Henry Thomas and Warren Sapp would be proud of today’s interior pass rushers. The crop of big guys who can successfully rush into the middle just keeps growing — making life harder for centers, guards, and quarterbacks.
Ten years ago there were only 11 starting defensive tackles that achieved a pass rushing grade above 70 by Pro Football Focus, and just four broke the 80 mark. Imagine being between 70 and 80 has a significant impact and anything over 80 to be a superstar. Geno Atkins, JJ Watt and Ndamukong Suh were over 85 in 2012. This year, the Impact player pool is much larger than it was a decade ago, with 25 DTs scoring over 70 points. The elites are still the elites with only six over 85, but there’s clearly a rise in the number of big guys who can wreak havoc.
This is also reflected on the other side of the ball. In 2012 there were 31 guards who rated over 70 in pass blocking. This year there are only 21 and only 12 are over 75. As recently as 2017, 33 guards were playing at least above-average ball. But in recent years there has been an influx of beats down the D-line, including relatively new draft picks like Dexter Lawrence, Quinnen Williams, Jeffery Simmons, Derrick Brown, Jonathan Allen, Daron Payne, Justin Madubuike and Christian Wilkins all figure in the top 25 in the pass rush class.
In general, most quarterbacks fall off a cliff when pressured. The only QB in the NFL to rush for more than 7.2 yards per pass under pressure is Josh Allen. He’s also one of only three quarterbacks (Joe Burrow, Geno Smith) with a traditional QB rating of over 90 when under pressure. There are 23 starting QBs rated above 90 if kept clean.
But how specifically does Interior Rush fit into the mix?
Before we get to the numbers, the anecdotal evidence:
Minnesota Vikings quarterback Nick Mullens knows what it’s like to see the rush down the middle. As a member of the San Francisco 49ers, he faced Aaron Donald twice in his career.
“The inner rush is a little underestimated,” Mullens said. “People appreciate Edge Rusher because it can ruin the game, but I would say Interior Rush is more annoying. It’s not totally aggressive, but it’s always pushing and if you do it consistently, it gets really annoying.”
“It’s harder to throw in tight spaces,” Mullens continued. “So when you have an inside thrust you have less space to throw the football and that makes it difficult. Edge rushers, there is an opportunity to improve and create more space for yourself.”
The Vikings’ veteran QB said offensive tackles still have a chance if their man gets hit, while a guard/center losing the fight will result in immediate problems unless the quarterback has the speed to get lateral to run.
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“There is no change [the interior rush] Aside from the lineman anchoring below, tackles use it to their advantage to run guys past and it creates running and throwing lanes,” Mullens said.
He said playing Donald forces offense to do something unusual: build their game plan around a defensive tackle.
“The whole week is about ‘How do you protect yourself from Aaron Donald?'” Mullens said. “It’s not a typical week.”
We can see on paper that Donald is still treated differently than everyone else in the league, but there is a growing list of players getting doubles teams weekly. ESPN’s Seth Walder shared on Twitter which group of gamers is getting the most attention.
Ahead of the 2018 season, PFF studied the effects of internal pressure and edge pressure in relation to expected added points. They found that outside linebackers and defensive ends were responsible for more EPA losses to offenses. This is also obvious, because striped sacks often come from the edges and envelopes would vibrate EPA a lot.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean Edge Rush is superior. Analysis by PFF found that the combination of edge and interior prints was worth more than twice the EPA of the edge print and more than three times the interior print alone. In other words, collapsing the pocket from all angles is far more dangerous than a player succeeding in their charge.
Vikings head coach Kevin O’Connell explained why:
“I think when teams have both, not only do you have trouble setting the perimeter of the pocket, but you can set that edge by allowing the quarterback to step into the pocket … we’re looking at where that quarterback sits on at most.” “, he says.
The Vikings will get back defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson this week, whose presence as an interior rusher has been greatly missed in recent weeks.
Another difference between outside and inside rush is that inside rushers are doing well more consistently each week. It stands to reason that edge rushers tend to be home run hitters hoping for a game-changing play or two every weekend while the big men up front consistently push their competition back into the QB’s lap.
With Tomlinson back and the Vikings’ edge rushers among the league’s elite, Vikings-Jets has the potential to be a pass rush slugfest. The Jets are the NFL’s third-best onslaught from PFF, with Williams dominating center and a host of edge players rotating around him, including star Carl Lawson. Whichever team best fends off the onslaught from inside and outside will likely come out on top – and given the increasing pressure from defensive tackles across the league, that can be said of many important matchups in the NFL over time.