When I played for the Oakland Raiders in the late 1990s, defensive coordinator Willie Shaw told us that the pass rush is far more important than the coverage in the NFL. He believed disrupting the timing and rhythm of the quarterback was paramount to playing good defense. Shaw said pass rushers had a greater impact on defensive production than defensive backs, which is why he told me that elite defenses must be built from front to back in order to compete in an increasingly pass-centric league.
Based on that premise, I decided to dig into the tape and identify the top pass-rushing duos in the NFL. While I'm sure my list will draw the ire of fans used to seeing some familiar names at the top of the charts, the final order is based on the collective talent, performance and production of the tandem heading into the 2014 regular season.
Without further ado, here are my top five twosomes:
1) Tamba Hali and Justin Houston, Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs' terrific tandem might not garner significant attention on the national scene, but opponents across the AFC are well aware of the chaos Hali and Houston routinely create. The duo has combined for 41 sacks over the past two seasons, exhibiting complementary playing styles that make them nearly impossible to handle on passing downs.
Hali, a ninth-year pro with 73.5 career sacks, has notched at least 10 sacks in three of the past four seasons while also forcing 14 fumbles over that span. He is coming off a fine 2013 campaign in which he tallied 11 sacks, five forced fumbles, an interception and two defensive touchdowns. Those numbers are impressive, but his exceptional combination of speed, strength and power truly pops off the film. Additionally, he might have the best hand-to-hand combat skills in the NFL, which makes Hali a nightmare to block in one-on-one situations.
For all of the attention Hali receives as one of the NFL's elites, it is possible he ranks as the second-best pass rusher on the Chiefs. Still just 25, Houston already has developed into a terror off the edge, with 21 sacks in his last 27 starts. He exhibits a rare blend of speed, quickness and explosiveness, yet overwhelms blockers with his frenetic playing style. Houston outworks opponents to get home with extended effort. Thus, quarterbacks are never safe in the pocket with Houston ferociously attacking from the outside.
2) Robert Quinn and Chris Long, St. Louis Rams
There are plenty of reasons to pencil in the Rams as dark-horse contenders in the NFC, but this potent 1-2 punch is the perfect place to start. Quinn and Long comprised a two-man wrecking crew last season, combining for 27.5 sacks, eight forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries and two defensive touchdowns. That's astonishing production for a pass-rushing tandem, particularly one that played from behind much of the time.
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Quinn was a legitimate candidate to be the Defensive Player of the Year in 2013, registering 19 sacks and seven forced fumbles on his own. The fourth-year pro is a freakish size/speed athlete with extraordinary first-step quickness and acceleration. Additionally, Quinn displays exceptional snap-count anticipation. The former first-round pick combines his natural gifts with a high-revving motor and rapidly-developing technical skills, making him a terror to deal with off the edge. Few offensive tackles possess the balance, body control and lateral quickness to stay in front of Quinn, and the 24-year-old has dominated competition the past two years.
Long, the second overall pick in the 2008 draft, has 50.5 career sacks, including 41.5 sacks over the past four seasons. He is a high-motor rusher with a game built on strength, power and savvy. Long overwhelms blockers with hand moves and power maneuvers that allow him to work free from clutching at the line of scrimmage. Additionally, he possesses deceptive first-step quickness, allowing him to win on speed rushes off the edge. Although his game lacks flash and sizzle, Long is the kind of blue-collar worker every defense could use along the front line.
3) Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy, Carolina Panthers
The Panthers emerged as a heavyweight in the NFC in 2013 thanks largely to the spectacular play of Johnson and Hardy. The dynamic duo has accounted for 49.5 sacks over the past two seasons, bludgeoning opponents with contrasting rushing styles.
Johnson, an eighth-year pro with 54 career sacks, is a crafty technician with superb hand skills. He excels at working through contact at the point of attack, utilizing an assortment of power maneuvers and swipes to get to the quarterback. Whereas some rushers win with speed and quickness, Johnson is a calculated rusher with an impressive array of countermoves that allows him to win consistently off the edge. Also, Johnson is a turnover machine, adept at prying the ball loose with power punches and tomahawk chops, as evidenced by his eight forced fumbles over the past two seasons. With the ability to create disruption and deliver impact plays, Johnson has capably filled the void created by Julius Peppers' departure a few years ago.
Hardy might be the best pure pass rusher in the NFL. He can win with speed or power off the edge or befuddle blockers with an array of tricks and counters that make him impossible to slow down at the point of attack. Although Hardy's game appears flashy on the surface, he uses a variety of old-school techniques (rip and arm-over maneuvers) that allow him to routinely defeat double-teams. Additionally, Hardy shows the athleticism and versatility to win on stunts, games and loops on the interior. Hardy's ability to line up at defensive tackle in certain sub-packages gives the Panthers the opportunity to create havoc with an assortment of exotic pressures.
With few tandems capable of matching the production or disruption of Johnson and Hardy, it's possible they are underrated on this list.
4) DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller, Denver Broncos
On paper, the Broncos' pairing should rate at the top of the list, based on the impressive individual résumés of Ware and Miller. Both are accomplished pass rushers with the numbers and honors to prove it, but both head into the regular season facing health questions. Thus, they are downgraded on this list until we are able to see the product on the field in the Mile High City.
Ware, a 10th-year pro with 117 career sacks, has been one of the most productive sack artists since he came into the league out of Troy, having posted at least 10 sacks seven times during his career. Despite his advanced age (he'll turn 32 next month), Ware is an explosive speed rusher with extraordinary strength and power. He regularly blows past blockers with upfield rushes, yet also attacks down the middle with an assortment of bull rush and power maneuvers. Ware just went under the knife for the second time in as many offseasons. When healthy, he is a disruptive force off the edge with the potential to create a turnover at any moment.
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Miller, a fourth-year pro, quickly established himself as one of the league's most explosive pass rushers during his first two campaigns. After taking home Defensive Rookie of the Year honors in 2011, he was runner-up for 2012 Defensive Player of the Year, racking up 18.5 sacks, 27 QB knockdowns and six forced fumbles in a monster sophomore season. During this time, Miller had the quickest first-step in the NFL, which made him a nightmare to block in one-on-one situations. In addition, Miller added a dip-and-rip maneuver to his repertoire, allowing him to turn the corner from ridiculous angles to get to the quarterback. With a game so heavily dependent on speed and quickness, Miller's recovery from a torn ACL could determine whether this Broncos tandem vaults to the top of the list by season's end.
5) Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette, New Orleans Saints
Those living outside of "Who Dat Nation" are probably unaware of the Saints' disruptive duo, but NFC foes certainly recognize the talented twosome blossoming under the direction of defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. Last season, Jordan and Galette combined for 24.5 sacks and a host of pressures in the Saints' blitz-heavy defense. Although it's not surprising to see a pair of pass rushers rack up gaudy production in Ryan's system, the devastation created by Jordan and Galette really stands out on tape.
Jordan, the 24th overall pick in the 2011 draft, has quietly become one of the premier 3-4 defensive ends in the NFL. He has 20.5 sacks and five forced fumbles over the past two seasons, displaying tremendous strength and power while bullying his way to the quarterback. Jordan outmuscles blockers at the point of attack utilizing an assortment of power maneuvers, including a butt-and-jerk move. With a workmanlike game that's built on effort and hustle, Jordan is the ideal blue-collar defender to build around up front.
Galette enjoyed a breakout campaign in 2013, but he is not a "one-year wonder." The fifth-year pro has a refined game and can win with speed or power off the edge. More importantly, Galette is a "hard hat and lunch pail"-type with a non-stop motor. He routinely wins on extra effort, which makes him a perfect complement to Jordan on the front line.
Sure, there are sexier combinations that merit mention in this conversation, but it's hard to dispute the production or performance of the Saints' tandem.