the '13 campaign. According to those Pressure Points metrics, Watt was far and away the league's most dominant "interior" pass rusher from his 3-4 end spot. And he accomplished that despite drawing blocking attention comparable to what Jadeveon Clowney faced at South Carolina.
"I’m hitting the quarterback at a pretty high rate -- not getting as many sacks," Watt told Bedard after Week 15. "I’m having to fight through some more things, a couple of more things being thrown at me. Finding different ways to get to the same destination."
To Watt's first point, he was credited with 36 QB hits and 38 hurries by Pro Football Focus last season, both numbers surpassing what he posted in that remarkable '12 run. Watt also racked up 80 tackles, second only to Rob Ninkovich's 91 among defensive linemen, a nod to the all-around game that helps set Watt apart from the competition.
"He has a great combination of power, speed and determination to wreak havoc in your backfield," Colts offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton said prior to one of his team's two matchups with Houston last year. "He's not just a good pass rusher, but he's hell to deal with as far as trying to run the football. He takes on double teams, he splits double teams. He finds ways to get into your backfield and disrupt your run game."