The NFL is a passing league.
How many times have you heard that phrase in the past few years? The quarterback play has been excellent and the passing stats have been eye-popping. Last season, three different quarterbacks (Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Matthew Stafford) accumulated more than 5,000 passing yards. Also, 17 different wideouts tallied over 1,000 receiving yards, while the league's top two tight ends (Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham) combined for 189 catches and 28 touchdowns. Pretty impressive stuff.
All of those extraordinary offensive statistics have grabbed the attention of fans and media members. However, NFL decision makers have placed their attention on the other side of the ball. Every team strives to win a championship and each of them spends a lot of time studying the teams that have accomplished that goal. The objective is to a find a common thread.
The NFL has definitely changed. Stopping the run used to be the main focus of every defensive coordinator in the league. Those days are over. The past three Super Bowl champions finished 29th, 18th and 21st in rushing yards allowed. It is much more important that you have players capable of getting pressure on the quarterback. There is a saying inside the NFL that third down is the money down. The highest-paid players in the league are paid for what they do on third down. For defenses, the obvious goal on third down is to get off the field and force your opponent to punt the football. Having a dominating pass rush is the key element in achieving that goal.
The Saints are the only team in the past five years to win a Super Bowl without the presence of a dominating pass rush. Amazingly, they only recorded one sack during their three-game playoff run in 2009. Their ability to create turnovers saved them in both the NFC Championship Game and the Super Bowl. In three playoff games, they were +7 in turnover ratio. They are definitely the exception, not the rule.
Brooks: Fixing Green Bay's defense
The Packers are a prime example of the importance of rushing the passer. During their 2010 championship season, they finished second in the NFL with 47 sacks. In 2011, they fell to a tie for 27th in the league with 29 sacks. Despite posting a league-best 15 wins during the 2011 regular season, the Packers were ousted by the Giants in the divisional round of the playoffs. Ted Thompson is a very bright general manager and he addressed Green Bay's pass rush issues in the draft. His first two selections were USC OLB Nick Perry and Michigan State DT Jerel Worthy. Both players are expected to help the Packers defense regain their 2010 pass-rushing form.
Fixing the Problem
The first step to recovery is admitting there is a problem. In studying the 10 teams that finished last season with the least amount of sacks, I found five legitimate playoff contenders. The Packers were the only one of those five to earn a playoff berth in 2011. Let's take a look at what the other four teams have done during the offseason to upgrade their pass rush:
Buffalo Bills (T-27th with 29 sacks): The Bills weren't bashful in addressing their pass-rushing needs. They brought in the top available pass rusher in free agency (Mario Williams) and robbed a divisional rival of their top pass rusher (Mark Anderson). Those two players should help the Bills drastically improve their anemic sack total of 2011.
San Diego Chargers (T-23rd with 32 sacks): The Chargers had 15 fewer sacks in 2011 than they did in 2010. They addressed the situation by spending their first two draft picks on South Carolina OLB Melvin Ingram and Connecticut DL Kendall Reyes. Both players have excellent quickness and a natural feel as pass rushers. They should help San Diego increase its sack production.
Big Expectations in Philly
I spent the past two seasons working in the Philadelphia Eagles personnel department. I know firsthand the importance they have placed on building a dominant pass rush.
Before last season, they added Jason Babin and Cullen Jenkins via free agency and also lured the NFL's top defensive line coach (Jim Washburn) away from the Tennessee Titans. Along with Trent Cole, those new additions helped the Eagles lead the league in sacks. During this past draft, the Eagles spent two of their top picks on defenders who should make their pass rush even more dominant. Mississippi State DT Fletcher Cox (first-round pick) and Marshall DE Vinny Curry (second-rounder) were two of the top pass rushers in the entire draft.
If the Eagles' offense can avoid the enormous amount of turnovers that plagued them in 2011, their pass rush has the capability of leading them to a championship in 2012.