The proliferation of the passing game in the NFL has made it imperative for defenses to feature at least one dominant pass rusher along the front line. In most cases, coaches would prefer that their top defender align at defensive end to create immediate pressure on the quarterback off the edge, which disrupts the timing of the passing game and leads to negative plays (sacks or turnovers) for the offense.
During my 17-plus seasons around the NFL, I've routinely seen how the presence of an elite pass rusher can impact the game. As a dime corner for the Green Bay Packers and Kansas City Chiefs, I watched wily veterans Reggie White and Derrick Thomas routinely wreak havoc off the edges by using all of the tricks of the trade to overwhelm hapless offensive tackles.
I also watched a young Julius Peppers have a similar impact during my time as a scout with the Carolina Panthers. Unlike the aforementioned Hall of Famers, who relied on technique, guile and savvy, Peppers leaned on his natural instincts and superior athleticism to terrorize opponents. Although his form was far from textbook, the results were certainly spectacular, as he made six Pro Bowls and led the Panthers to an appearance in Super Bowl XXXVIII during his tenure.
When I look at two of the NFL's top defensive ends, Jared Allen and Jason Pierre-Paul, I see contrasting styles that create a dilemma for evaluators. Should they favor the veteran technician with the relentless motor or the explosive athlete with raw talent and boundless potential?
Allen, an eight-year veteran with 105 career sacks, has been one of the league's most consistent pass rushers in recent history, with 11-plus sacks in six of his eight seasons. He is coming off the finest season of his career with 22 sacks, four forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries and one interception. Those numbers would be eye-popping under any circumstances, but they are even more remarkable considering the fact that the Minnesota Vikings trailed in most of their games, resulting in fewer pass-rush opportunities for Allen.
Pierre-Paul was just as spectacular for the New York Giants in 2011. As a first-time starter in his second pro season, he finished with 16.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, one safety and one blocked field goal. In addition, he tallied 86 tackles and batted down seven passes. JPP's surprising emergence as one the NFL's elite rushers helped the Giants overcome the absences of Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora during parts of the season, and helped fuel the team's run to its second Super Bowl title in five seasons.
Let's match up Allen and Pierre-Paul in five key categories to determine the superior pass rusher ...
Allen is not viewed as an elite athlete, but he possesses above-average athletic traits that show on tape. He displays exceptional burst and closing speed while pursuing quarterbacks from behind, and shows outstanding body control while turning the corner on speed rushes. He boasts an uncanny ability to maintain balance while dipping his inside shoulder and accelerating past the blocker. Allen's combination of strength, power, body control and quickness is rare to find in a 6-foot-6, 270-pound defender, but it's part of what separates him from the rest of the elite rushers in the league.
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Pierre-Paul is a freakishly athletic edge rusher with rare physical tools. Measuring 6-foot-5 and weighing 278 pounds, he demonstrates rare quickness, agility and burst. He changes directions effortlessly, like a basketball power forward, yet flashes the straight-line speed to hunt quarterbacks down from the back side. In addition, he is an outstanding leaper with the length to block passing lanes at the line of scrimmage. Pierre-Paul's ability to form a wall at the point of attack is not only problematic against the pass, but makes him a formidable threat in the kicking game, particularly as a field-goal blocker. With impact players valued at a premium, Pierre-Paul's athleticism makes him a hot commodity in scouting circles.
Allen is one of the most explosive pass rushers in the NFL. He displays fantastic first-step quickness and his "get off" is unrivaled by any rusher in the league. While most of Allen's initial quickness can be attributed to his remarkable anticipation off the snap, he reaches top speed within his first three steps, and that burst routinely overwhelms offensive tackles off the edge. Allen also shows the ability to convert speed into power when utilizing a bull rush to attack blockers. He flies off the ball with a flat back and low leverage and displays superb hip explosion, forklifting blockers and driving them back into the quarterback's lap. With a versatile skill set that allows him to win with speed or power, Allen is a difficult matchup for most blockers on the edges.
Pierre-Paul relies more on his athleticism than brute strength, but he brings explosive power upon contact. He moves blockers out of his way with an aggressive "butt and jerk" move or powerful arm-over maneuver. He combines those tactics with speed and quickness, forcing blockers to play on their heels. When Pierre-Paul sequences the moves well, he overpowers blockers and routinely penetrates the backfield to create pressure on the quarterback in the pocket.
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After spending eight years in the NFL as a prolific pass rusher, Allen has developed quite a repertoire of rush moves off the edge. He will throw a variety of different moves at blockers early in the game, but will rely on his favorite moves in critical situations. Allen's "dip and rip" move is phenomenal, and he complements it with an explosive bull rush that allows him to win through the blocker's inside shoulder. In addition, he is also effective on slants and inside loops, which routinely produce sacks on overload blitz tactics. Allen's effectiveness on individual moves and combo games makes him a dangerous defender off the edge, and one of the most productive pass rushers in the game. Just glance at this video montage from his Week 17 performance against the Chicago Bears to see how he sequences moves throughout a game.
Paul-Pierre is a dominant force off the edge, but is an unrefined pass rusher. He wins primarily with his athleticism, agility and movement skills, not a series of polished rush moves or technique. He simply overwhelms blockers with his sheer talent and instincts. He has a natural feel for getting to the quarterback. Pierre-Paul's ability to throw an impromptu arm-over or two-handed pull-through routinely leads to wins, but he must refine his technique to become a more consistent force. As opponents become more familiar with his pet moves, he must develop a series of counters to combat future tactics. If he can continue to stay a step ahead of the game, Pierre-Paul could build upon the momentum created by his impressive breakout season in 2011.
As much as coaches covet a pass rusher capable of producing sacks, it is the ability to produce turnovers that separates the elite in the NFL. Allen has demonstrated a knack for creating turnovers throughout his career (26 forced fumbles, 16 fumble recoveries and five interceptions), and relentlessly goes after the ball when he gets to the quarterback. Allen will tomahawk chop the quarterback's throwing arm while closing from behind or attempt to rip out the ball when finishing a sack in the backfield. His tenacity and ferociousness attacking the ball stand out on tape, and his impressive track record for producing game-changing turnovers is certainly not coincidental.
Pierre-Paul is only two years into his pro career, but he has demonstrated the ability to create havoc off the edge. From pummeling quarterbacks on punishing hits from the blind side to forcing errant throws with his harassment up the middle, he must be accounted for at all times. Although the next step in Pierre-Paul's development should involve producing more takeaways as an edge rusher (Pierre-Paul has four forced fumbles in two seasons), he is such a force that the turnovers will come in bunches soon.
Coaches typically hold high-motor rushers in high regard, due to their ability to produce sacks with sheer hustle and determination. Allen should be the poster child for high-motor players, with his refusal to quit on a play despite facing an initial stalemate at the point of attack. He routinely snatches quarterbacks from behind after fighting through multiple blockers, and his willingness to hunt until the whistle blows has helped him become one of the most productive sack artists in the NFL since he entered the league in 2004.
Pierre-Paul also fits the bill as a high-motor player. He plays with an unbridled passion and enthusiasm, which leads to negative plays off extra effort. Pierre-Paul competes with the urgency and tempo of a veteran, and his ability to outwork blockers in the trenches is remarkable for a younger player. When he combines his effort with a more refined skill set, it is going to be difficult for even elite offensive tackles to keep Pierre-Paul from consistently punishing quarterbacks as the Giants' designated pass rusher.
The decision to build around a franchise-caliber defensive end typically comes down to athleticism, production and potential. However, the premium placed on getting after the passer allows technically sound pass rushers to dominate the NFL despite lacking blue qualities across the board. To play at an exceedingly high level without those traits, a pass rusher must master the subtleties of the position and win with relentless effort and energy. That's why I favor Allen over Pierre-Paul right now. While Pierre-Paul is only a year or so away from becoming an absolute monster on the edge, Allen is a consistent force capable of producing game-changing turnovers whenever he steps onto the field. With more than 100 sacks over eight seasons, I'm willing to take production over potential in this debate.