The pass rush can look so simple on a highlight reel.
A single, overwhelming burst of athleticism, a spontaneous combustion of pure athletic ability that ends with the destruction of a quarterback.
But rushing the passer is so much more complicated than it appears.
At the NFL level, the pass rush is every bit the sweet science that boxing can be. A great pass rusher has to approach every game like a heavyweight bout: a long game of preparation, strategy and counter moves that sometimes culminates in a single act of domination.
“It’s a full-on fight,” Saints rookie outside linebacker Hau’oli Kikaha said. “And it takes a lot more than a couple of tries to get it down.”
The Saints need Kikaha and the rest of their pass rushers to win a few more times against Jameis Winston and his Tampa Bay teammates Sunday. Arizona held the Saints without a sack of Carson Palmer in the season opener, parrying and defending every move even though New Orleans produced 14 quarterback hurries.
“I was just having a conversation with (veteran defensive tackle) Kevin Williams about this,” defensive end Akiem Hicks said. “We want to get into a better rhythm. You can’t just go out, rush the passer and say, ‘OK, this move’s going to work. Or if that move doesn’t work, try this move.’ You want to get into a rhythm of how he’s setting and how he’s dropping and how he’s kicking.”
Finding a rhythm might have little to do with the pass rush. With a rookie quarterback coming off a rough debut, Tampa Bay likely will try to establish the run first and get into short-yardage situations that give the Buccaneers options on second and third down. Arizona rushed for 120 yards on just 25 carries in the season opener, a 4.8-yard average that gave the Cardinals plenty of play-calling options.
A pass rusher is automatically at a disadvantage when he has to worry about the possibility of the run.
“Well, the first way to get a rhythm is to force a team to be one-dimensional. In other words, once you are able to play the run and feel like you know it is a pass, that is the starting point,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “If you show me a game where there has been four or five sacks, I am going to show you a team that was probably behind having to throw.”
Take away the threat of the run, and the Saints’ pass rushers can focus on making Winston’s life miserable and speeding up his process in the pocket, which leads to mistakes — particularly by a rookie.
Pass rush preparation is a lot like a boxer crafting a strategy for a title bout.
A great pass rusher spends his week in the film room evaluating the offensive lineman he’ll face most, looking for weaknesses and tendencies. A good pass blocker varies his techniques, sometimes attacking the rusher at the line of scrimmage, sometimes kicking back and allowing the rusher’s momentum to take him out of the play. Before the game, a pass rusher like Kikaha has to try to find the blocker’s tell, a clue to tell him what strategy to use on any given play.
And once the battle’s joined, the strategy is ever-changing. Boxers use the jab, a specific combination or a counter to exploit an opponent’s weakness and set up a knockout blow; a pass rusher sometimes does the same thing.
Every rush informs the next. Early in a game, a good pass rusher is probing the blocker across from him, feeling out where the weaknesses are.
“People don’t understand that,” Kikaha said. “You’ve got to set people up. You’ve got to feel how they’re setting, see how their footwork is, how their hands are. All kinds of things. Do they lean, do they lunge, do they sit back. You’ve got to feel those things, and you don’t just get it all in one play. It’s over a couple plays, you find out what he’s doing and go, ‘OK, this is what I’m going to try.’ ”
The Saints’ Cameron Jordan largely won his matchup against Arizona. Working mostly off the left side of the defensive line, Jordan produced four quarterback hurries, batted down two passes and came free on another play that would have been a sack if the secondary had closed down on Palmer’s first read immediately.
“Obviously, we need to keep finding answers to develop a four-man pass rush so we can be more effective,” defensive coordinator Rob Ryan said. “I thought Cam Jordan rushed the passer real well, but he didn’t have enough company.”
Jordan’s performance illustrated the big difference between boxing and rushing the passer: A boxer can win the chess match and land a blow on his target immediately, while a pass rusher’s target is beyond his immediate opponent. Even when a pass rusher wins his individual matchup, he needs his teammates to close down the pocket and make the target as stationary as possible, a prey without the hope of escape.
The rest of the New Orleans defensive line failed to keep Palmer in the pocket last week — most noticeably on Palmer’s first touchdown pass, when the relatively immobile quarterback rolled out to the right and had more than 8 seconds to find a receiver. Kikaha bore down on Palmer twice during the play, but he had no help, and Palmer had escape routes aplenty.
“You cannot rush the passer by yourself,” Hicks said. “Every once in a while, you see a guy win on a quick move, but most sacks, most pressures, they come as a collective, cohesive unit. ... You can’t lose a spoke on the wheel. You need all of them working together so somebody can break free and get that sack.”