- A discussion of why so many edge defenders remain great well into their 30s, the reasons why teams drop pass rushers into coverage, why Whitney Mercilus is a swell guy, a ranking of the top 10 edge defenders in the NFL heading into the 2019 season, and much more.
On the Monday Morning NFL Podcast, Andy Benoit and Gary Gramling discuss edge defenders across the NFL, why so many edge guys are still great well into their 30s, who is good lining up inside, who is ready to breakout, and why teams drop edge guys into coverage. Plus, they unveil their ranking of the top 10 edge defenders in the NFL heading into the 2019 season. Listen and subscribe to The MMQB Monday Morning NFL Podcast here. The following transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.
GARY: Baltimore and Kansas City are two teams who, last year, dropped their edge guys in coverage a lot, at a higher rate than most teams. Justin Houston was dropping into coverage on 20 percent of his passing-down snaps last season. So I guess this is a two-part question: What's the logic in doing so? And why did it work really well for Baltimore but not as well for Kansas City?
ANDY: These are good teams to contrast because, yes, they both dropped guys into coverage but they do it for very different reasons. For Kansas City, I don’t think it will continue like this under Steve Spagnuolo who’s now their defensive coordinator. But I recently saw Bob Sutton, their previous coordinator—he’s with the Falcons now. When I did the rookie minicamp piece with the Falcons, Sutton and I sat in the lobby for about 30 minutes and just talked defense, and I asked him, flat-out, why do you drop edge guys into coverage. Because when he was first in Kansas City, Sutton was blitzing as much as anyone in football, and by the end of his tenure he was dropping eight into coverage more than anyone in the NFL. It was a big, wild shift for him. I asked him why, and he said his reason was very simple: Quarterbacks throw the ball so quickly, so why would we send the bodies after the QB if the ball gets out so quickly. We might as well crowd the passing lanes. My sense was there really wasn't much more to it than that. That’s his philosophy.
ANDY: Now, the Ravens are a different philosophy. They send five pass rushers on a lot of their plays. They’ll play zone coverage and rush five, fire-zone blitzing. And as part of their fire zones they usually overload one side and drop from the other. So if I'm the left defensive end, we're showing pressure from the left side with all these other guys around me. But we're actually going to bring the pressure at the last minute from the right side and I'm going to drop back and that's really the foundation of Baltimore's method to defense. Their defensive ends wind up in coverage but it's because of the way the pressure designs are working, as opposed to Kansas City, where they just—for the last few years—believed in eight-man coverages.
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GARY: I wondered specifically with Justin Houston—who, as I mentioned, was back in coverage on about 20 percent of his passing-down snaps last year. I remember, long ago, talking to LaMarr Woodley, Steelers great and Titans and Raiders, uh, person, and we were talking about this. And I said, boy, it must really get your goat when you have to drop into coverage rather than rushing the quarterback. He said no, because it’s like getting a breather without having to come off the field. I wondered if the approach with Houston last year was also in part to keep him healthy and fresh without frequently pulling him off the field.
ANDY: Well, LaMarr Woodley had a little bit of a reputation as a guy who noticed when he had the chance to catch a breather. I think a lot of who drops is dependent on the formation. Vic Fangio, he’s now in Denver of course but he was in Chicago last year as their defensive coordinator, kind of brings us full circle. We've talked about the Chiefs, who drop eight into coverage. We've talked about the Ravens, who dropped six into coverage and rushed five. And the Bears—and now the Broncos—they rush the traditional four but will drop a defensive end into coverage because they’re trying to create the effect of a blitz without actually blitzing. Fangio has done that a lot. Even with Khalil Mack last year, there were a lot of instances where Mack would drop into the flat. Or on base downs, on first and second down if the Bears were in their base package, you can make an offensive formation dictate that Mack would walk out over the slot. When Fangio was defensive coordinator for the Niners, the Ravens in the Super Bowl that year employed a lot of base slot formations, meaning all their wide receivers were on one side and the rest of their base personnel was on the other. And what that did was make Aldon Smith have to walk out over the slot receiver, and all of the sudden Aldon Smith was a non-factor as a pass rusher in that game. So you can dictate to some. Fangio is willing to live with the tradeoff; he’s that big of a believer in disguising his seven-man zone coverages. But there are a lot of different reasons you would drop a defensive end into coverage. I would bet 99 times out of 100 it’s just a function of the scheme.
GARY: I was playing around with the numbers today, how frequently players dropped into coverage, and the league average for edge players dropping into coverage was 8.1 percent. I was surprised to see Mack up there at 12 percent.
ANDY: There you go. Who else had some high numbers?
GARY: Kyler Fackrell of Green Bay was the league leader.
ANDY: Yup, another team that shows pressure.
GARY: Fackrell was 34.5 percent.
ANDY: Let me back up on Fackrell really quick. That’s probably part of his natural role—he’s miscast in the data. He might not be a pure edged defender in Green Bay.
GARY: Whitney Mercilus was the other guy over 30 percent. We also had T.J. Watt, Anthony Chickillo and Bud Dupree, three Steelers, way up there, in the 17 to 22 percent range.
ANDY: And that's because the Steelers subscribe to that same Fangio belief. The Steelers show a five-down front, we call it 3-4 but really it’s more of a 5-2 with those outside linebackers up on the line of scrimmage. And the whole idea is, we’re gonna send four but because we’re in a 5-2 and it looks like we’re sending five, you'll never know who the four are, and one of these guys will drop into coverage. Offenses know this going in, teams scheme a lot how we can attack T.J. Watt in coverage, and for a defensive end, an edge guy, he’s a very good coverage defender but he's still an edge defender often going against running backs in space, sometimes even tight ends and wide receivers. So, again, it’s all part of the tradeoff of the defense. You’re hoping that by dropping a guy into coverage you confuse the quarterback just enough that he holds the ball and you give your pass rush that much more time to get home.
GARY: J.J. Watt who is in our edge defenders show this year—he’s been the on defensive line show in past year—he had 676 passing-down plays, and he dropped into coverage twice.
ANDY: I guarantee you Whitney Mercilus took note of that, because when I sat down with a Texans coach this offseason, I said Whitney Mercilus was invisible this year, I would imagine you guys aren’t going to have him back because Mercilus is not cheap. And the coach said, Well, Whitney was asked to do a lot of different things in our scheme this year and he had to drop into coverage a lot more, so you’re taking one for the team a lot of times when you do that.
GARY: Good man, Whitney Mercilus.
THE MMQB PODCAST TOP 10 EDGE DEFENDERS FOR 2019
“Others receiving votes” is included if you listen to the show, along with more edge defender discussions including why so many edge defenders are aging so well, why they drop into coverage, who’s good lining up inside, and who is poised for a breakout season. Position ranking voting is AP Poll-style among three panelists, with Andy’s votes counting double:
1. Von Miller, Denver, 77 points (1 first-place vote)
2. J.J. Watt, Houston, 76 (1)
3. Khalil Mack, Chicago, 75 (1)
4. Cam Jordan, New Orleans, 66
5. Demarcus Lawrence, Dallas, 64
6. Joey Bosa, L.A. Chargers, 57
7. Chandler Jones, Arizona, 50
8. Yannick Ngakoue, Jacksonville, 46
9. Melvin Ingram, L.A. Chargers, 42
10. Calais Campbell, Jacksonville, 41
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