The Artistry Of Pass Rushing

I’ve often said that pass-rushing is an art. The expression of the painter’s goal, to create, reveals itself in a variety of ways with some techniques more successful and colorful than others. One rusher’s favorite combination may not even be in the repertoire of another, yet the goal and often the result is the same: get the quarterback on the ground.

The process to get there? Wildly different, depending on the player’s skill set and alignment in relationship to the passer. The first obstacle of course is the opposing offensive lineman, as the ability of rushers to win 1v1 is paramount to their success at all levels of football, but especially in the NFL.

“If I’m pushing the guy up the field a lot of the game, I feel like he will be vulnerable to the inside spin or inside counter,” Florida State edge rusher Brian Burns told me on Saturday. “Most guys are afraid of my speed so they start to really get vertical fast. Once they turn their hips to the sideline, it’s over.”

This is evident on Burns’ tape. He’s not only capable of winning with speed and bend, but also with strong inside moves due to his mental processing and ability to set up offensive tackles throughout the game. Few rushers in this class are as cerebral or as athletic as Burns, but for all his subtleties his game is almost completely devoid of speed-to-power rushes. 

Burns knows this and was open about that concern during his podium session. But where one artist’s brush fails him, another finds the canvas with a perfect stroke. 

“I love the long arm move,” Kansas defensive tackle Daniel Wise said. “Using leverage, getting up under the lineman’s pads….yes sir.”

Watching Wise’s tape, the dominance of his power moves are obvious. He tore up the Shrine Game all week with a variety of hand work, bull rushes and long arms. Wise’s power may only be superseded by his nonstop motor on the field, which is in turn perhaps trumped only by Michigan edge defender Chase Winovich.

Winovich isn’t the athlete some of the other edge defenders in this class are, but what he lacks in burst and speed he makes up for with a nuanced approach to pass rushing not dissimilar from Burns’. 

“First, it kinda depends on the side (right or left) I’m on,” Winovich said. “I’ll spend my Sundays, take a couple hours scouting my opponent out and trying to get a feel for where they’re weak at. I have a variety of moves, at least enough where I can play off of what they’re giving me. So if they’re short-setting me I’m going to work the edge, maybe hit a club-rip. If they’re oversetting me, I might give a strong counter in, or just a bull-arm over.”

Winovich mentioned a couple combinations there, which is important to note. Sometimes you can’t win with just a long arm or a bull rush or a spin move. Those moves look sexy when they’re done right, but the reality is that pass-rushing is rarely successful for one-trick ponies. The more you can string moves together, even footwork with hand work, the better chance of getting home and being able to take advantage of a variety of pass sets.

“My favorite pass rush move is a jab-double swipe combination,” said Oshane Ximines. “It’s quick, just get around the edge…definitely my favorite move.”

Ximines may test well on Sunday, but his tape doesn’t show a great athlete, so his ability to use his hands and vary his pace to gain positioning off the edge is key. Florida’s Jachai Polite doesn’t have that problem, as he figures to be among the most explosive and athletic pass rushers in the draft. 

“If they can’t stop my speed rush, they’re in trouble,” Polite said. “So if they try to open up and run with me, that’s when I usually spin. I’m a reactive pass rusher. I don’t go into it thinking of a move to use. I’m going speed first. If he’s running after me, I’m going long arm or spin. I’m reacting off of what he does, how he pass sets.”

Pass rushers have tons of different moves, deployed at different times for different reasons against different opponents for one purpose: get to the quarterback. You will hear a lot of talk about run defense and character and even the ability to drop into coverage over the course of tomorrow’s defensive line workouts, but at the end of the day, if any of those guys can rush the passer well, they’ll have successful NFL careers. 

But it won’t all look the same. That’s the beauty of the artistry of being a pass rusher. The creation can look different game-to-game, snap-to-snap, drive-to-drive, and the best artists know how to adapt to their environment to still create a beautiful work of art.