In a recent study done by Buffalo radio station WGR, Matthew Coller put together numbers from Pro Football Reference that seemed to indicate bad news for fans of the Bills, their floundering defense, and their new defensive end, Mario Williams. According to the study, pass rushers with a specific workload through age 26 tended to decline sharply from ages 27 through 32.
Of the 73 defensive ends studied, 43 (61 percent) saw a decline in sacks per game, 28 (39 percent) had a gain and two of them sacked the quarterback at the same rate. The pass rushers together averaged 0.58 per game between their rookie year and age 26 season. Between age 27 and 32, the averaged 0.53 sacks per game.
Workload was also a concern. Only two of the ends in Coller's study had logged more games before their 27th birthdays than Williams, who played in 82 games before he turned 27. The only linemen with more starts in the pit -- Keith Hamilton and Howie Long -- saw their production decline sharply after that age. In a general sense, the perception that speed rushers tend to fall off the proverbial cliff after a certain age appears to be -- for the most part -- correct.
But when the Minnesota Vikings and Seattle Seahawks face off this Sunday at Seattle's CenturyLink field, two ends in their 30s will continue to defy the curse of the age curve. Chris Clemons of the Seahawks and Jared Allen of the Vikings are playing considerably better from a production standpoint after their supposed mathematical decline than before. Clemons, who played in just 16 games over four seasons for three different teams before his 27th birthday in October 2008, amassed just 13 of his 49 sacks before that landmark occurrence.
Allen, one of the most prolific sack artists of all time, put up 57.5 quarterback takedowns before his 27th birthday in 2009, and 54.5 since. There was one falloff season in 2010 where he had just 11 sacks, but he managed to double that mark in 2011, leading the league with 22 and coming within half a sack of tying the single-season record set by Michael Strahan in 2001. Strahan accomplished that feat, by the way, when he was 30 years old.
In 2012, the trend actually favors speed rushers in the supposed years of their decline. Five of the top 10 sack artists (Allen, Clemons, DeMarcus Ware, Cameron Wake, John Abraham) are at least 30 years old.
When I recently asked Allen why he was able to provide a seeming exception to the rule, he pointed to two factors -- his own technique, and the talent of those around him. Allen plays on a Vikings team that was once based on his own pass rush and the dominant run-stopping efforts of defensive tackles Pat and Kevin Williams. Kevin Williams is still there, but now, there's emerging star Brian Robison as Allen's bookend, and reserve lineman Everson Griffen has been a real force on passing downs -- especially when he's on Allen's side of the line.
"I think I'm a different player from year to year -- just constantly trying to correct mistakes," Allen said. "But mentally, you learn to rush smarter. Sometimes, when you're young, you're just guessing. So, you try to make fundamentally sound judgments -- you pick up on tendencies to get a jump, and stuff like that. I've always been a leverage and technique kind of guy, and I'm never going to get away from the basics of what I do. I believe in 'hips, hands, and feet,' and out-leveraging and out-working my [opponent]. Taking advantage of the one-on-ones when I get them. For me, that's how I constantly try to break someone down and do that. As you get older and guys get younger -- I swear, they keep putting these 20-year-olds in front of me! I've got to use some savvy veteran moves to get a head start on them early. That's how I do it now -- my mental game has to progress. Figuring out how to use my strengths to someone else's weaknesses."
Close observation of any Vikings game this season will indicate one sure thing -- opposing lines can't just key on Allen anymore, and they know it. Quite often, it's now Robison who gets the double team, or the sliding guard, or the chipping tight end, while the line thinks of different ways to beat Allen. It's not working very well so far for those lines, as Allen has seven sacks through the first eight games in 2012.
"Ev's a good changeup because he can do things inside and out, and we can use him in different ways," Allen said of his newer teammates. "I miss having Big Kevin [Kevin Williams] on my side, sometimes -- with some of the younger guys, you don't always know where they're going to be. Ev's so quick, sometimes he comes off the ball high, and I get chipped because I can't get underneath him. But he's developing well, and I keep telling him that when he understands protections and things like that, he's going to be even more deadly. The biggest complement we have to each other is that he's able to do specific things inside. It's like in basketball, when you go to a smaller set -- you have three quicker guys who can pass rush at a high level, and Kevin Williams is no slouch. It really makes people dictate -- they have to slide to Kevin, or they have to chip me, and then you've got Everson -- someone's going to have a one-on-one in the middle who's very capable of winning.
"The better everyone does, like I said -- you have to choose who you're going to block. You can't double everybody, and everybody across the board is very capable of getting to the quarterback. You're not wasting a nose tackle in the A-gap, because everyone's pretty capable."
Allen hasn't missed a game in the last five seasons, and has played in all but three possible games in his nine-year career with the Vikings and Kansas City Chiefs. For Clemons, it took longer to get that kind of chance.
Despite the fact that he had consistent pass-rushing production in his first three seasons with the Washington Redskins and Oakland Raiders, Clemons didn't log a single start for the Philadelphia Eagles in 2008 or 2009 -- he was more of a situational pass-rusher in Jim Johnson's highly effective system. It wasn't until Pete Carroll brought the 28-year-old Clemons to Seattle in 2010 that the undrafted Georgia alum was finally able to shine. He put up 11 sacks each in the 2010 and 2011 seasons, and has seven sacks in his first eight games -- just like Allen. Now, he's an every-down end at an age (31) where many are ramping down.
Apparently, these old guys can still get it going.
"For Clem, I think it's opportunity," Carroll told me on Wednesday. "He didn't get the same chances he got here to play as much. We brought him in here to start for us if he could, and he's played more than 900 plays [per season] the years he's been here. He's just taken advantage of it. I don't know that he's beaten the time clock or anything -- he's just a really good football player. He still runs really fast, and those pass rushers rely so much on their quickness and speed. If they can maintain that as they get older, they have a chance."
When asked about the man his offensive line will be dealing with on Sunday, Carroll had an entirely different level of respect.
"Jared Allen? He's just a war daddy -- he can do it all. He does is physically, he does it with quickness, he does it with finesse. He's a rare football player. Clem doesn't have a big backlog of [seasons] where he's played 900 plays a year, and I think Jared Allen's overdone that. He's gone forever like that."
Allen's done so with no sign of slowing down, and he's doing so in what might be a golden age for older pass-rushers.