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Spring Study Hall: Pass Rush 101

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Developing a solid pass rush is more about technique and strategy than brute force, as few positions on the field require more moving parts than defensive line

NCAA Football: Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl-Alabama vs Washington
Jonathan Allen was probably the most polished, explosive pass rusher of the Saban era at Alabama.
Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

(This spring, as part of the Spring Study Hall series, we’re focusing on a few specific aspects of the game that oftentimes fly beneath the radar. If there’s some obscure technical topic you’d like to see discussed, feel free to mention it in the comments and I’ll give it a look-see. - OWB)

At first glance, the task at hand seems simple enough: slip through a virtual fortress of large-framed men and chase down a fleet-footed quarterback before he gets the ball out.

While that is certainly the goal of every pass rush, there’s far more to it than that rudimentary rendering. In the modern era of college football, even diagnosing whether a particular offensive play will result in a run or pass can be confusing. RPOs have changed the way defenses read opposing offenses, disrupting the reliable indicator of tendency and forcing the defensive line to be on its toes and ready for anything an offense may throw (or run) at it.

Getting past a veritable mountain of offensive line girth is one of the most difficult tasks in the game, as O linemen are trained to maintain an advantage of pure physics, to lever their big frames against rushers and tie them up. Offensive linemen have a built-in advantage over their defensive line counterparts: a stalemate is considered a victory for an O lineman because his QB stays clean, while the defender only wins if he disrupts the passer.

The difficulty of rushing the passer is only compounded by the modern preponderance of super-athletic quarterbacks, players like Alabama’s own Jalen Hurts who are as fleet of foot and slippery as any running back or receiver. Even the most athletic, explosive defensive end can’t run down the likes of Hurts, so even when a D lineman beats the blocker, he still may come up empty.

Because of these dynamics, coaches of current defenses have changed their tack when it comes to defensive line recruitment. There is still a place for those behemoths who take on doubles and clog interior running lanes. But there is also a push for lighter, faster, more athletic rushers who can play in space and make plays with their speed and agility, guys who have a chance of cutting off a dual-threat QB before he gets to an edge.

Regardless of the personnel coaches use to counteract offensive trends in the game, however, there are a few fundamentals that remain the same. Those are some of the unseen, unnoticed basics that we are going to cover in this space as we polish your knowledge of one of the key components of any Nick Saban defense: the pass rush.

First, a little basic terminology

It may appear that when the ball is snapped, a posse of defensive linemen (and in the case of the Bama D, a Jack linebacker) comes rip-snorting through an opposing offensive line with reckless abandon like a rampaging horde of snarling wargs. However, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Every cog in a defensive line plays an intricate role in the machine of the defense, and their actions are thusly better characterized as tightly-controlled, directed chaos.

There are a few terms that will aid in understanding the techniques typically employed by a good pass rusher. Some you may have heard in passing and didn’t understand, while others will be as familiar to a football aficionado as white bread is to a tomato sandwich.

First, there are the three basic components of any good pass rush: the get-off, the race to the set-point, and the escape. Let’s flesh those out a little bit before moving on.

The get-off is exactly what it sounds like: it’s the pass rusher’s explosion off the ball at the time of the snap. It’s not just as simple as running towards the quarterback when the ball goes in motion, but rather it involves intricate factors like anticipation, timing, explosiveness, footwork, focus, and mindset. Quite simply, the get-off could be the most important part of any pass rush technique, because if it fails to be successful, a pass rushing attempt will wither on the vine.

Then there’s the race to the set-point. Did you know that every defensive lineman or pass rusher has an invisible target for which he is aiming before the ball is even snapped? And it’s not the quarterback…rather, it’s a designated spot in the offensive backfield that is dictated by the technique and position that a pass rusher is playing. This will be discussed in more details later, but it’s basically a spot between the blocker and quarterback that the pass rusher must gain to keep pocket containment and pressure the quarterback from the outside in. That spot is known as a pass rusher’s set point, and it is the goal for a defender to reach that point on every snap.

Finally, there’s the escape. That is rather self-explanatory, but for the sake of verbosity, the escape is the point at which the pass rusher attempts to slip the blocker he’s battling to get to the quarterback. The pass rusher strives to get to his set-point, then he must have a plan to elude the large, burly man standing between him and the quarterback. There are several tactics that can be employed to create an escape, but at the end of the day, all that rusher wants to do is get upfield, get free, and put a helmet in the passer’s chest.

There are a few other trade terms with which many folks are unfamiliar, but those will be explained later in context. Now that we have a working knowledge of the three primary components of the pass rush, we can explore each in more detail.

The Get-Off

As previously stated, the get-off is the most critical fundamental component of the pass rush because it’s where everything begins. Again, it’s not as simple as just running in the general direction of the ball carrier when the ball is snapped, but rather the defensive end must create advantages, or magnify inherent ones, to improve his chances of eluding blockers en route to the QB.

The pass rusher relies to a degree on listening for the snap count, but relying too heavily on that audible indicator can become a liability if a wily quarterback begins to use that count to give false reads. Therefore, a more reliable indicator of the snap, which is important to allow a pass rusher to anticipate the play and accurately time his attack, is the offensive lineman himself. Every blocker has a tell, some readable key that a defender can use to anticipate his move and time his attack.

Often, defensive linemen and Jacks are taught to focus on a specific point of an offensive lineman against whom they are matched: maybe it’s the crown of the helmet, a sleeve logo, the top rail of a face mask, a hip pad. If the defender focuses on that single point, he can quickly detect the slightest movement and learn to anticipate and beat the blocker to the punch without all the clutter and window dressing that can be used to obfuscate a tell. Placing one’s attention on a minute detail also allows the observer to quickly pick up even small-scale changes that can be used to diagnose the blocker’s timing or future movements. The defender does this while keeping the ball in his peripheral vision, thus creating a complete picture of the play that allows him to accurately time his attack.

There’s also a mindset component to the get-off that may seem minor but is quite important for the attacking nature of a pass rusher. Pass rushers demonstrate controlled aggression on every play: the very nature of the task before them is pursuit…the pass rusher is the apex predator, the quarterback, his prey. Therefore, their get-off is not simply a starting point. It’s not about going from zero to 60 immediately. Rather, pass rushers are taught to imagine they are being held back by the snap, that the ball represents an invisible tether preventing the rusher from reaching the QB that is dissolved when the ball moves. Instead of going from zero to 60, the rusher must imagine himself already at 9000 RPMs when the snap pops the clutch and engages the transmission in a wheel-spinning feast of torque, power, and forward propulsion. That mindset of explosiveness is present in the best pass rushers in the college and pro games, and it’s something that is key to the overall pressure a defensive coach wants to apply.

There is also the necessity of a plan for any pass rusher who hopes to be successful in traversing the offensive line. The rusher doesn’t just blindly attack his blocker like some cartoonish Tasmanian devil at the snap. His moves must be calculated. He must gather intel from every previous play against that blocker, and use it to plot for future attacks. He must diagnose the weakness of the man across from him, then leverage it against him. He must have a plan for beating any pass pro set the lineman may throw at him (remember our first lesson when we talked about the jump set, the 45-degree set, and the vertical set). Each of those sets requires a slightly different mode of attack, and the best pass rushers mentally plan for each outcome before the ball is in motion.

If, for example, a pass rusher knows that a tackle often over rotates outside on 45-degree sets and fails to keep his hips square, then there’s a good opportunity for the rusher to feign an outside rush then break back with a devastating inside move. The pass rusher must know where he’s going and what he’s going to do when he gets there, which makes having a plan a little easier said than done.

Fundamentally speaking, the get-off has several mechanical components that must be studied to provide the best possible launching pad for a defender. The primary one is the stance. Much as an offensive lineman has an ideal stance that gives him both stability and fluidity, the defensive lineman must adopt a stance that gives him the best opportunity to exploit a blocker’s weakness at the get-off.

The two primary stances for pass rushers are the two-leg stance, and the one-leg stance. Both have their strengths and limitations. The two-leg is a stance in which the two feet are squared, equal with one another, about shoulder width apart. It gives the rusher a tremendous amount of initial power through stability, but it is less athletic, i.e. it is harder to break into a powerful run from a two-leg stance. It’s well-suited for a pass rusher going up against a jump-setting guard or center.

A one-legged stance is a little more athletic and features an extended push leg that falls behind the front balance leg. It allows a rusher to get into a full run much more quickly, but it is a lot less stable from the start, especially if there are traction considerations (such as on a muddy field). A pass rusher in a one-leg stance may be easily overpowered by an aggressive jump set, but it is ideal to gain the initial momentum and speed necessary to overwhelm a vertical setting tackle on an edge rush.

There’s another important tactical decision that a pass rusher must make for each play, and it’s one that can be fluid as the situation changes. The rusher must decide which of his two primary weapons he is going to employ: speed, or power. Speed can be used to great advantage, especially when the blockers he is facing are not the most athletic adversaries on the field. But there are other times that power is more in line with what the offensive line is giving up, so a pass rusher must have both in his repertoire.

Miami Dolphins pass rushing great Cameron Wake said it best: an offensive lineman can either kick and be light on his feet, or he can dig in and be strong and stout. But a blocker can’t do both of those things at the same time, so a pass rusher must be able to come up with a plan based on tendencies, then be ready to change that plan and transition to the converse at a second’s notice. When a blocker digs in to deal with what he believes will be a power tactic, the pass rusher needs to be nimble enough to transition to a speed attack. If the blocker wants to kick out, be mobile, and play the angle game, a rusher needs to have some power in his repertoire to overwhelm his opponent and make him pay for his decision.

Racing to the Set Point

Once the defensive lineman has launched a successful get-off, it is his job as an individual performer, and as a part of an elaborate defensive machine, to get to the predetermined set point for his position and technique. It is not only critical that a pass rusher reaches his set point to enable to him to have a chance to make a play in the back field on the quarterback, but it’s also important in the overall landscape of the pressure package designed by the coordinator.

When all the pass rushers are in a mad dash to the set point, it places an immense amount of pressure on the offensive line and gives them little margin for error. In a one-on-one context, it pressures the blocker to overcommit, which in turn can lead to eroded fundamentals (such as staying square or timing the punch) while also pushing the engagement upfield vertically, which shrinks the margin of error for the lineman because it puts the pass rusher in closer physical proximity to the QB.

The width and depth of set points for the various positions on the defensive line differ. However, from defense to defense, those set points are mostly uniform, as they identify the point of maximum leverage for a rushing defender. For example, a Jack or end playing a 9-technique (outside of the tackle or tight end’s outside shoulder) will shoot for a set point that is usually five yards deep and two feet outside of the edge blocker’s outside shoulder. A nose playing a 0-technique (directly over the center) will look to reach a point one yard deep directly behind the center. A nose playing a 1-technique (outside shoulder of the center) will try to get to a point two yards behind the center and one foot outside of his outside shoulder. An end playing a 4- or 5-technique will need to get three yards deep and one yard outside of the guard’s outside shoulder.

You get the idea…the further out (or higher number) the gap technique of the pass rusher is, the deeper the set point will fall, and likewise, the further towards the sideline the set point will be. It’s all a game of angles and calculations designed to give the pass rushers a leverage advantage and to assemble a cohesive wall of pressure that blockers must face, and the quarterback must elude.

Likewise, pass rushers typically want to attack those set points from an outside-in standpoint. The offensive linemen they are facing want to play inside-out (sealing off the inside rush while pushing the rusher further outside to create space and time). On the other hand, the pass rushers want the offensive linemen to wander outside, where they have the ability to either overwhelm a lumbering blocker with superior athleticism around the end, or rope-a-dope the blocker into pushing so far outside that he loses leverage and allows the smaller, faster athlete to slip back into the pocket with an inside move.

Speed is the first weapon of a good pass rusher, especially ends and Jacks who must cover the most ground. A 315-pound tackle simply can’t out-quick a 260-pound Jack linebacker. That’s why a good offensive lineman strives to rob the edge rusher of that advantage by jump-setting him and using his own advantage (superior size and strength), or by forcing the rusher to cover more ground and waste time by stretching the rush outside while maintaining angle integrity.

When speed is not enough (and against an elite tackle or guard, it won’t be), the pass rusher must formulate additional strategies. For example, one way an end or Jack can multiple his speed advantage is to force a blocker to stop moving his feet, which robs an offensive lineman of his inherent momentum advantage. Doing so isn’t an instant fix but is rather a long con that must be set up over the course of several series. The rusher must give up a little something on a few plays to set up bigger success down the road. As previously discussed, the line wants to block inside-out, while the rushers want to rush outside-in. Therefore, to set up an “inside flash” move that can stop a blocker’s feet and give a speedy end or Jack the advantage, he must commit to an inside move or two early on, even if the play is well-blocked and not likely to be successful. The minor defeat in that battle could help win the war, however. His “flash” later on will not be convincing if he doesn’t bring the real thing early.

On an inside flash, the pass rusher simply digs out of his get off and sets up as if he is working towards an inside move. Because he has run inside moves before on the blocker, when the blocker senses another inside move, he begins to shift his stance in anticipation of the defensive move. To further sell the ruse, the pass rusher shows him a flash: maybe it’s a head fake, a shoulder shake, a light jab step, of a hand flash) to make the offensive lineman stop his feet and reset. The rusher then takes that opportunity to shake back outside around the stationary gargantuan, thus beating him around the edge.

Another tool/ tactic used is sometimes called “half-man” or “two-hands-to-one.” Pass rushers are taught from a fundamental level that they never want to engage a blocker straight up. In other words, it doesn’t make sense for a 250-pound speed rusher to get into a squared-up physical tangle with a 320-pound offensive lineman. That’s not a contest the lighter man will often win. Therefore, the pass rusher stacks the odds in his favor by never facing a blocker straight up, but rather, by attacking one shoulder so that he’s only ever facing “half a man” at any one time (in one-on-one situations that is…a double-team is another ball game).

The pass rusher doesn’t want to shoot down the middle of a blocker, but rather attack one shoulder (or hand) or the other. No matter what actual hand-fighting technique is used to keep an offensive lineman from wrapping up a defender, the defender is much better suited to win the match if he can use both of his hands to defeat one hand of the blocker. Pass rushers are taught to put two hands on a blockers shoulder, usually the shoulder closest to them. That gives the defender an advantage and allows him to establish his will rather than the other way around.

Within the half-man technique, there are several tactics that help create advantages for rushers. There’s the “inside release.” This is a tool used primarily by an end or Jack when he’s facing a tackle who routinely oversets vertically. For example, say a right defensive end is facing a left tackle. If that tackle oversets on a vertical drop, then his right shoulder will be closest to the defender, and using the half-man technique, the end would put two hands on that shoulder and push inside, where he has both a leverage and quickness advantage.

On the other hand, if in the same scenario, that end makes his outside move around the edge at the get-off and seems to have outside lane, the tackle’s left shoulder would be closest to the rusher, and that’s the shoulder he should play by putting two hands on it and squirting around the end with an outside release.

There’s also a power release that comes into play at times if a blocker gets ragged fundamentally, such as when he becomes fatigued or unfocused because of in-game dynamics. The power release is useful when an offensive lineman has been beaten outside a few times by a quick end or jack and decides he must sell out completely to stop a speed rush that has victimized him previously. In such a circumstance, the lineman will be very high in his set, since he is trying to quickly beat the faster defender to the set point. In those cases, it may be advisable for the pass rusher to take advantage of the center-of-gravity advantage he will have against a blocker in a higher set by attacking the middle with power, thus knocking the blocker off balance, and overwhelming him with forward momentum. (Da’Ron Payne was a master of demolishing interior linemen with a power release, like this…)

Finally, all great pass rushers must develop a diversity of counter moves that can be brought to bear when an offensive line has otherwise stoned their pursuit of the quarterback. An elite offensive line that is fundamentally sound may not routinely give up the edge rush. They may be able to stop the inside release through anticipation and film study prior to a game. Pass rushers must find ways to create an advantage, and counter moves are the way to do that. During broadcasts, you’ll hear announcers talk about things like “the spin,” “the swim” or “the hump.” Those are counter moves defenders can use to get through tough blockers, and regardless of their technical characteristics, they are all designed to use a blocker’s momentum against him.

The Escape

This is the final component of a successful pass rush, as it is the point in which the defender’s hard work in getting past a blocker is brought to fruition. When a pass rusher busts his tail to gain the advantage over a blocker, nothing is more debilitating than to have said blocker recover, regain his footing, and get back into the fight before the rusher can drag down the quarterback. A rusher can do almost everything right – display explosive get off, defeat the hands, and get the edge – and still fail to escape the shoulder of a blocker. That results in his primary mission going unaccomplished.

Therefore, that final step, the escape, is of the utmost importance. It is the finishing move, the point at which a pas rusher makes his impact on the landscape of a game. Former Bama great Derrick Thomas was a master of the escape (click here to see him in action, trust me, it never gets old watching DT work)…no one in the history of the game aside from possible Lawrence Taylor or Mike Singletary could finish the way DT finished. Once a quarterback was in his sights, once he had overcome his blocker, he was a QB-seeking missile on a mission of destruction.

In technical terms, there are two types of escapes, and a variety of techniques of escape that fall beneath those two umbrellas. The two types of escapes are the “over release,” and the “under release.” You may have heard pundits talk about a 4-3 Under or Over, but don’t confuse these two concepts with the ones we are discussing here. While those refer to defensive alignments and the assignments of players on those fronts, in terms of escapes, “over” and “under” refer to tactics for escaping or eluding contact with blockers.

A typical “over release” is used by a pass rusher when he stares across at an offensive lineman and finds that he is higher in his stance than the blocker he is facing. This technique is used to make a quick move that puts the rusher’s shoulder past the offensive lineman’s shoulder. Think about a “swim move”…the pass rusher starts out higher than the blocker and uses a swim-like motion to go right over the top and past the shoulder of the blocker.

The “under release” is just the opposite: when a rusher sees that he is the lower man before contact, he uses an under release to get beneath and beyond the blocker’s shoulder. The “rip” is a good example of an under release. In a rip, the defender starts out low, and drives up and towards the blocker as he attacks the outside edge. He can either put both hands on the blocker’s outside hip, torso, or shoulder and push off him as he propels his way around the edge. It’s tremendous effective because it uses the lineman’s momentum to propel the pass rusher towards the target.

(There are many more specific pass rush escape techniques that we will address in a future Study Hall piece next week, so stay tuned.)

What does the pass rusher do once he’s used his releases to clear the blocker and finds himself unimpeded to the quarterback? He does what any good predatory beast does: he accelerates towards his prey, which in this case, is the quarterback. It’s amazing that all the aforementioned combat happens in the span of the two to three seconds between the snap and the moment the quarterback releases the ball, but it is imperative that the pass rusher homes in on his target as quickly as possible. He must do so before the QB throws the ball, flushes out of the pocket, or buys enough time for the beaten blocker to recover and reengage.

When he gets that open lane, he still must use his tackling fundamentals to get the passer on the ground. How many times in games against Texas A&M did the Bama defense break free in the face of Johnny Manziel, only to have him slip away and chuck a pass or pick up yards with his feet? Far too many times. Seeing an elusive quarterback break out of plays that should have been sacks (or worse, turn what should have been losses into huge gains) can absolutely break the spirit of a defense. Therefore, pass rushers must make sure that they don’t lose their fundamentals in the race and zeal to lay hands on the quarterback, as missing on a sure play for a loss can extend drives and give opponents hope.

An effective pass rush is more than just a violent, slobbering pack of wolves searching for their next meal. While there is some of that mind set at work for those who feast on quarterbacks, the pass rush is a complex machine that has multiple objectives to accomplish on each and every snap. Learning a little about what makes the gears fit can give one a greater appreciation of the elite play the Tide has seen in the pass rush for two of the last three years and can present a picture of what may be in store if Tide defenders stay healthy in 2018.