Brandon Graham had two seconds left before he would become a legend. Lined up against Patriots guard Shaq Mason, Graham was positive he’d have a one-on-one matchup because tight end Rob Gronkowski was not staying back to block, as he had earlier in the game. Graham knew which way Mason would be sliding after the snap, and he faked a bull rush, then quickly swiped Mason’s hands and dipped his shoulder to try to get past on his blocker’s left side.
“I beat him faster than I thought,” Graham said.
With 2:15 left on the clock, one second into the play, time stopped for Graham. He could see that Tom Brady wasn’t moving, thus hadn’t started throwing. He figured Mason’s only option was to hold him, which he probably didn’t have enough time or space for. Graham knew he would hit Brady, but wasn’t sure if he’d still have the ball.
Graham described the moment as both going by too quickly to think and yet totally clear. “It is all going by so fast but you can feel your eyes light up,” Graham said. “It was happening so fast that I didn’t know the ball was there. I just put my arms out and didn’t realize it.”
What happened next is known around the world: Graham strip-sacked the best quarterback to ever play the game to keep the Eagles ahead 38-33. The ball came tumbling out, and Derek Barnett scooped it up to essentially wrap up the game and Philadelphia’s first Super Bowl win. Brady lost the ball with 2:14 to go. The journey from the snap to the hit took two seconds.
This play was not just one of the most iconic plays of an iconic Super Bowl, or the biggest play of Graham’s life; it was the culmination of dozens of trends clashing together to create the most notable example of just how impossibly fast football has become.
“We know we have two seconds or less.” Graham said. “After that, you have to get lucky.”
It is not new to call the sport of football fast. In fact, we’re in our fifth decade of talking about how fast it is. But these platitudes do a disservice to what is happening in the sport: a stunning increase in the speed of the cat-and-mouse game between quarterbacks and those who chase them. It is the most fascinating game within the game. Games—and entire seasons—are now defined within the first two seconds of a play.
It is harder than ever for a team to stop the pass rush and harder than ever for the pass rush to work on a quarterback. A few years ago, coaches realized that shorter, quicker passes were more efficient than longer ones. For example, the number of yards Drew Brees has targeted on his passes has dropped each year for the last five, according to AirYards.com. He also broke the NFL record for completion percentage last season—the second straight year that record has been broken, after the similarly short-passing Sam Bradford did it in 2016. At the same time, ever-improving pass rushers were pitted against offensive linemen who weren’t improving, and that heightened the importance of the fast pass.
“If you have issues protecting the quarterback, you’re going to go to a quick game,” said Bengals quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt.
While this was happening, a group of wide receivers schooled in spread collegiate offenses came into the league and were more adept at running bubble screens and shorter routes. The hitch route, a short curl, was the most popular route in the league last season. Short, impossibly quick passes solved lots of problems for offenses. And they’ve made the game faster than ever before.
The ability to pass before ultra-athletic defensive lines get to you and, conversely, the ability to get to a quarterback before he can even think about throwing the ball are now perhaps the two most important things on a football field. That dynamic has led to a plethora of scheme and roster changes across the league.
Quarterbacks are throwing the ball quicker than in any era in history. Last season was the first since Pro Football Focus started tracking throwing time in 2011 that no starter took 2.6 seconds or more to throw on 60 percent of his passes. There were 10 quarterbacks who got rid of the ball faster in 2016 than anyone did in 2012. The number of players who have a quarterback rating over 90 on these quick passes has doubled to 20 last season from when the statistic was introduced in 2011.
If you can combat this, you can win. In 2017, the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles were the only team in the NFL who applied pressure on the quarterback within 2.5 seconds on 30 percent of pass plays, according to Pro Football Focus, while the Pittsburgh Steelers were second at 28 percent. Both of those teams got to the quarterback within 2.33 seconds on average.
As Eagles pass rusher Chris Long put it, “You have to do everything faster.”
On November 10, 2002, LeCharles Bentley, then a guard for the New Orleans Saints, saw where the the sport was headed. “I lined up across from Julius Peppers,” he said. “He’s 290 pounds and runs a 4.5 40. He looked like his uniform is painted on. I looked at myself, looked at my offensive line mates, and none of us looked like that. He was a power forward. That was the moment I knew the game was going in a totally different direction.”
Bentley, a two-time Pro Bowler who is now a personal coach for some of the game’s top offensive linemen, said two things converged in the last decade to give pass rushers a massive advantage at getting to the quarterback. The first is that they became more athletic, faster, and specialized, learning pass rushing at an early age. And the second is that they were helped along by massive mistakes made by NFL teams.
Teams tried to match the increasing size and athleticism of the defensive line with huge bodies and athleticism on their offensive lines, Bentley said, but running after a quarterback and blocking your opponent from doing so just don’t require the same physical attributes.
“It’s how you end up with Greg Robinson or Ereck Flowers,” former NFL lineman Geoff Schwartz said of two notable busts. “It’s teams saying they don’t have enough practice time so they’ll just draft a huge athlete and they’ll figure it out. Look at last year’s draft. There’s Ryan Ramczyk, who comes from Wisconsin and has a great year, and the high-upside guy, Garett Bolles, had 10 holding penalties.”
So, as defensive lines got better, offensive lines got worse.
“J.J. Watt, Von Miller, and Khalil Mack changed the sport and changed the way teams think,” said Chuck Smith, a pass-rush specialist who trains the best in the sport. Bentley said those three players, now equipped with modern pass-rush techniques, have become a kind of “smart predator.” Smith is of the theory that NFL teams want bigger bodies—many of them converted tight ends—on the offensive line because they want obstacles to waste time and get in the way of athletes like Miller for just long enough to allow the quarterback to get his pass off. “The problem is that even if these big guys on the line weigh 350, the pass rushers are benching 400,” said Smith. “They can—actually—just pick these offensive linemen up.”
The best pass rushers are better than ever, and quarterbacks are better than ever at neutralizing the pass rush, which has led to a situation in which only the top teams can generate an effective pass rush. In 2016, we saw the lowest sack rate in NFL history, and 2017’s was, for comparison’s sake, a full percentage point lower than the 1997 season, two decades prior. Pass rushing is now both increasingly important and harder to attain.
“Smart people sack the quarterback,” Smith said. “The dumb guys—these are not dumb people—but they don’t do what the good guys do. Every player in the league over 6-foot-4, the coach is going to teach them to use a long-arm move. How long does that take? Longer than 2.5 seconds. … You won’t see smart guys use bull rushes that take too long.”
The Los Angeles Chargers were among the fastest pass rushers in the league last year, and they did it brilliantly: by drafting both Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram in the first round in a four-year span. The Jaguars, reigning masters of the four-man rush, are spending upward of $60 million on their defensive line, more than 31 percent of their cap. If you want to win the first two seconds, you have to commit to it. Among the Steelers’ front seven are three first-round picks who can dominate a passer: Cameron Heyward, Bud Dupree, and T.J. Watt. The Eagles’ defensive line now features three first-round picks and two established veterans—Michael Bennett and Timmy Jernigan—that they traded for. Two other rotational members of the line—Chris Long and Haloti Ngata—were high first-round picks for other teams. Meanwhile, in April the New Orleans Saints became the first team in history to trade two first-round picks for a pick outside the top 12, and they didn’t take a quarterback. They wanted a pass rusher: Marcus Davenport.
Smith mentions that the smartest players have moves that take almost no time to get to the quarterback. Like Yannick Ngakoue’s cross-chop move. Or DeMarcus Lawrence’s spin move. Or anything Aaron Donald does.
“Aaron Donald is a genius,” Bentley said.
Donald, the Los Angeles Rams superstar, is in a category by himself. As an interior line player who can generate consistent pass rush, he can routinely disrupt even the fastest pass since he’s already starting so close to the quarterback. There’s an argument to be made that he’s the most valuable player in modern football. If teams throw large linemen at Donald, Bentley said, he’ll use their own weight against them with a push-pull move, which starts as a bull rush but then quickly ends with the pass rusher pulling the offensive lineman’s body away from the quarterback.
“When I played, when people had creatine we’d go, ‘Oh my god,’ and now there are 15 types and these kids are on it,” Bentley said. “They hit the weight room earlier, they have much more muscle mass, and they are with coaches earlier learning techniques. The younger players have much more access to everything.”
Bentley said those developments are then exacerbated by a lack of innovation in the offensive line coaching ranks. Almost every other facet of the game is changing by the year, if not by the week, but blocking techniques and strategies haven’t seen much change in decades.
“You have almost no time for practice, and yet offensive line coaches do the same stupid drills that have no correlation with playing offensive line,” Schwartz said. “There’s no innovation on the training side and no innovation on the coaching side as far as drills and practice.”
He points to the “boards and chutes” drill, which teaches a lineman to get lower in his stance, as a massive waste of time. “It just taught me to hunch over,” he said.
All of these problems put every team’s $20 million quarterback investment in harm’s way—an issue that is reflected in nearly every corner of the NFL. Eli Manning led the NFL in percentage of passes thrown in under 2.5 seconds last year after being among the worst in the league four years earlier. Nearly everyone is trending toward shorter passes. In his 230 attempts last season before an injury, Aaron Rodgers was throwing nearly 2 yards fewer per play than he was in 2016, according to AirYards. Joe Flacco is throwing 3 yards fewer in the air per pass than he did in 2012, which seems impossible, but here we are.
“Teams have become very specialized and better in their ability to get pass rushers on the field. The reaction is: Just get the ball out quicker,” said Bengals offensive coordinator Bill Lazor. “There are never enough good quarterbacks, so you don’t want to lose yours.”
In two separate Super Bowls, the New York Giants stifled Tom Brady with a four-man pass rush, in many cases putting their four best pass rushers on the field at the same time and letting speed do the work. Schwartz said that these games were crucial in two ways: They led teams to try to collect as many speed rushers as possible, and they made teams realize that if Brady could get rattled by a fast pass rush, anyone could. “Those games perked up the attention of the league,” he said. Around 2012, defensive lines started spreading out, with defensive tackles playing much wider in an attempt to create more space in front of the guard to use their speed and get to the quarterback faster. This was helped along by a leaguewide de-emphasis of the run game, meaning defensive linemen could worry more about putting their heads down and destroying the quarterback on dropbacks. It is probably not a coincidence that the cross chop employed by many of today’s stars was popularized by Osi Umenyiora, who was on those Giants defensive lines. Even if teams wanted to rip off the Giants in the years immediately after, the athletes had not yet caught up with the demand. This current generation of über-athletic pass rushers seems genetically designed to chase quarterbacks.
The Giants did not invent the four-man rush, but they perfected it for the modern age and served as a forerunner for what was to come. Teams were wildly effective in four-man fronts last season. The Jacksonville Jaguars ran it 84 percent of the time and pressured quarterbacks 34 percent of the time with it. The Eagles used it 79 percent of the time.
For the Pittsburgh Steelers, who led the NFL in sacks last season, the easiest way to get to the quarterback is using their talent. Cam Heyward is capable of bull-rushing his way to some poor quarterback and taking the football, but more often than not, there’s not enough time for that. Heyward said there’s an art to the quick-pass rush. Your initial contact with the offensive lineman must be up the field—toward the quarterback—and the quarterback has to be flustered—by a body, arm, anything—by the end of his first read down the field to find a receiver.
“It gets frustrating,” Steelers defensive lineman Tyson Alualu said. “You do all this training, and they get the ball out so quickly it’s impossible to get there. It’s almost more of a mental thing, not getting upset about it.”
Lazor said the development of run-pass options helped gain some ground back for offenses. The play that defined 2017 requires a quick read from the quarterback by definition. If the offensive line thinks the play will be a run and they start running forward to block accordingly, they’ll be called for a penalty for illegal man downfield. So the quarterback must throw it as quickly as he can. This sort of play—which can be a run or a pass—also helps briefly stall any pass rush that might be coming. On top of that, most quick throws are easy. Completing short passes with little chance of an interception is a nice alternative to risky, deeper throws or tempting the pressure of a modern defensive line.
If a quarterback really wants to get rid of the ball before the line gets there, he can. It may be in shotgun formation and/or a pass that’s not too different from a hand-off, but the options are there. So defenses a need to find new ways to stall these fast offenses.
Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said that the decision to draft a pass-rushing star like Heyward wasn’t tied to stopping the quick passing game; he assembled the best defensive line he could, but wasn’t playing a scheme. He said he’s put more focus, however, on drafting players who can cover a lot of ground on a play in this era of more horizontal than vertical plays.
Keith Butler, the team’s defensive coordinator, said that the quick-passing era has led to the Steelers making the rush as complicated-looking as possible. “You have to throw false blitzes at them, then go into a four-man rush,” he said. “You have to create some doubt in their mind because they have to hold the ball longer.” Butler said the play has to be so disrupted by the time the quarterback hits his back foot to set up to throw that they decide not to.
“If you take away the quick read, most quarterbacks try to move their feet where they feel uncomfortable,” Heyward said. “The mentality has to be ‘That ball is getting out, or we’re getting a sack.’” He said that offensive linemen have adapted by using more jump sets on defensive linemen, a hopping type of maneuver that “can literally look like a false start.” This all makes the first step after the snap especially crucial. “With every step you take you have to constantly gain ground,” Heyward said.
It is a muggy July day, and Graham is reliving the play that made him a hero. He has this reporter standing up, showing him how he “cleared his hips” against Mason.
“I got your hands—you’re done,” he said to me. Graham showed me how, once Mason gets turned, the only thing he can do is “panic” and try to get an arm across his own body to try to slow Graham down. But with the angle of hips and the speed of the play, there’s almost no way that’s possible.
It’s been six months since the hit, and Graham has a smile permanently plastered to his face. It was the best two seconds of his life—and in the modern NFL, that makes all the difference.