If an N.F.L. team does not possess a quarterback of Tom Brady’s or Patrick Mahomes’s caliber, one of the best ways to remain competitive is to load up on pass rushers so its defense can sack opponents into submission. On the other hand, if a team is fortunate enough to employ an elite quarterback, its best chance to win the Super Bowl is to juice up its pass rush to neutralize his counterpart.
Viewed from that perspective, the N.F.L. is not so much a quarterback-driven league as a quarterback disruption league, with teams caught in an ever-escalating arms race to generate as much pass pressure as possible.
Last week, the Pittsburgh Steelers illustrated how valuable sack specialists have become by signing T.J. 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, a future Hall of Famer, is not one of them.
Watt rewarded the Steelers by sacking Josh Allen twice and forcing a fumble in Sunday’s 23-16 upset of the Buffalo Bills, a top Super Bowl contender. With Watt, Cameron Heyward and the newcomer Melvin Ingram spearheading Pittsburgh’s pass rush, the team was able to pressure Allen without blitzing, which prevented him from doing much scrambling or challenging the Steelers’ secondary with deep throws very often.
Watt is the younger brother of J.J. Watt, the three-time defensive player of the year who signed with the Arizona Cardinals in March. The elder Watt had a quiet debut on Sunday, but his teammate, the two-time All-Pro Chandler Jones, sacked Ryan Tannehill five times and forced him to fumble twice, sparking a 38-13 upset of the Tennessee Titans. The Cardinals haven’t had a winning season since 2015, but the Watt-Jones tandem makes them credible playoff contenders.
Pass rushers are best collected in bundles: A Jones or a Watt can be double-teamed if he is the defense’s only threat. But there are only so many double teams to go around. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers demonstrated this principle in Super Bowl LV when Shaquil Barrett, Jason Pierre-Paul, Ndamukong Suh, Vita Vea and Devin White overwhelmed the injury-ravaged Kansas City Chiefs offensive line, forcing three sacks, two interceptions and a long evening of desperate Mahomes scrambles in a 31-9 Buccaneers rout.
The N.F.L. is often called a “copycat league,” but it is more of a “cut and paste the term paper from Wikipedia” league: Coaches and executives are not very subtle about their plagiarism. Once they saw the Buccaneers treat Mahomes like a tennis ball at a dog park, nearly every would-be contender sought to beef up its pass rush.
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 the 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 guaranteed to Matt Judon, a two-time Pro Bowl defender for the Baltimore Ravens, so the Ravens signed the 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 salary cap economics to keep their veteran pass rushers off the free agent market, then drafted the 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 pass rushers staring down five Dallas Cowboys offensive linemen in the season opener on Thursday.
Dak Prescott was not sacked, but he had an average time to throw of only 2.39 seconds in the 31-29 Cowboys loss, according to Next Gen Stats. It’s hard to out-duel Brady when forced to treat the football like a hot potato.
The pass-rusher arms race is driven by supply and demand. A Brady or a Mahomes comes along only about once per generation, while top pass-rushers like the Watt brothers or Joey and Nick Bosa (stars for, respectively, the Chargers and the San Francisco 49ers) sometimes arrive two to a household. Each year’s quarterback class has few members with even the potential to develop into upper-echelon starters, but the college ranks are teeming with agile, ornery 250-plus-pound defenders ready to join the marauding hordes.
The natural response to all of these barbarians at the gate is to build stronger walls. Brady rules his realm from behind an experienced and well-compensated offensive line. The Chiefs spent all the cap dollars and draft picks they could muster to ensure that 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 against the Browns.
And then there is Jameis Winston, who inherited both Drew Brees’s seasoned offensive line and a stout defense led by the pass rushers Cameron Jordan and Marcus Davenport. Formerly an interception-prone disappointment, Winston miraculously blossomed into an efficient field general, while Aaron Rodgers was driven to frustration (only a short cab ride, in his case) in a 38-3 New Orleans Saints blowout of the Green Bay Packers.
Old-school coaches like to claim that defense wins championships and that games are won and lost in the trenches. In reality, the days of Steel Curtains and Fearsome Foursomes are long behind us. Championships are generally won by elite quarterbacks, but pass pressure can make such quarterbacks mortal for a few hours.
That’s what happened to Brady in the Super Bowls ending the 2007 and 2011 seasons, long before his Buccaneers did the same to Mahomes. If a team cannot win the quarterback lottery, building a vicious pass rush is an effective, affordable alternative.
Although, based on Watt’s new contract, it may not be so affordable anymore.