The Elite Of The Elite Defensive Ends


October 17, 2010; St. Louis, MO, USA; St. Louis Rams defensive end Chris Long (72) sacks San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers (17) in the first half at the Edward Jones Dome. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-US PRESSWIRE

On Monday, analyzed James Laurinaitis on some of the behind-the-scenes statistics that can help to more accurately gauge a players performance. Using a formulation of statistics to assess a players abilities can be extremely useful, especially when steering clear of some of the  more glorified statistics. So, when it comes to defensive lineman, what can we truly go on to besides sack totals and tackles to base our judgement? Interior linemen, for example, rarely accumulate large tackles numbers or record more than a handful of sacks. Defensive lineman seem to be judged solely on their ability to drag down the quarterback. Is that statistic enough to separate the good from the bad, the good from the elite?

Also noted on Monday was the massive database of information compiled by Pro Football Focus, which took data collected on every player over the last 3 years and created a Walmart-esque listing of raw statistics, efficiency ratings, and breakdowns of player and positions on any number of criteria. One of those statistics quantifies, what is broadly thrown around as, the “pass rush,” a quality expected of all elite defensive ends, and, what is typically, the main diagnostic value used in assessing a player. Sacks are a nice luxury number, but truly elite rushers bring the heat on every rush, causing disturbances in the backfield that cannot be measured through the basic stats found on your typical sports website.

The term “non-stop motor” has been used to describe Chris Long since he was drafted into the NFL back in 2008 and, before, at UVA. What does that really mean? Like previous mentioned, an elite defensive end puts pressure on the quarterback on every snap, regardless of whether they actually make contact. The players with a high motor are those that are going to be in the game on every snap getting after the quarterback, never letting him relax or get comfortable in the pocket. PFF has compiled a list of the top “edge rushers,” which includes outside linebackers (typically 3-4) and defensive ends (typically 4-3), entitled the “iron men,” or the players with the most pass rushing snaps over the past three years. Not surprisingly, 6 out of the top 10 are defensive ends, and all but two players have been voted to at least one Pro Bowl in their career. One of those six defense ends is, of course, St. Louis Rams defensive end Chris Long who has amassed 1429 pass rush snaps, which is the 6th highest total in the NFL. Long is also one of those two previously mentioned players that has surprisingly not been voted to the Pro Bowl. Heading out of the list of “iron men” is Jared Allen with 1638 pass rush snaps, which is over 150 more rushing snap than the next highest ranked player, Julius Peppers, who is at 1480 snaps. Although it is a jump to claim the number of attempts automatically translated into pressured, there is a strong correlation between those who get after the quarterback on a consistent basis and those who get to the quarterback for the sack.

Again, sacks are clearly the more attainable statistic on who can get to the quarterback, but does that really tell you who is the best at getting after the quarterback? Sacks are nice, even game changing, but the true measure of an elite pass rusher in the amount of pressure they can put on a quarterback. Sacks, of course, are one measurement of pressure, but there are number of others. Total pressures is a value that consists of sacks, hits on a quarterback, and number of hurried throws. Hurries are a relatively subjective statistic, but the criteria is roughly summarized as the noticeable disturbance in the progression of the quarterback. The total pressures by an edge rusher more fully demonstrates a defenseman’s ability to affect the passing game, and the game as a whole. DeMarcus Ware has led the NFL in pressures over the last three years, with 227 total pressures on opposing quarterbacks. If more proof is needed that pressures are the best indication of an edge rushers ability, the top 10 performers in this category have been selected to the Pro Bowl an astonishing 36 combined times. Only two players have made it to the Pro Bowl less than 2 times, with Cameron Wake making his first Pro Bowl appearance in 2011, which was followed up by a huge contract extension by the Miami Dolphins. The other player… Chris Long, who has recorded 195 total pressures over the past three years, which is tied for 4th in the NFL alongside the Minnesota Vikings’ Jared Allen.

It wouldn’t be PFF without some type of formula for assessing the productivity of a pass rusher in a single, quantifiable unit. Pass Rushing Productivity (PRP) combines the total pressures, tackles, and pass rush attempts to calculate a productivity rating designed to measure the “true” productivity of a pass rusher anytime he is on the field. Atop the list of the most productive is Cameron Wake with a 13.32 PRP rating, measuring in with  1062 pass rush snap and 178 total pressures. Other notable players on this high end of that list are:

DeMarcus Ware (DAL)12.65 (2nd)Clay Matthews (GB)11.14 (11th)
Jason Babin (PHI)12.61 (3rd)Brian Orakpo (WAS)10.37 (15th)
James Harrison (PIT)12.3 (6th)Mario Williams (BUF) 10.1 (16th)
Trent Cole (PHI)12.28 (7th)Jared Allen (MIN)9.68 (19th)
Dwight Freeney (IND)11.74 (9th)Julius Peppers (CHI)9.63 (20th)

There is hardly a notable pass rusher in the NFL whose name has been omitted from the top 20 in this category. Future Hall of Famers like DeMarcus Ware, Dwight Freeney, Jared Allen, and Julius Peppers are all present in every category from basic pass rushing attempts to the compilation of numerous pass rushing statistics in the Pass Rushing Productivity. One of the names that you do not see on the chart, but is ranked 13th in the NFL among all of these greats, with a 10.69 PRP, coupled with 1429 pass rush attempts (6th) and195 total pressures (T-4) is… Chris Long.

Much like James Laurinaitis, Long he has been unjustly deprived of the recognition that he deserves. Aside from ill-humored comparisons to his father, Hall of Famer Howie Long, Chris receives little hype for the caliber of player that he has show to be through his production, especially in comparison to the Clay Matthews and James Harrisons of the NFL. Last year, players like Dwight Freeney (AFC), Jason Pierre-Paul (NFC), and Julius Peppers (NFC) made it to the Pro Bowl ahead of Chris Long purely on name recognition or a couple of sacks. However, although they may be relatively close as pass rushers, all of these players have been extremely weak in the other primary role of a defensive end; to  contain the pocket and stop the run. According to PPF, those three players have ranked in the BOTTOM 15 edge rushers in the NFL in terms of tackling efficiency (TE)  with Freeney at 7.8 TE (3rd), Pierre-Paul at 8.1 TE (4th), and Julius Peppers at 9.1 TE (T-13), which essentially means these players are missing a tackle every 7 to 9 attempts.

Regardless of recognition, Chris Long is still one of the best all-around defensive ends in the NFL. He commands a double team on nearly every play and keeps offensive coordinators up at night game planning on how to keep him out of the backfield. Luckily, the Rams are aware of his elite status and have given Long a $50M contract to hold keep him in St. Louis for the next 4 years. Hopefully with the rise of the St. Louis Rams from mediocrity, Long will finally get his well deserved mentions among the “greats” in the NFL