While most NFL teams frantically search for a good pass rusher or two, the Broncos are unleashing six of them on opponents. (How’s it working out? Just ask Joe Flacco)
Editor’s note: Each week throughout the 2015 NFL season, The MMQB will publish an advanced analytics story by Neil Hornsby, the president of football operations at Pro Football Focus.
Quick, what’s the best way to win on defense in the modern NFL?
If you said “get pressure on the quarterback,” you’re right (and you probably need to get out a little more).
Edge rushers and penetrating three and five techniques are becoming the most sought-after positions in football, because if you can pressure without blitzing you can get by with sub-optimal corners and safeties. However, if you have both consistent pressure and a good secondary, and then you blitz anyway ... well, the rest of the league had better look out.
Before free agency and the draft, we at Pro Football Focus were approached separately by three of our 19 NFL team customers, each of whom wanted different views on how to locate just one of these rare items. On Sunday the Denver Broncos unleashed their rotation of six.
If getting pressure on the QB is the goal, then the Broncos over-delivered on expectations that were already high. With new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips blitzing on 74% of plays, Denver pressured Joe Flacco on 22 of his 34 dropbacks (or 65% of the time he wanted to throw). To put that in context, the NFL average last year was 34%, and the most pressured quarterback in football was Russell Wilson at 46%.
Of those 22 snaps under duress on Sunday, Flacco was sacked twice, completed just 10 passes for 65 yards and threw an interception. This gave him a passer rating of 36.5 when pressured.
So who are the “Serious Six” that we are going to hear so much about this year? Let’s introduce them:
1. The Vet: DeMarcus Ware, ROLB
The star of Sunday’s show. Many (myself included, unfortunately) thought he left his halcyon days behind him in Dallas, but against the Ravens, Ware put together his best display since a 2010 Week 2 demolition of the Bears. Tormenting overmatched backup James Hurst, Ware had a sack, three hits and seven hurries on only 24 rushes, remarkable production for the 33-year-old veteran.
2. The Superstar: Von Miller, LOLB
The fact that this two-hit, four-hurry beat-down of one of the best right tackles in football (Ricky Wagner) was only the young linebacker’s 11th most productive performance says something about his consistency since entering the league in 2011. After J.J. Watt, he might be the most complete defensive player around.
3. The Crown Prince: Shane Ray, ROLB
The most productive pass rusher in the NCAA last year, Ray was the Broncos’ first-round draft choice. Although he wasn’t hugely productive in his six pass-rush snaps (he beat Hurst once on a bull rush that didn’t pressure Flacco), if his preseason is any indication he’ll be fine. The fourth-most productive rusher in the preseason, he picked up three sacks, a hit and six hurries on 68 rushes.
• A ROCKY START FOR PEYTON MANNING: While the defense carried the day in Week 1, Peyton Manning and the Broncos offense, under new head coach Gary Kubiak, struggled. Still, Andy Benoit writes that the Manning-Kubiak marriage can work.
4. The Man from Nowhere: Shaquil Barrett, LOLB
So if Ray was fourth, who was the most productive pass rusher in the preseason? That would Barrett, a 2014 UDFA. In Week 1 he was only given four snaps to get after the QB, but what a four snaps they were. This is how they went: unblocked pressure on a bootleg, beat Wagner to the inside for a hurry, bull-rushed Wagner back into his QB, beat Wagner around the edge for a hurry nullified by a penalty elsewhere.
5. The (Massively) Underrated: Malik Jackson, three technique
While I was doing the aforementioned pass-rusher analysis for NFL teams, an unfamiliar name kept popping up alongside the J.J. Watts and the Justin Houstons of the world: Malik Jackson. Playing primarily in nickel last year, Jackson accumulated a huge 44 QB disruptions in only 409 attempts. For someone rushing mostly from the inside, that’s a tremendous rate. He’s now playing in base too, and maybe the larger workload affected him slightly; he didn’t have the best game rushing the passer Sunday (just a single hurry in 14 attempts), but he did play very well against the run.
6. The Specialist: Antonio Smith, three technique
Let’s be clear here: Smith is something of a one-trick pony. He’s one of the least robust run defenders among interior linemen you’ll see, and for the Raiders last year he graded a -20.0 in that facet of play (81st out of 81 graded players). But if your one trick is great then that shortcoming can be overlooked, and at the other end of the spectrum we ranked Smith third out of the same 81 interior linemen, with 43 QB pressures. That’s better than Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh. Now clearly those guys are hugely superior run defenders, but in Denver that’s not what Smith is going to be asked to do. He’s a specialist with little run responsibility, and that can only be good for both him and his new team.
Neil Hornsby is the president of football operations at profootballfocus.com.