If an NFL team does not possess a quarterback of the caliber of Tom Brady or Patrick Mahomes, one of the best ways to stay competitive is to load passers-by so that its defense can lower opponents into submission. On the other hand, if a team is lucky enough to hire an elite quarterback, its best chance of winning the Super Bowl is to freshen up its pass rush to neutralize its counterpart.
From this perspective, the NFL is not so much a quarterback-driven league as a quarterback disruption league, where teams are caught in an ever-escalating arms race to generate as many passes as possible.
Last week, the Pittsburgh Steelers illustrated how valuable sack specialists have been about to sign TJ Watt to a four-year contract extension with a reported $ 80 million guaranteed. Only four players, all quarterbacks, currently earn more guaranteed money than Watt; his Steelers teammate Ben Roethlisberger, an upcoming Hall of Famer, is not one of them.
Watt rewarded the Steelers by firing Josh Allen twice and forcing a fumble in Sunday’s 23-16 upset of the Buffalo Bills, a top Super Bowl nominee. With Watt, Cameron Heyward and newcomer Melvin Ingram at the helm of Pittsburgh’s pass, the team was able to push Allen without flashing, preventing him from doing a lot of scrambling or challenging the Steelers’ secondary with deep throws very often.
Watt is the younger brother of JJ Watt, the three-time defensive player of the year who signed with the Arizona Cardinals in March. The oldest Watt had a quiet debut on Sunday, but his teammate, double All-Pro Chandler Jones, fired Ryan Tannehill five times, forcing him to fumble twice, triggering a 38-13 upset over the Tennessee Titans. The Cardinals have not had a winning season since 2015, but the Watt-Jones tandem makes them credible playoffs.
Pass rushers gather best in bundles: A Jones or a Watt can be the two-team if he is the defense’s only threat. But there are only so many doubles to go around. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers demonstrated this principle in Super Bowl LV as Shaquil Barrett, Jason Pierre-Paul, Ndamukong Suh, Vita Vea and Devin White overwhelmed the injured Kansas City Chiefs offensive line, forcing three sacks, two interceptions and a long night of desperate Mahomes scrambles in a 31-9 Buccaneers rout.
The NFL is often called a “copycat league”, but it is more of a “cut and paste the term paper from Wikipedia” league: Coaches and leaders are not very subtle about their plagiarism. When they saw the Buccaneers treat Mahomes like a tennis ball in a dog park, almost all future contestants sought to reinforce his passport.
The Bills drafted University of Miami defender Gregory Rousseau (15.5 sacks in his final college season) in the first round and Wake Forest defender Carlos “Boogie” Basham (20.5 collegiate sacks) in the second.
The Titans lured sack specialist Bud Dupree (eight sacks in an injury-shortened 2020 season) away from the Steelers, who kept pace by signing Ingram (49 career sacks for the San Diego / Los Angeles Chargers).
The New England Patriots gave $ 32 million dollars guaranteed to Matt Judon, a two-time Pro Bowl defender for the Baltimore Ravens, so the Ravens signed veteran Justin Houston (97.5 career sacks).
The Cleveland Browns added Jadeveon Clowney to a defensive line that already had Myles Garrett, a fellow No. 1 overall draft pick.
As for the Buccaneers, they pushed the envelope of payroll economy to keep their veteran pass rushers away from the free agent market and then drafted University of Washington standout Joe Tryon-Shoyinka (eight sacks in his final collegiate season) in the first round. The Buccaneers sometimes lined up with six dangerous passes staring down at five Dallas Cowboys offensive linemen in the season opener on Thursday.
Dak Prescott was not fired, but he had an average time of throwing just 2.39 seconds in the loss to the 31-29 Cowboys, according to Next Gen Stats. It’s hard to fight Brady when he’s forced to treat football like a hot potato.
The pass-rusher arms race is driven by supply and demand. A Brady or a Mahomes only comes about once per. Generation, while top-pass rushers like the Watt brothers or Joey and Nick Bosa (stars of the Chargers and San Francisco 49ers, respectively) sometimes arrive two at a household. Each year’s quarterback class has few members with even the potential to develop into top-ranked starters, but the college ranks abound with agility, ornery 250-plus-pound defenders ready to join the looting hordes.
The natural answer to all these barbarians at the gate is to build stronger walls. Brady manages his kingdom behind an experienced and well-compensated offensive line. The Chiefs used all the cap dollars and draft choices they could muster to ensure Mahomes would never live through another experience like Super Bowl LV; their rebuilt offensive line passed its first stress test in a 33-29 victory over the Browns.
And then there’s Jameis Winston, who inherited both Drew Brees ’tanned offensive line and a solid defense led by pass guards Cameron Jordan and Marcus Davenport. Formerly an eavesdropping disappointment, Winston miraculously blossomed into an effective field general, while Aaron Rodgers was driven to frustration (just a short taxi ride, in his case) in a 38-3 New Orleans Saints blowout by the Green Bay Packers.
Coaches from old-school like to claim that defense wins championships and that games win and lose in the trenches. In fact, the days of steel curtains and fearsome foursomes are long behind us. Championships are generally won by elite quarterbacks, but passing pressure can make such quarterbacks lethal in a matter of hours.
That’s what happened to Brady in the Super Bowls, ending the 2007 and 2011 seasons, long before his Buccaneers did the same with the Mahomes. If a team cannot win the quarterback lottery, building an evil pass is an effective and affordable alternative.
Although it, based on Watt’s new contract, may not be that affordable anymore.