Ranking the Big 12's space force units: The evolution of the edge rusher

Ian Boyd

Member Who Talks (A Lot!)
Staff member
Jan 14, 2014
21,853
67,247
0
Ypsilanti, MI
Keep up with the full 2020 space force series:
-The importance of wide receivers
-Ranking the league's receivers
-The importance of left tackles
-Ranking the league's left tackles
-The importance of cornerbacks

-Ranking the league's cornerbacks

Edge-rushing can be overrated in modern football, particularly in the college game but at times in the NFL as well. When offenses are lining up in the spread and running RPOs or play-action on most of their standard downs, there isn’t much opportunity to get after the quarterback. On an RPO the ball is coming out just after the snap or being handed off, on play-action the offense is often using six or seven to protect and potentially moving the quarterback.

Modern RPO/play-action spread offenses are well engineered to allow teams with marginal talent levels to get by using run/pass conflicts and maximizing the sorts of high level athletes that are easier to find (wide receivers) with skill-based offense. As we've noted repeatedly, the space force positions are where athleticism counts. Elsewhere teams can stock up on solid players and develop them over time into a cohesive group. Offensive spacing and the "space force" players will do the heavy lifting.

On top of that, spread teams regularly end up playing quarterbacks who specialize at buying time and initiating scramble drills. You can’t sack and pressure a dual-threat quarterback with just one good edge rusher, you need a disciplined approach that constricts his spacing.

Much like with the league’s offensive tackles, great edge-rushers really make their presence felt on passing downs when teams need to use the dropback passing game and protect their quarterbacks while giving him as many options as possible. In that instance they can suddenly become lethal. Because of some of these evolutions in offensive strategy, the way defenses use top athletes on the perimeter of the defense is evolving.

Deployment defensive ends and outside linebackers against the RPO/play-action spread

You'll struggle to find greater diversity in the Big 12 than in how teams approach the problem of how to disrupt the quarterback with the pass-rush. Teams have different formulas for packaging personnel, deploying them, and how to generate pressure.

The traditional approach was with the 4-3 Over defense that puts a great athlete at either defensive end position and lets them go hunt the quarterback when they see pass blocking. The Big 12 has had a number of problems copying that approach in today’s game.

First of all, passes regularly come flying out of the quarterbacks' hands without a clear warning in the form of obvious offensive line pass sets. Whether it’s an RPO or cleverly disguised play-action, defensive ends don’t often get a clear indicator it’s pass-rushing time.

Secondly, Big 12 teams regularly play quick players at quarterback who are hard to catch and good at throwing the ball on the run. Pat Mahomes and Kyler Murray were about as difficult of quarterbacks to catch who have ever lived but guys like Charlie Brewer, Brock "pump fake" Purdy, Sam Ehlinger, Baker Mayfield, Skylar Thompson, or Max Duggan can be exceedingly frustrating to deal with as well.

Finally, elite athletes who weigh 230+ and can set the edge against the run on first down but then blend power and speed to beat offensive tackles on third down aren't just super easy to find. Perhaps easier to find than top offensive tackles, but not as easy to find as dominant wide receivers. If your defensive scheme is to have two of them on the field at the same time? Simply unrealistic for the vast majority of Big 12 programs.

Here's the small handful of Big 12 teams in the 2010s that achieved the goal of pairing up two, legitimately good edge-rushers in a 4-down scheme.

2010 Oklahoma: Jeremy Beal (8.5 sacks) and Frank Alexander (seven sacks)
2011 Oklahoma: Frank Alexander (8.5 sacks) and Corey Nelson/Ronnell Lewis (11 combined sacks)
2011 Texas: Jackson Jeffcoat (7.5 sacks) and Alex Okafor (seven sacks)
2012 Kansas State: Meshak Williams (10.5 sacks) and Adam Davis (seven sacks)
2013 Texas: Jackson Jeffcoat (13 sacks) and Cedric Reed (10 sacks)
2017 TCU: Ben Banogu (8.5 sacks) and Mat Boesen (11.5 sacks)


That's it. On a few other occasions in the last decade a 4-down defense would have a pair of edge-rushers with solid numbers but typically you'd be looking at something like Jordan Willis or Ryan Mueller wreaking havoc while a player opposite him cleaned up where he’d be neutralized without the star. You could make a case that was true of the 2017 TCU Frogs, Boesen had 5.5 sacks in a single game against Baylor, Banogu was the real terror.

What's been far more common is the 4-3 Under style approach. The 4-3 Under uses a bigger strongside end to one side of the formation and then sets up a defensive end/linebacker hybrid on the weakside as the primary pass-rusher. You don't see an awful lot of true 4-3 Under defense anymore but you see its philosophical sons in a few different schemes around the league. An easy example would be the Obo Okoronkwo or Eric Striker Oklahoma teams who would set up the main pass-rusher and then support him with multiple positions rather than another pure edge-rusher on the opposite side.

But in recent years and with the flyover defense model, defenses will now often forego utilizing a dominant edge-rusher on first-and-10 when the offense is probably running the ball, getting it out too quickly to rush the passer, or using max protection play-action anyways. The game is changing to emphasize 4-3 under strongside ends and then third down packages.

I'll give you two different examples.

The 2019 Baylor Bears had an unbelievable set-up in which both of their defensive ends, James Lynch and James Lockhart, were big guys who could play as strongside ends. They’d squeeze the B-gaps from an outside alignment on first down, and then beat the tackles on the edge on third down.

Lynch was 6-4, 295 with a constant motor and strong hands he parlayed into 13.5 sacks. James Lockhart was 6-2, 263 and had a similar profile with less power but more lateral quicks, he had six sacks. What was most impressive was their production came mostly from a three-man rush.

The 2019 Iowa State Cyclones innovated many of the defensive strategies the Bears were using, but they didn't have a Lynch or Lockhart on the team. JaQuan Bailey was somewhere in between for them in 2018 but was injured for most of the year and his replacement Zach Petersen offered a little less in the pass-rush. So the Cyclones blitzed a lot early in the year, particularly with stout linebacker O'Rien Vance, then teams got wise. But as their young roster developed they had a change-up to throw at teams late in the year.

A 6-4, 230 pound redshirt freshman named Will McDonald who was expected to start out wide at sam linebacker but couldn't handle the run/pass conflicts in space well. The Cyclones gave third downs to McDonald in the last few games of the season and he rewarded them with five sacks in three games. He's not as big or powerful as these strongside ends and would need the Cyclones to alter their scheme to suit him on first-and-10, but he's a prototypical edge-rushing nightmare on third-and-nine.

Blending edge athletes with the needs of stopping RPO/play-action spread systems

This has been a fundamental problem for Big 12 defensive coaches in the last couple of seasons, 2019 in particular. Baylor was #blessed that it didn't matter because Lynch and Lockhart were big ends who could still get after the quarterback. Other teams have been able to find some really promising, sub 250-pound pass-rushers who are left homeless by the 3-down flyover defenses with their drop eight coverages.

So what do you do? Teach those guys to drop into coverage all the time and waste their pass-rushing half the time? That was essentially the decision Todd Orlando made for Texas. Even worse, not only did he play their star edge-rusher Joseph Ossai off the ball and in coverage but typically at inside linebacker or even nickel! The New England Patriots get away with using highly versatile professionals like Dont'a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy in that fashion but it's extremely difficult for a collegiate athlete.

These star edge-rushers often come out of high school having played a different position or else simply relying on their sheer athleticism. They need years to refine their pass-rushing skills in order to beat the offensive tackles they find waiting at the college level, much less learning how to read flow at inside linebacker. A player who can blend inside and outside linebacker skills at the college level would be as valuable to one of these Big 12 defenses as a defensive tackle/edge-rushing hybrid like James Lynch was last season for Baylor.

But both Iowa State and Baylor approached a possible solution with their preferred defensive fronts and TCU has developed it further, as broken down recently by Cameron Soran and linked on this board. He'd play a jack outside linebacker and let him work setting the edge while using a strongside end opposite to plug B-gaps.

Things can continue down this train and continue to get more exotic. For instance, perhaps it's easier to get a heavy-hitting middle linebacker and possible to play him up in the box from the flyover defense due to the third safety lined up behind them. WIth a big mike backer serving as a de-facto defensive tackle, the defense could get away with having a full-time edge player. To demonstrate with my favorite example, the tight zone RPO:


The nose and the strongside end are basically there to hold the attention of offensive linemen so they can't blow open holes in the open gaps of the front. The inside linebackers are going to play downhill but on the edge the sam linebacker and nickel will read keys and create confusion for the tight end on who's coming and who to block before closing on the ball. The goal of modern spread defense is, or should be, to hold the point well enough to buy time for off ball defenders to clear run/pass conflicts and then close and tackle.

Defenses that figure out how to protect star pass-rushers on early downs so they can be on the field when they're needed will be at a decided advantage, particularly in the first year or so of this kind of innovation before everyone else catches up.

Finding star edge-rushers

The upshot of flyover defense is this can actually become easier. When the goal is play defense with depth, playing multiple defenders off the ball before attacking the line of scrimmage from different angles and disguises, then the star pass-rusher could play multiple positions.

What teams want is a guy with great burst (first step speed), often good reach so he can win the hand fighting with offensive linemen and keep their big mitts off his chest, lateral agility to turn the corner, and then enough power to beat blocks. If the offensive lineman gets a decent drop he needs to be able to fight through him, if he gets isolated 1-on-1 against a tight end or running back he should be dominating that matchup.

Normally this kind of player is at least 6-2, but he can shorter if the wingspan is good. Oklahoma's Eric Striker was 5-11, 227 at the combine but he had the wingspan of a 6-3 player and obviously some first step quickness. 220 pounds is probably on the low end and this guy can be as heavy as 300 if he's the rare sort who can bend and explode at that size. James Lynch wasn't even particularly explosive, he ran the 40 in 5.01 seconds, but he was quick enough when his speed was paired with those heavy hands.

Finally, your pass-rusher needs to have a role when defending RPOs and play-action. The illustration above is an example of how teams could keep him on the edge full-time, which is simplest. If he can play strongside end and defend the B-gaps some like Lynch, even better. If he can play inside linebacker that might be the jack pot but it’s also the least likely scenario, as I argue above.

Teams playing an edge player in a 4-down front, like Texas and Kansas State, need to get an awful lot from their front four to justify the expenditure of not having an extra defensive back behind them. The versatility and extra help stopping the pass options and taking away the chance for the offense to get 1-on-1s on vertical shots is nearly invaluable.

There is value though in having strong edge players against the run. A defensive end or outside linebacker who can step down on zone-read and constrict the running back’s cutback lane while still possessing the lateral agility to catch and tackle the quarterback on a keeper is really useful. A dominant edge player setting the edge and keeping rushing attacks contained inside is also highly valuable. A good edge player can blow up the counter schemes everyone loves now by blowing up the first pulling blocker and creating a pileup.

As you'll see in the next post, the Big 12 has a lot more weapons here than in previous seasons. So we'll see which approaches to blending anti-RPO/play-action tactics with traditional edge-rushing players emerge as best practices for this fledgling decade of flyover football.
 

Attachments

stilesbbq

Member Who Talks (A Lot!)
Oct 2, 2019
1,413
4,230
0
Who is the best edge rusher in B12 history? Brian Robison?
 

cavesl

Member
Jul 3, 2018
65
100
0
Yeah, cause Beal was a 3-year starter in a Stoops/Venables defense. He's not in Miller's class but he was a good player.
Oh no doubt. No one is as an edge rusher. I’m just saying same time as it was Interesting at the time
 
  • Like
Reactions: Ian Boyd

Ian Boyd

Member Who Talks (A Lot!)
Staff member
Jan 14, 2014
21,853
67,247
0
Ypsilanti, MI
Oh no doubt. No one is as an edge rusher. I’m just saying same time as it was Interesting at the time
OU used to move him around to set him up on third down. Very good college career, awful combine numbers.

Venables was going great work in Norman. Wasn’t given enough time to adjust and scapegoated by Bob trying to help his bro.
 

sherf1

Member Who Talks (A Lot!)
Dec 8, 2018
8,230
25,027
0
Seems like we're on the cusp of the defensive renaissance maybe? Teams seem to be coming up with more answers than ever before, and more willingness to try.

Might not show up this year as the QB crop in the conference is so experienced, but maybe the O line issues combined with a good stock of edge players this year will cause problems.
 

system poster

Member
Jul 29, 2020
10
15
0
He had 17 sacks in one season.
He really ran up the score that season against non-con cupcakes. 8 of those were against New Mexico, Utah State, and UAB. I'm going to be a homer and say that Brandon Sharpe had the best pass rushing season in Big 12 history. 15 sacks in 10 games, 13 sacks in 7 conference games. Also, man was the Big 12 loaded up front in 2009. Here's the all conference team that year:

DLNdamukong Suh **NebraskaSr.Portland, Ore./Grant
DLGerald McCoy ^OklahomaJr.Oklahoma City, Okla./Southeast
DLVon MillerTexas A&MJr.DeSoto, Texas/DeSoto
DLBrandon SharpeTexas TechSr.Lyons, Ga./Fresno City CC
DLJared CrickNebraskaSo.Cozad, Neb./Cozad
LBSean Weatherspoon ^MissouriSr.Jasper, Texas/Jasper
LBJesse SmithIowa StateSr.Altoona, Iowa/Southeast Polk
LBTravis LewisOklahomaSo.San Antonio, Texas/Robert E. Lee
DBEarl ThomasTexasSo.Orange, Texas/West Orange Stark
DBPerrish CoxOklahoma StateSr.Waco, Texas/University
DBDominique FranksOklahomaJr.Tulsa, Okla./Union
DBPrince AmukamaraNebraskaJr.Glendale, Ariz./Apollo
DBLarry AsanteNebraskaSr.Alexandria, Va./Hayfield/Coffeyville CC

Doesn't even include Aldon Smith and his 11.5 sacks.
 

sherf1

Member Who Talks (A Lot!)
Dec 8, 2018
8,230
25,027
0
He really ran up the score that season against non-con cupcakes. 8 of those were against New Mexico, Utah State, and UAB. I'm going to be a homer and say that Brandon Sharpe had the best pass rushing season in Big 12 history. 15 sacks in 10 games, 13 sacks in 7 conference games. Also, man was the Big 12 loaded up front in 2009. Here's the all conference team that year:

DLNdamukong Suh **NebraskaSr.Portland, Ore./Grant
DLGerald McCoy ^OklahomaJr.Oklahoma City, Okla./Southeast
DLVon MillerTexas A&MJr.DeSoto, Texas/DeSoto
DLBrandon SharpeTexas TechSr.Lyons, Ga./Fresno City CC
DLJared CrickNebraskaSo.Cozad, Neb./Cozad
LBSean Weatherspoon ^MissouriSr.Jasper, Texas/Jasper
LBJesse SmithIowa StateSr.Altoona, Iowa/Southeast Polk
LBTravis LewisOklahomaSo.San Antonio, Texas/Robert E. Lee
DBEarl ThomasTexasSo.Orange, Texas/West Orange Stark
DBPerrish CoxOklahoma StateSr.Waco, Texas/University
DBDominique FranksOklahomaJr.Tulsa, Okla./Union
DBPrince AmukamaraNebraskaJr.Glendale, Ariz./Apollo
DBLarry AsanteNebraskaSr.Alexandria, Va./Hayfield/Coffeyville CC

Doesn't even include Aldon Smith and his 11.5 sacks.
That is a very stacked defense. Throw Aaron Williams out there as the Nickle back and that team is winning the Big 12 today (with a competent offense).
 

Justin Wells

Inside Texas Web Editor
Staff member
Jul 22, 2013
69,180
261,344
0
That is a very stacked defense. Throw Aaron Williams out there as the Nickle back and that team is winning the Big 12 today (with a competent offense).
Aaron Williams was so good. Even as a rotation guy at times, he never complained. Decent NFL career.
 
  • Like
Reactions: sherf1