Measuring the best pass-rushing defenses has long been a challenge for NFL analysts across the field. Obviously, there is the simple counting of sacks, but that leaves out the plays in which pressure and disruption rain down on the quarterback, which also carry great importance even if the defenders don't get home. Many analytics sites do excellent work charting hours of game film to record and tally instances where they believe a quarterback is under pressure.
However, with the Next Gen Stats data gleaned from the tracking chips in the players' shoulder pads, we are now able to objectively measure just how far away opposing pass rushers are from the quarterback when they look to deliver their passes. In the latest edition of the Next Gen Stats rankings, we'll reveal who were the Top-10 teams at creating pressure by their pass rushers' average raw yards of distance from the opposing quarterback at the time of throw or sack.
Notes: Only plays where the quarterback was inside the pocket at the time of sack or throw were included.
1) Denver Broncos (2.54 average distance to quarterback)
The Denver Broncos under Wade Phillips' guidance finished in the top-three in sacks each of the last two seasons with 52 and 42, respectively. As such, it is no surprise to see them check in at the top of this metric. On average, their pass rushers are just 2.54 yards away from the quarterback at the time of throw or sack on attempts inside the pocket. That's a full 0.17 yards closer than the second-place team, the widest gap inside these Top-10 rankings. Three of their pass rushers -- Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware and Shane Ray -- rank inside the top-six in the Next Gen Stats pressure metric, among edge players with 100-plus pass rush attempts. Even sub-package rusher, Shaquil Barrett ranks 26th. Interior rushers Derek Wolfe and Jared Crick posted scores above the league average for their position.
The prolific nature of Denver's pass rush assisted their star-studded "No Fly Zone" secondary in giving up just 2,972 passing yards this season. They were the only team to allow fewer than 3,200 on the year. The Broncos will face some change this coming season as Wade Phillips moved on to coach another team in this Top-10 following the retirement of Gary Kubiak. New head coach Vance Joseph, who once coached under Phillips in Houston, will have the cupboard stocked with options to pressure the passer in 2017.
2) Philadelphia Eagles (2.71 average distance to quarterback)
The Eagles are a curious finish at No. 2 in the Next Gen Stats pressure metric, as no player registered more than 6.5 sacks for them this season. However, what this shows is that while their players may not have been getting home for sacks, they were consistently putting heat on quarterbacks. Brandon Graham and Vinny Curry both enjoyed stellar seasons in a system that fit their abilities. The duo was an odd fit in the 3-4 defense Chip Kelly wanted to employ but were much better as traditional hand-in-the-dirt edge players. Graham and Curry finished inside the Top-20 of edge players individual pressure, averaging 4.01 and 4.03 average yards to the quarterback in the pocket this season, respectively. The Eagles have them under contract for the next several seasons, through 2018 for Graham and 2020 for Curry.
3) Los Angeles Rams (2.74 average distance to quarterback)
In their first year in Los Angeles, the Rams dropped 10 sacks off their 2015 season total to finish with 31. However, their finish as the third-best pressure defense reaffirms the greatness of their defensive line. The Rams pass rushers were on average 2.74 yards away from the quarterback inside the pocket at the time of throw or sack. Unlike two or three seasons when it was edge rushers Robert Quinn and Chris Long spearheading the pressure, it was the interior rushers that ruled the day for the Rams in 2016. Aaron Donald is the game's premier inside pass rusher, averaging an NFL-best 3.9 yards of distance from the quarterback this year. The team also added Patriots castoff Dominique Easley and he made a major difference as a sub-package pocket collapsing threat. Among interior lineman with 100-plus pass rush attempts, his 4.1 average yards of distance to the quarterbacks ranked fourth.
The Rams defensive line will continue to be the strength of their team as they look to retool on offense under new head coach Sean McVay. The young coach made a great first hire in Wade Phillips to be his defensive coordinator. We know from his work in Denver and many other stops Phillips will look to dial up the pressure in Los Angeles to an even greater degree.
4) Arizona Cardinals (2.77 average distance to quarterback)
The Cardinals led the NFL this year with 48 sacks and an 8.1 sack rate. Arizona had two players in Markus Golden and Chandler Jones finish with double-digit sacks. Massive defensive end Calais Campbell was a top-five interior pass rusher in the Next Gen Stats pressure metric, averaging 4.15 yards of distance from the quarterback at the time of throw or sack. With a number of difference makers in their front seven, it's no wonder they were such a fearsome rush unit. All told, their defenders averaged 2.77 yards of distance from the quarterback in the pocket this season.
5) Cincinnati Bengals (2.77 average distance to quarterback)
The Bengals have long been a "the whole is better than the sum of their parts" type of unit from a pass rush and front seven perspective. Their one true dominant player is Geno Atkins, who has 20 sacks combined the last two seasons. He led the team with nine in 2016. Carlos Dunlap finished second with eight, marking his fourth straight with at least 7.5 sacks. However, he ranked 105th in the Next Gen Stats pressure metric with 4.78 average yards of distance from the quarterback in the pocket. The Bengals did not have a single edge rusher finish above the NFL average 4.35 score for players with 100-plus pass rush attempts. Expect Cincinnati to explore adding even more defensive end help in the offseason.
6) Tennessee Titans (2.79 average distance to quarterback)
The Titans were one of the most surprising teams in the Top-10 ranking, as their front-seven took well to Dick LeBeau's aggressive defense in 2016. Their two outside linebackers, Derek Morgan and Brian Orakpo, who found new life in Tennessee the last two seasons after washing out in Washington, combined for 19.5 sacks this season. The duo quietly makes up one of the better pressure tandems in the NFL as they both rank inside the Top-10 in the Next Gen Stats individual pressure metric. Interestingly enough, the Titans' pass defense as a whole finished 30th in the NFL this year, giving up 269 passing yards per game. Tennessee badly needs to add defensive backs to complement the pressure their front line produces.
7) Green Bay Packers (2.81 average distance to quarterback)
The Packers check in at No. 7 on the Top-10 despite sporting the 31st-ranked pass defense this year, the worst on this list. The Packers were one of seven teams to finish with 40 or more sacks in 2016, so it's not completely shocking to see their pressure unit was a strong one. Julius Peppers is still getting it done despite playing in his late 30's. He ranked 17th among edge rushers with 100-plus pass rush attempts in the individual Next Gen Stats pressure metric. Green Bay's 2012 first-round pick Nick Perry finally had a breakthrough season with 11 total sacks. He slowed down as the year went on but still finished 30th among edge players with 4.12 average yards of distance to the quarterback. Despite being perhaps the biggest name, Clay Matthews finished behind those two but did check in over the NFL average for edge rushers. On the interior, the Packers have one of the best inside pass rushers in the game, as Mike Daniels finished third in the Next Gen Stats pressure metric, trailing only Aaron Donald and Geno Atkins.
With all of these players in the front seven, it only adds further damnation on the across-the-board poor performance of their pass defense. An injury to Sam Shields and the departure of Casey Hayward hurt, but the Packers can't feel comfortable going into 2017 counting on young players like Ladarius Gunter and Damarious Randall again.
8) Cleveland Browns (2.82 average distance to quarterback)
The Browns ranking as the eighth-best pressure defense is, without question, the most shocking revelation of the list. Cleveland's only regularly effective edge player was rookie Emmanuel Ogbah. He led the team with six sacks and was the only pass rusher on the team who finished above the NFL average in the Next Gen Stats pressure metric. The team did get solid interior push from players like Stephen Paea, who averaged 4.11 yards of distance from the quarterback in the pocket on just 101 pass rush attempts, and Jamie Meder. However, Cleveland is a perfect example of where sacks matter. Yes, they did put some heat on quarterbacks on the occasion this year, but they only finished with 26 sacks, the lowest of any team on this list. Their defense lacked a true difference-maker or finisher along the front seven. One of the Browns' top priorities this offseason will be to identify and acquire someone who could fill that gap, possibly even with the No. 1 overall pick.
9) Washington Redskins (2.83 average distance to quarterback)
The Washington defense was worked over on the ground this year, but their secondary and front seven are littered with talented players. Second-year edge defender Preston Smith is their best pass-rushers, ranking 16th in the NFL with 4.03 yards of distance to the quarterback at the time of throw or sack. Smith racked up 13 sacks over his first two seasons. Ryan Kerrigan led the team this year with 11 sacks. Both he and Trent Murphy finished above the NFL average in the Next Gen Stats individual pressure metric for edge players with 100-plus rush attempts. The biggest surprise for Washington had to be the play of defensive end Chris Baker, who ranked 16th among interior pass rushers with 4.29 average yards of distance to the quarterback. Baker heads into free agency this year after a strong season and will command attention if his current team cannot re-sign him.
10) Minnesota Vikings (2.83 average distance to quarterback)
The Vikings started off the year as the hottest defense in the league and ended up finishing as the third-best unit, in terms of yards allowed. Minnesota has high-end players at all three levels of their defense but their stellar play starts up front. Second-year defensive end Danielle Hunter out of LSU had a breakout season in 2016 to establish himself as their top pass rusher. He led the team in sacks and averaged 4.19 yards of distance from the quarterback at the time of throw or sack. Fellow edge player Everson Griffen scored right around the league average in Next Gen Stats' pressure metric but chipped in with eight sacks of his own. The pass rush is one of the reasons Xavier Rhodes was able to finish as Next Gen Stats' best No. 1 cornerback of the 2016 season and it has a positive effect throughout Mike Zimmer's unit.
Four bonus notes:
The Colts finished 31st with their pass rushers averaging 3.06 yards of distance to the quarterback. The failure to establish a strong defense was a big reason Ryan Grigson lost his job as general manager.
The Jacksonville Jaguars had a solid pass defense led by Jalen Ramsey, but finished 26th with 3.0 yards of distance to the quarterback. They found a gem in rookie Yannick Ngakoue, but need to explore adding another premier edge rusher. Former third overall pick Dante Fowler finished 82nd out of qualifying edge players.
The NFC Champion Atlanta Falcons just missed the Top-10 at an 11th place finish with a 2.86 average yards to the quarterback. The breakout seasons from Vic Beasley and interior disruptor Grady Jarrett gave them a viable pass rush.
Despite finishing second in sacks with 47, the Carolina Panthers ended up 17th in this metric. Sean McDermott had to call more blitzes in the second half of the season to start manufacturing pressure for a team that could not get home with its front-four.