Not since 2003, when the New York Giants' Michael Strahan registered 18.5 quarterback takedowns, has a defender who played predominantly on the strong side led the NFL in sacks.
But a Sunday report from old friend Dan Pompei of the National Football Post, indicating that Mario Williams has requested to play left end with his new team, the Buffalo Bills, reminded of the trending reality that pass-rushers are lining up all over the place anymore.
Including on the left side.
"Things have changed a little bit (in that regard)," agreed Denver coach John Fox. "The rush doesn't always come from the right side, like it used to. People are getting lots of pressure anymore from the (left) side as well."
Fox should know. His prize rookie, Von Miller, played primarily on the strong side, rushing generally from the left edge of the defense, in 2011.
The league's reigning defensive rookie of the year, Aldon Smith of San Francisco produced some of his 14 sacks in '11 from the left side. Clay Matthews has had most of his 29.5 sacks in three seasons from the left side. Philadelphia left end Jason Babin collected 18 sacks season, and he has 30.5 with the Eagles in 2011 and with Tennessee in 2010, while rushing from the left side.
Robert Mathis of Indianapolis has made four Pro Bowl appearances despite playing nine seasons on the left side, posted the vast majority of his 83.5 career sacks and 39 forced fumbles from the left, and this spring signed a contract extension for four seasons and $36 million. Chris Long of St. Louis plays the left side, and generated 13 sacks last season in a breakout performance. Perhaps most notable is that the second-leading sacker in NFL history, the late Reggie White, played most of his career on the left side.
Coordinators traditionally have aligned their premier pass rushers on the right side of the defense, and that's largely still the case, but not always. The rationale used to be that the strong side (left) end had to be a power guy, a bulkier player who would principally anchor against the run, with only moderate emphasis on pressuring the pocket. That model, however, has changed a bit in recent years.
Granted, Mathis has benefitted some from having one of the league's premier pass rushers, Dwight Freeney, drawing considerable attention in opposition protection schemes for his entire career. And there were plenty of occasions where the Giants would sink Strahan inside on third down, and White frequently did the same, to create a speed mismatch against slower guards. But both were terrific strong side rushers in their primary roles. Very early in his career, Williams manned the left side, his college position, for the Houston Texans, and he apparently prefers to return to those roots, with new teammates Mark Anderson and Shawne Merriman attacking the pocket from the right.
"You can get good matchups on the (left) side as well," Babin acknowledged, "and (coaches) are taking advantage of that."
They are also taking advantage of the talent available to them. It was always difficult to find 290- or 300-pound ends like Kevin Carter to anchor against the run. With the preponderance of "spread" formations at the college level, the task has become even more difficult for 4-3 teams. Facing "spread" looks, college defensive coordinators have taken to countering with quicker, lighter ends. The two pure 4-3 teams in the NFL whose invested first-round choices last month on defensive end selected guys who both weigh 260 pounds or less.
And there is this factor as well: While offenses have begun to counter with right tackles who possess improved protection ability, that side of the ball has been slow to catch up to the trend, and the emphasis is still on power blockers on the right. That allows quicker left defensive ends some advantage in rushing the quarterback. And in a league that is so much about the pass now, compressing the pocket from all sides has become a priority.
The stated preference of Williams to line up on the left side might be because he is, reportedly, more comfortable at his college position. But the six-year veteran might also realize it's suddenly become more fashionable to rush from the left side, as well.