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.


My New Book: The Art of Smart Football

My second book, The Art of Smart Football, is now available. Like my first book, The Art of Smart Football is a collection of chapters across a range of subjects, all dealing in with football strategy and tactics, as well as the people behind them. I truly hope you enjoy it.


If you’ve read every word I’ve ever written (I should be so lucky!) you will recognize some subjects that aren’t all-new. But there’s new material and I’ve also edited and updated each chapter to now, and in most cases expanded the chapters as well.

I chose to publish the book myself, as I did with The Essential Smart Football, for a variety of reasons. I nevertheless have had a great deal of help along the way, in particular from my readers who have provided tremendous support and feedback at every step.

You can purchase the book using the links below. I’ve also included a special 20% discount code for my readers. I hope that is a small token of my appreciation for your support over the years; this August will mark the ten year anniversary of Smart Football.

A final, small request: If you get the book and enjoy it, I’d truly appreciate it if you wouldn’t mind spending a brief minute to write a review on Amazon. It would be much appreciated.

For any marketing or other inquiries, please email me at chris [at]

Smart Notes: Chan Gailey, Matching Markets, Russell Wilson’s Contract, Marcus Lattimore, Sleep, 7/9/2015

Fascinating discussion of why we (i.e., most everyone in the modern world) can’t fall asleep.

– Bill Barnwell on Russell Wilson’s contract and the year the NFL gave the MVP award to a kicker.

Former South Carolina runningback Marcus Lattimore says his NFL career was “hell… every day.

Is Chan Gailey a quarterback whisperer? I like Chan and he’s a good coach, but “QB whisperer” seems a bit much. Probably a better fit for the Jets than they’ve had recently, however.

– I really enjoyed this GQ article on the infamous Magic City club of Atlanta.

Alvin Roth on the EconTalk podcast discussing “Matching Markets,” or markets that require the buyer and seller to select each other. This interesting applications for free agency and recruiting.

James Light on Gunter Brewer’s passing concepts. James has had a lot of good stuff recently.

Doug Farrar on whether any runningback could excel behind Dallas’s line.

I enjoyed this bit of game theory:


Matt Hinton on the dark side of conference realignment and Holly Anderson on rattlesnake rodeos.

Matt Levine on whether you can really game index funds.

– Make sure to sign up for the Smart Football email list (there will only be emails when there’s news, like a new article). Also be sure to “Like” Smart Football on Facebook.

That’s how you block the second level

Tulane’s graduate assistant offensive line coach Matt Jones posted some great clips of NFL offensive linemen doing their thing recently, with this one maybe being my favorite:

These weren’t too bad either, though:

New Grantland: The Receiver Ripple Effect – Ranking the top wide receivers in the 2015 NFL Draft

It’s now up over at Grantland:

For a long time, conventional wisdom held that receivers took a few years to develop, and that the wideouts picked near the top of the draft carried a nasty bust rate1 because of the physical and mental demands of playing receiver in the NFL. But last year’s rookie class appeared to obliterate those concerns, and the position should continue to produce sterling talents now that college teams are using three or four receivers on every play, year-round 7-on-7 camps are leaving prospects as polished as ever, and schools are increasingly emphasizing the passing game.

The 2015 wide receiver draft class exemplifies this trend, boasting numerous physical marvels and future stars. Of course, as always, there will also be some busts. The trick is figuring out which players will be which.

Read the whole thing.

New Grantland: True Grit — How a formula (and a secret ingredient) can help us evaluate Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota, and the 2015 QB class

It’s now up over at Grantland:

Drafting an NFL quarterback is risky business, and the lesson of Druckenmiller’s story and others like it is that no one truly knows which players will succeed in the pros. Even the brightest GMs and coaches can whiff badly: By nearly any measure, fewer than 50 percent of passers drafted in the first round wind up as quality NFL starters, while fewer than 20 percent become stars. The odds are even worse after the first round, with Tom Brady and Russell Wilson serving as rare exceptions that prove the rule.

Yet there’s no question that teams must continue drafting quarterbacks; the position remains the most important on the field, and since it’s nearly impossible to find a franchise QB via free agency, teams are forced to keep braving the murky waters of the prospect pool. The question is how clubs can get better at drafting quarterbacks. Fortunately, research on improving decision-making in unpredictable circumstances can help us craft a formula for evaluating quarterback prospects in general, and the 2015 crop of Bryce Petty, Brett Hundley, Marcus Mariota, and Jameis Winston in particular.

Read the whole thing.

New podcast with the Solid Verbal

I went on the Solid Verbal podcast with Dan Rubenstein, where we chatted quarterbacks, TCU, defensive adaptations to the spread, and lots more. Listen in here, or on iTunes.

Smart Links – Virtual Reality, Spider 2 Y Banana, Jet Sweeps – 4/6/2015

New Kentucky offensive coordinator (and Air Raid alumnus) Shannon Dawson mic’d up at spring practice as he installs his new offense:

Virtual Reality for Quarterbacks?

Stanford head coach David Shaw: “It was the first time I could actually visualize something like that. ‘I was like, ‘Wow, if we could actually put quarterbacks in a virtual world so we’re not using extra practice reps, we’re not extending practice at all — we’re not messing with the 20-hour work week, we’re just creating a library of things for a QB to learn something, that’d help your backup QB who’s never gonna get as many reps as a starter and helps your starter get three reps on a play that he screwed up on and he can just watch the same thing over and over again and see everybody and feel like he’s there.’ When Derek started explaining it to me, I got really excited.”

Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan: “When you’re watching on film you have a birds-eye view from the sky. It’s hard to see if they’re leaning one way or the other. But with this, when you’re going through your cadence and start to go through your dummy count, you can see the safety start to creep up a little bit. That’s an indicator. When you’re just watching film, you don’t get the sound, you don’t get that real-life feel of the game. With this, I can see what the structure is.”

Breakdown of Washington linebacker/safety prospect Shaq Thompson by Matt Bowen:

I tend to side with the scouts who see Thompson as an outside linebacker in a 4-3 scheme. And I would put him on the weak side (Will) where he can run to the ball, scrape over the top and clean up. Think of Lovie Smith’s scheme in Tampa with the playmaker at the Will ‘backer position. Thompson could be that guy.


New Grantland: Inside the Evolution (and Oregonification) of Urban Meyer’s Ohio State Offense

It’s now up over at Grantand:

At Florida, Meyer’s offense revolved almost entirely around the quarterback. From 2007 through 2009, Tim Tebow led the SEC in pass efficiency while also leading the Gators in rushing yards, and the lasting image of those UF offenses is of Tebow plunging into the line on power runs. That approach worked with a 6-foot-3, 235-pound rhinoceros at quarterback, but with Tebow off to the NFL in 2010, Florida’s offense began to fall apart, and the Gators limped to an 8-5 finish. Meyer stepped away from the game in 2011 to spend more time with family, and during that time he was able to study many of the sport’s most innovative coaches and schemes. When Meyer rejoined the coaching ranks and started searching for a coordinator who could mesh the newest trends with what Meyer had done before, he asked around for suggestions, and several of his closest friends in the business suggested the same name: Iowa State offensive coordinator Tom Herman.

Read the whole thing.

Most Popular Books Bought by Smart Football Readers in 2014

I’ve always been floored by the quality of the feedback and discussion from Smart Football readers (whether on this site, Grantland or on Twitter or Facebook), so it’s always fascinating to see which books are most popular among readers. The following is a breakdown of the books purchased over the last year by Smart Football readers. I get very minor referral revenues from Amazon purchases and, as a result, I am able to track which books are purchased by readers. The data is entirely anonymous but it is, to me at least, quite interesting. (Click to enlarge the charts.)

The Most Popular Books Bought by Smart Football Readers in 2014

2014 Chart 1

The Most Popular Books Bought by Smart Football Readers in 2014 (excluding The Essential Smart Football)

2014 Chart 2

Below is the full list of books. Note that I simply included the top books and did not include a separate “other” category. I thought the list was fairly eclectic this year, as non-football books had numbers comparable to the football ones. And, as usual, books that focused on football strategy dominated all other sports or football titles.