By JOHN SHIRLEY
Normally when people talk about teams with a great pass rush, the discussion is centered around specific elite players, such as Aaron Donald, Khalil Mack, or J.J. Watt. If they do go further than that, it is generally to mention a bookend rusher or team Pressure% as a whole. While player and team level pass rush metrics are worthwhile talking points, here we will be breaking down and evaluating specific pass-rushing lineups. You can think of this as similar to evaluating different lines in hockey or a specific lineup in basketball.
Best Three-Man Pass Rush Lineups
Getting pressure from a three-man rush is extremely valuable for a defense. It speeds up the quarterback’s timing, while allowing eight defenders to drop in coverage to leave him almost no windows to the throw ball. Getting pressure from a three-man rush is more difficult, as the league average Pressure% is only 28%, but the lineups below had no problem getting after opposing quarterbacks.
Top 3-Man Pass Rush Lineups by Pressure%, 2019 (Minimum 15 Snaps)
|Packers||Preston Smith, Za’Darius Smith, Kenny Clark||29||45%|
|Vikings||Everson Griffen, Danielle Hunter, Ifeadi Odenigbo||19||42%|
|Titans||Jurrell Casey, Reggie Gilbert, Harold Landry||19||42%|
|Saints||Cameron Jordan, David Onyemata, Trey Hendrickson||15||40%|
|Colts||Justin Houston, Denico Autry, Jabaal Sheard||21||38%|
Last off-season the Packers invested heavily in free agent additions to their defense. That investment absolutely paid off, as edge rushers Preston Smith and Za’Darius Smith teamed with Kenny Clark to create the best three-man rush in 2019.
Best Four-Man Pass Rush Lineups
Getting pressure from a three-man rush is great, but add in a fourth rusher and the league average Pressure% increases five percentage points to 33%. Four-man pass rushes are also the most common, as they accounted for 65% of all dropbacks in 2019.
Top 4-Man Pass Rush Lineups by Pressure%, 2019 (Minimum 25 Snaps)
|Packers||Preston Smith, Za’Darius Smith, Kenny Clark, Rashan Gary||29||59%|
|Seahawks||Jadeveon Clowney, Jarran Reed, Quinton Jefferson, Poona Ford||28||54%|
|Chargers||Melvin Ingram III, Joey Bosa, Isaac Rochell, Uchenna Nwosu||30||53%|
|Panthers||Bruce Irvin, Gerald McCoy, Mario Addison, Brian Burns||27||52%|
|Chiefs||Terrell Suggs, Frank Clark, Chris Jones, Tanoh Kpassagnon||31||52%|
Once again, off-season additions help the Packers to the top spot. The lineup of Preston Smith, Za’Darius Smith and Kenny Clark was an elite three-man rush. But add last year’s first round pick Rashan Gary to the lineup, and you get an explosive pass rush that got pressure on 59% of opponent dropbacks.
The Packers elite lineup will be teaming up again this season, but that isn’t the case for some other team’s four-man rush lineups. The top three most used four-man rush lineups from last season could all be missing at least one piece this year.
Most Often Used 4-Man Pass Rush Lineups, 2019
|Vikings||Linval Joseph, Everson Griffen, Danielle Hunter, Shamar Stephen||155||29%|
|49ers||Arik Armstead, Dee Ford, DeForest Buckner, Nick Bosa||132||45%|
|Jaguars||Calais Campbell, Yannick Ngakoue, Dawuane Smoot, Josh Allen||116||44%|
The Vikings could be without Everson Griffen, who is still a free agent. The 49ers will be without defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, who was traded to the Colts in the offseason. And the Jaguars might end up missing two players, as Calais Campbell was traded to the Ravens and Yannick Ngakoue’s relationship with the team is up in the air.
Best Five-Man Pass Rush Lineups
Adding a fourth pass rusher increases the league average Pressure% by around five percentage points. Add a fifth pass rush on top of that, and the league average Pressure% increased another ten percentage points to 43% in 2019. This isn’t that surprising, but it just highlights how effective blitzing can be—something we pointed out on Football Outsiders last off-season.
Top 5-Man Pass Rush Lineups by Pressure%, 2019 (Minimum 15 Snaps)
|Cowboys||DeMarcus Lawrence, Michael Bennett, Robert Quinn, Jaylon Smith, Maliek Collins||16||69%|
|Steelers||Bud Dupree, Cameron Heyward, Mark Barron, Javon Hargrave, T.J. Watt||19||68%|
|Texans||Brandon Dunn, Angelo Blackson, Whitney Mercilus, Brennan Scarlett, D.J. Reader||17||59%|
|Rams||Clay Matthews, Aaron Donald, Michael Brockers, Dante Fowler Jr., Sebastian Joseph-Day||21||52%|
|Buccaneers||Ndamukong Suh, William Gholston, Jason Pierre-Paul, Shaquil Barrett, Vita Vea||19||42%|
The Cowboys lineup of DeMarcus Lawrence, Michael Bennett, Robert Quinn, Jaylon Smith, and Maliek Collins was the league’s best five-man blitz package last season, with a Pressure% of 69%. Unfortunately for the Cowboys, this lineup will be nonexistent this season, as Bennett, Quinn and Collins have all moved on from the team.
This was the first time the Packers didn’t top the leaderboard. Although if we were to lower the minimum number of pass rush snaps to 10, the Packers blitz package of Preston Smith, Za’Darius Smith, Kenny Clark, Kyler Fackrell, and Blake Martinez would have topped the list with a Pressure% of 73% on 11 snaps.