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Hands-on Training With the NFL sack record within reach, Giants defensive end Michael Strahan shares his secrets for taking down the quarterback

Dec. 17, 2001
Dec. 17, 2001

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Dec. 17, 2001

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Hands-on Training With the NFL sack record within reach, Giants defensive end Michael Strahan shares his secrets for taking down the quarterback

You know what's weird about the sack?" Michael Strahan was
saying recently, clicker in hand as he sat staring at a big
video screen. The New York Giants defensive end was in a Giants
Stadium meeting room, running a tape back and forth and studying
the end-zone view of a play from his team's game against the St.
Louis Rams on Oct. 14. "Half the time you get one, you don't
know you got it. You don't hear anything. Huffing and puffing
maybe. It's a mass of players and pads and grunting. The crowd?
You filter it. I don't hear 'em when the ball's about to be
snapped. And vision is a joke. Half the time you don't have a
clear view of the quarterback, and you don't see the ball. You
don't really know you got the sack until your teammates pound
you on the helmet. Then you take the filter off. You hear the
crowd. The crowd lets you know how big a play it is. It can turn
the game.

This is an article from the Dec. 17, 2001 issue Original Layout

"The quarterback and defensive end are the two highest-paid
positions in football--did you know that?" Strahan continues.
"The defensive end can be as disruptive as a quarterback can be
productive."

Against the Rams, Strahan was as disruptive (six tackles and
four sacks) as St. Louis quarterback Kurt Warner was productive
(316 passing yards). Now, with 16 1/2 sacks heading into
Saturday's game against the Arizona Cardinals, Strahan is on
pace to match the NFL season record of 22, set in 1984 by New
York Jets defensive end Mark Gastineau. What follows is
Strahan's breakdown of his last sack of Warner that day.

The Presnap Read

"Fourth quarter, third-and-five, Rams 46," says Strahan, who
lines up on the left side. Trailing 14-9 and having already
moved his team from inside the 10, Warner is trying to work his
magic. "I know it's a pass," Strahan says. "I'm looking at the
running back. Is he going to help the tackle? Is he going to
chip me? Or is he going to try to get open before we can get to
the quarterback? Because the back is Marshall Faulk and the Rams
want to get him in the pattern, I assume he'll want to avoid me.
Then there's the guard. Is he going to chip me? I doubt it, but
I have to watch for him. Now I look at the tackle, [Ryan]
Tucker. He's set up for a pass, back on his haunches. Getting
ready to sit and wait for me."

The Setup

"I already have my move in mind, because I've been power-rushing
Tucker the entire game," Strahan says. The videotape shows him
lined up outside Tucker's right shoulder, in a three-point
stance, flexing his back leg to make sure he gets good traction
on the artificial turf. Strahan is 6'5", 269 pounds, with the
best combination of speed and power of any defensive end in the
NFL. Tucker is 6'5", 305 pounds, an average pro tackle in size
and talent, with the disadvantage of playing with a broken left
hand (protected by a soft cast). Strahan must not let the
heavier man make the first controlling move.

"He's so afraid," Strahan says. "He's been embarrassed by being
run over [all day], and he's just going to sit, squat and try to
stymie me at the line. Most of these guys are bigger than I am,
and when they're bigger, 300-some pounds, they don't really work
on strength so much. I work on strength because I have to be
stronger than they are. I've been setting him up most of the
third quarter--power, power, power.

"What I do most games is this: On the first rush I give you a
big power move, hit you hard, wham. You're saying, 'Oh, my God.
This guy's more powerful than I saw on film.' That starts the
setup. That's how it's going to be all day long. Then I give you
power maybe 20 snaps in a row, just waiting for the right time
to change up."

The Technique

"Pass rushing is a chess game," says Strahan, 30, who, unhappy
with his play in a sackless first two games this year, revised
his approach with the approval of defensive line coach Denny
Marcin. "I told Denny, 'I'm going to go with what I'm
comfortable doing. I'm not a finesse guy. For the most part I'm
going with power.' Then we played the Saints, I got three sacks,
and it has snowballed. I feel like I'm reacting faster than
ever. On this play against the Rams, before the ball's snapped,
I'm thinking of combining my speed with a rip"--jerking his
right arm up to knock away Tucker's right arm--"and then
lowering my shoulder and turning the corner.

"When I was in college, at Texas Southern, the only thing I did
was run around guys until they got tired. No technique. I outran
'em. In my first minicamp with the Giants I learned more in one
day from my position coach, Earl Leggett, than I learned in four
years of college. Mostly about hands. You use a lot of boxing
techniques--jabbing, leverage, getting the other guy
off-balance. Earl used to get us so tired at the beginning of
practice, making us do that high school drill where you jog in
place and then drop to the ground. Thirty of 'em. He'd say, 'I'm
going to take you to the wall! I'm going to see what your mom
was made of, what your grandparents were made of!' Then we'd
have a normal practice. That's why I don't get tired much. I've
learned how to train. I could have played two more quarters
against the Rams, I was so fresh."

The Takeoff

"See how I don't come off the ball like a bat out of hell?" says
Strahan. When the ball is snapped, he appears to be running at
three-quarters speed. "I come off the ball kind of easy, trying
to see if Faulk's going to do what I thought so I can decide
what kind of move I'm going to use. I act like I'm going to bull
Tucker. See the key? Power, power, power. I make this rush look
the same as the last one. I have to make a split-second decision
on whether I'm going to go inside or outside. But it's
one-on-one, so I think I can beat him outside instead of maybe
getting stuck in traffic.

"I take it up the field, like a power move. Tucker shoots his
hands, I take a step at him, he stops his feet, and that is so
big. I swipe his [left] hand, start to go outside. But not too
far. You want to shorten your trip to the passer, because if you
go too deep, the quarterback will step up in the pocket, and
you'll never catch up to him. Too far to run."

The Obstacle

"So I step back downfield on Tucker. One step," Strahan says.
"Now I think, I've got him. Look." Strahan has lowered his right
shoulder to the midsection of the grasping Tucker and angled
straight for Warner. "I turn my hips, lower my shoulder, take
the corner hard, continue to run," Strahan says. "There's
nothing he can do."

Well, there is one thing. With Strahan barreling past him,
Tucker hugs his opponent's right shoulder and tries to tackle
him. "I've got the corner on him, so he's stuck," Strahan says.
"That's crucial. He pretty much has to ride me into the
quarterback. I have no idea if I'll get the holding call, but
I'm not thinking about that."

The Finish

"First of all, I think the sack is overrated," Strahan says. "I
know guys, not really good players, who come in on third down
and get sacks, and people think they're good. Some guys who are
very good players, like Greg Ellis of the Dallas Cowboys, have
great games but don't get a lot of sacks. They play the run and
harass the quarterback, which is what [playing defensive end] is
all about. Like in the St. Louis game: When we graded out, I had
hit Kurt 12 times. Some games you play your best, you hit the
quarterback 100 times and you don't get a sack. Some games you
get sacks on two plays and the rest of the time you're nowhere
near him.

"On this play I'm in a rush to get to Kurt because I'm close,
he's still got the ball and I see it, and this may be my last
chance in the game to make something big happen. Even though
Tucker's holding me, I see Kurt"--now the tape is rolling in
super slo-mo, and Strahan takes his last two agonizing
steps--"and I know I got him. Just another second.... There it
is! Right there. I got him, I got him, I got him, I got him."
Warner cocks his arm, but before he can pull the trigger,
Strahan, with Tucker still hanging on, plows into the
quarterback. The ball pops loose, and the Giants recover. Tucker
is flagged for holding, but that's a moot point.

"A sack and a fumble--and we recover. The double whammy!"
Strahan says. "You know what my favorite part of the sack is,
most times? I look over at our bench, and our coaches are
jumping up and down. After the game Kurt came up to me and said,
'Michael, I'm going to feel this the next few weeks.' I liked
that."

Strahan needs six sacks in his last four games to break
Gastineau's record, and it won't come easily. "Here's what
people don't realize," he says. "I'm lining up against a guy
they think I should handle, so I should get a sack or two. They
don't realize I'm playing against that running back too on some
plays, and that tight end, and that guard. I'm playing against a
coach who's going to do everything he can to keep me away from
his quarterback. When we played the Vikings, I was saying
something to the ref about one of the numerous nonholding calls,
and Mike Tice, Minnesota's offensive line coach, yelled, 'Come
on, Strahan, just play!' I said to him, 'You leave this kid out
here by himself, and I'll embarrass him.' In the heat of the
moment you say macho things like that. Tice looked at me like I
was nuts and said, 'You think I'm crazy?'

"The roughest game was against Dallas [on Nov. 4]. From most of
the second quarter on, I'd have three guys looking for me on
most pass plays. You face the tackle every play. You go inside,
and the guard is there to hit you. You go outside, and the back
is there. They just built a wall."

Strahan says he thinks about the record, and who can blame him?
The only preeminent tackle he'll face the rest of the season is
the Philadelphia Eagles' Jon Runyan, on Dec. 30. "It's not as if
I'm in a game thinking, I gotta get a sack. I gotta keep pace,"
Strahan says. "If I do, then I'm out of my game. I have to be
focused on my assignment, on the moment. I can't focus on the
future.

"It's going to be harder now than it was early in the year. You
saw what happened to Barry Bonds. No one wanted to pitch to him
when he got close to the home run record. Who wants to be the
tackle who gets beat for the record sack? Who wants to be the
team? I'm not asking them not to pitch to me. I'm just saying,
Once in a while, leave me with a guy, alone, and let's see what
I can do."

Fat chance.

COLOR PHOTO: DARREN CARROLL [T of C]COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY AL TIELEMANS Gotcha! Strahan had a highlight-tape day against Tucker and the Rams, picking up a career-best four sacks.COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Powerhouse Strahan gives up a lot of weight to the linemen he faces, but he has proven he has the strength to hold his own.COLOR PHOTO: JERRY PINKUS Twice as nice Against Arizona, Strahan got what he calls a "double whammy"--a sack and a fumble against Jake Plummer.
"THE DEFENSIVE END can be as disruptive as the quarterback can
be productive," says Strahan, a three-time Pro Bowl selection.
"AFTER THE GAME Kurt [Warner] came up and said, 'I'm going to
feel this the next few weeks,'" says Strahan. "I liked that."