In the past 10 years, a quarterback has won the MVP award eight times. Sure, you’ll hear coaches talk about how important it is to stop the run, or to play a certain way at linebacker or in the secondary, but if a defensive staff’s no. 1 priority isn’t trying to hit, sack, move, hurry, or simply scare the bejesus out of the most important player in all of sports, they should all consider taking up another profession.
Today, pro passers are just too good; even the most average of the bunch can pick apart a zone or throw it over man coverage if they’re given three or four seconds to throw. That’s why defenses have to throw the kitchen and bathroom sinks at opposing lines.
Defenses will use stunts — where one pass rusher loops behind one of his teammates to get up field. They’ll blitz — send an extra linebacker or defensive back upfield to slip through the offensive line. They’ll zone-blitz — drop one defensive lineman in coverage and send a rusher from somewhere else. They’ll move their best rushers around and let them attack from different angles. They’ll stand all of their defensive linemen up and walk them around prior to the snap — and at times, they’ll even walk every single one of their defenders up on the line of scrimmage prior to the snap. It’s all in the hopes of making it near impossible for the offensive line to assign protections.
But some teams don’t need to do all of that to get the quarterback off his spot or onto his back. Some pass rushers are just consistently better than the guys in front of them. And if you’ve got two of these guys? An offense can double-team two different rushers on every snap, but the more players it leaves in to pass block, the fewer receivers it can release downfield as options in the passing game. It becomes a Catch-22: Does the offense keep the quarterback upright, or give him somebody to throw to?
Having two dominant pass rushers on a defensive line can not only get you into the postseason, it can win you a Super Bowl. Regardless of scheme, regardless of opponent, there are a select few teams that can count on their elite pass-rush duos to get to the quarterback early and often. Here are the top 10.
1. Denver Broncos: Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware
An elite pass rush can take over a game. Just ask the Super Bowl 50 champion Broncos.
In three playoff games last season, Denver racked up 14 sacks and 36 quarterback hits — the only two stats you need if you’re still wondering how a basically offense-less team ended up beating the Steelers, Patriots, and Panthers en route to a championship. According to The Boston Globe, they hit Tom Brady an unthinkable 19 times in their win over New England (the most in a single game since 2006), then racked up seven sacks in the Super Bowl, including Miller’s strip-sack of Cam Newton that led to a touchdown on Carolina’s second possession.
Denver’s ability to relentlessly harass, hit, and sack opposing quarterbacks laid out a new blueprint for how to win late in the year. And it’s the same blueprint they’re using this year.
The Broncos might’ve lost Malik Jackson in free agency over the offseason, but they still own the most dominant pass rush in football. They still lead the NFL in sacks (36). And they’re still tops in the NFL in total pressures (261 sacks, hits, and hurries combined), per Pro Football Focus. (All pressure stats are courtesy of PFF.) Von Miller, with his league-best 12.5 sacks, is still one of the game’s unstoppable defenders. The 34-year-old Ware, a future Hall of Famer, isn’t shabby as a bookend rusher (three sacks in seven games), and he’s back after missing five games with a broken arm. Even if Denver makes it into the playoffs only as the second wild-card team in the AFC, it’ll be a nightmare matchup for every offense.
2. Kansas City Chiefs: Dee Ford and Justin Houston
The Chiefs’ numbers don’t jump out at you. They’ve grabbed 26 sacks on the year (tied for 14th) and don’t crack the top 10 in quarterback pressures, but they’ve played most of the season without their most dangerous pass-rushing threat, Houston. The powerful outside linebacker missed the first nine games this year with a knee injury, but has already racked up four sacks in his first three games back. We haven’t seen it yet because right after Houston got back onto the field, Ford got hurt, but Thursday night’s matchup with the Raiders should give us a good preview for the havoc this duo can create when both are fully healthy and on the field together.
In his third season after being drafted 23rd overall by Kansas City in 2014, Ford’s production has begun to match his talent. Filling in for the injured Houston, he’s racked up 10 sacks (tied for third in the NFL). He’s been nursing an injured hamstring the past two weeks, though, and the Chiefs are bringing him along slowly to avoid reaggravating it. (He played just 26 snaps on Sunday against the Falcons.) Once Ford’s back to full speed, though, Kansas City’s pass rush has the potential to challenge Denver as the league’s best.
3. Oakland Raiders: Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin
The Raiders pass rush is heating up. Mack started out the season slower than anyone expected — one sack in Oakland’s first five games — but he’s back to being one of the most terrifying edge rushers in the league, with nine sacks over the past seven games. On the year, in addition to his 10 sacks, he’s picked up seven quarterback hits and a league-high 50 quarterback hurries, and trails only Miller in total pressures. Mack’s impact is best summed up by what happened against Carolina in Week 12: Not only did he grab a pick-six, but he ended any hope the Panthers had for a comeback win when he beat a triple-team to sack and strip Cam Newton with a minute left.
A week earlier, Irvin’s sack of Brock Osweiler had a similar close-out-the-game effect. It forced Houston into a third-and-long, which it couldn’t convert, and Oakland was able to run out the clock in a 27–20 win. Paired together, Irvin (five sacks and four forced fumbles this season) and Mack can really put opposing quarterbacks into a vise when they come around each side of the line. As we’ve seen recently, they’re never more dangerous than late in the game with Oakland protecting a lead, when they get the green light to do whatever they can to put pressure on the passer.
4. Seattle Seahawks: Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril
Avril might get out of his three-point stance quicker than any player in the NFL not named Von Miller. Like Miller, Avril rushes from the right in Seattle’s scheme and is consistently off the ball a full beat or two faster than opposing tackles. He has 10 sacks on the year, and he’s also collected 12 quarterback hits and 34 hurries to place himself seventh among all edge defenders in pressures. Avril is also a specialist in hitting the passing arm of a quarterback as he goes back to throw. Since he came into the league in 2008, only one player has more forced fumbles than Avril’s 29. (That would be punchout artist Charles Tillman.)
Whether it’s next to Avril, opposite him, or wherever else he lines up on any particular snap, Bennett — who just returned to the Seahawks lineup after missing five games with a knee injury — is another terror for offensive lines. Bennett’s sack numbers (three in seven games) are never incredibly impressive, because he lines up both inside and on the edge, but the stats don’t tell the true story of just how disruptive he is. He’s one of the most technically proficient hand-fighting defensive linemen in the league, using lightning-fast swats, punches, and club moves to easily push offensive linemen aside as he bears down on the quarterback.
5. Tennessee Titans: Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan
The Titans have quietly built an imposing pass rush, and currently are behind just the Broncos in total quarterback pressures (256). Their two deadliest rushers come off the edge, with longtime veteran Orakpo sitting ninth on the NFL’s sacks list with nine, and Morgan not far behind with eight. The duo is fifth in the NFL in combined sacks.
6. Baltimore Ravens: Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil
Suggs has eight sacks and three forced fumbles, showing few ill effects from his Achilles tendon tear last season and his biceps tear earlier this year. Baltimore has played in plenty of close contests this season, and Suggs has been most disruptive later in games. His six fourth-quarter sacks were tied for the league lead before Week 13.
Meanwhile, the Week 12 return of Dumervil from a foot injury is a boon to Baltimore’s playoff hopes. In his first game back, the 11th-year pro grabbed a strip-sack of Andy Dalton to end the game, preserving a 19–14 win over the Bengals. This might be the oldest tandem on the list, but while both Suggs (34) and Dumervil (32) may have lost a step or two, they make up for it with veteran savvy and brute strength.
7. Miami Dolphins: Cameron Wake and Ndamukong Suh
Wake just keeps on producing. A little over a year since tearing his Achilles tendon, the 34-year-old has 8.5 sacks and three forced fumbles in a limited pass-rush role. Wake is 11th among edge rushers with 51 quarterback pressures, including 36 hurries and five quarterback hits. Next to him, Suh has quietly had an amazing season of his own, with five sacks and 45 total pressures (eight quarterback hits and 31 hurries), tied for third among interior defenders. With this duo leading the way, Miami’s defense is third only to the Broncos and Titans in quarterback pressures (254).
8. Minnesota Vikings: Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter
The Vikings are fourth on that list with 236 total quarterback pressures, and Griffen and Hunter have brought the heat off the edge. Hunter, a 22-year-old second-year pro, has been a revelation, and his 9.5 sacks are eighth best in the NFL. Griffen, meanwhile, has added six sacks and ranks eighth among edge rushers with 56 total quarterback pressures (37 hurries, 13 hits). While Minnesota’s defense has fallen off from its dominant performances early in the year, it’s by no fault of these two.
9. Arizona Cardinals: Chandler Jones and Markus Golden
The Cardinals haven’t had the season they’d hoped for, but one area they improved greatly over last year is their pass rush. As a team, Arizona registered just 36 sacks last year, and through 12 games, they’re already at 31. Trading for Jones (eight sacks) has been a big boost in that area, and second-year breakout rusher Golden (seven sacks) has emerged as a legit threat on the edge.
10. Chargers: Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram
Can you imagine being a quarterback in the AFC West? The Chargers are the fourth team from that division to make this list, and they round out the top 10 on the shoulders of an incredible explosion of production from rookie pass rusher Bosa. The third-overall pick in the 2016 draft, Bosa burst onto the scene starting in Week 5 and has registered more quarterback pressures in his first eight games than anyone since 2006. He’s up to 5.5 sacks, 11 quarterback hits, and 25 hurries on the year.
Opposite Bosa, Ingram is having a strong year rushing the passer as well. The fifth-year pro is 10th among edge players with 52 total pressures, with nine quarterback hits and 37 hurries to go with his 6.0 sacks. Playoff-bound quarterbacks can rest easy, as San Diego is all but eliminated from the postseason, so we’re left to imagine where the Chargers would be if Bosa had played during the first four weeks of the season.