Mastering the Sack

I recently stumbled across some pretty nifty cut-up videos of NFL sacks, which highlight the effort, techniques and schemes that result in losses for offenses. It’s an understudied area, as sacks and pressures that move the QB off the spot and force bad throws or decisions are often seen as results rather than processes: it happened or didn’t, but how and why remains hidden. And it’s hidden because (1) it’s an extremely technical, delicate ballet of footwork, leverage and hand placement and (2) it’s also a total melee in there.

This excellent post from Shakinthesouthland lays out some of the basic pass rush moves, and most others you may see are just variations of these:

There are several we’re going to cover here but all start with the proper stance, with weight over their feet and not the down hand, and correct alignment. The initial step is always important. Every man has a pass rush lane that he shouldn’t deviate from until he has to do so. Every man must constantly be moving his feet and his hands, no matter what. Every pass rusher will start with one or two in high school and progress from there, and some in the NFL may only use 3 or 4 different techniques with variants off of those. Here I’ll cover the basic pass rush techniques

  • Bull Rush
  • Speed Rush
  • Swim
  • Grab
  • Rip/Inside
  • Spin
  • Under
  • Counter/Club

Of course, the beauty of these moves is that, over the course of a game, a defensive lineman or even a rush linebacker can vary and set up moves for down the line: the bull rush works when the offensive lineman isn’t expecting it after dealing with a steady dose of speed rushes; the rip inside and the spin work well against a lineman who is well coached to handle the speed or bull rush; and so on.

And understanding these moves helps us in appreciating the really special players. J.J. Watt breaks countless “rules” in the moves he uses because he studies, because he plays psychology versus his opponents and because, well, he can:

When [Wade] Phillips first saw Watt try the maneuver, 35 years of NFL practices set off alarms in his head. “The first time you see it, you think about the old coaching adage, ‘You never go around the block,’” Phillips says. “Well, you do when you can make the play.” Coaches refer to these plays as calculated risks, and what Phillips and defensive line coach Bill Kollar soon realized is that Watt’s were more calculated than most. Because Watt watches so much film, he has an ironclad grasp on what plays to expect out of formations. Because he was quicker, he could recover faster. Because he has the best hands in the league, he could shed blockers more easily.

Here is a link to a PDF analyzing J.J. Watt’s moves, and here is Ben Muth on stopping pass rush moves from an offensive lineman’s perspective. After the jump are a few more video clips on pass rush techniques.