The NFL’s best pass-rushers from every gap

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·10 min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

In modern NFL defenses, it’s exceedingly rare for a defensive lineman to spend his time in one gap, playing one particular technique. Actually, in modern NFL defenses, it’s pretty unusual for a defensive lineman to spend his time in one gap, playing one particular technique, for more than a few plays in a row. Never has the need been more great for linemen — especially pass-rushers — to get to the quarterback in different ways. It’s why you’ll often find that the best pass-rushers are getting to the quarterback with not only different techniques, but from different gaps.

That said, and in an era of gap diversity, there’s still a need for players to dominate from specific gaps and with different techniques. With that in mind, and using the Sports Info Solutions database to narrow it down, here are the most productive pass-rushers from every gap from the 2020 season.

(All metrics courtesy of Sports Info Solutions)

Everywhere: Aaron Donald

(Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports)

Before we get into specifics, we should mention that while Donald doesn't top the list at any one position, it's because he's so great... well, everywhere. It's yet another way in which, when we talk about defensive linemen, there is Aaron Donald, and there is everybody else. Last season, including the playoffs, Donald had 14 solo sacks and 78 total pressures. Only Tampa Bay's Shaquil Barrett and Pittsburgh's T.J. Watt had more total pressures, and Donald tied with Watt for the NFL's most solo sacks. Keep in mind that while Barrett and Watt were most often detached form the formation and rushing from the edge, Donald was more often than not getting his work done from the inside, and as a constant focus of the opposing offensive line. Last season, Donald had six sacks and 31 pressures as a 3-tech tackle, two sacks and 18 pressures as a 4i tackle, two sacks and nine pressures as a 4-tech tackle, one sack and seven pressures as a five-tech end, three sacks and nine pressures as a 7-tech end, and two pressures as a 9-tech end. Basically, wherever you line Aaron Donald up, he's going to demolish your quarterback. Now, onto the individual pass-rushing kings from the 2020 season, and what those technique names mean.

0-Technique: David Onyemata, New Orleans Saints

(Junfu Han-Imagn Content Services, LLC)

Onyemata was one of the more unheralded players on a Saints defense that finished second in the NFL in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metrics last season, but the stats and tape provide a clear picture -- especially when Onyemata was lined up at 0-technique. That's right over the head of the center, and that technique requires an estimable amount of pure power to bull the center back in the pocket. No problem there, as Vikings center Garrett Bradbury could attest. On this week 16 sack of Kirk Cousins, Bradbury doesn't stand a chance, as Onyemata walks him back to the quarterback step by step.

Last season, Onyemata led the league in solo sacks from 0-technique (four) and nobody had more 0-tech pressures than his 11.

1-Technique: Grover Stewart, Indianapolis Colts

(Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)

Stewart isn't a big name either, but he made a big difference when aligned at 1-technique -- to either shoulder of the center. You're going to have to handle a lot of center/guard double-teams in that role, and against the Jaguars in Week 17, Stewart had no problem knifing his way through center Tyler Shatwell and left guard Andrew Norwell to come down with quarterback Mike Glennon as the prize. Stewart was a force in this role in 2020, racking up 17 total pressures, six more than anybody else in the league (Harrison Phillips of the Bills ranked second with 11 pressures).

2i-Technique: Linval Joseph, Los Angeles Chargers

(Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports)

The 2i lineman generally has a one-gap role, as he's aligned to the inside shoulder of the offensive guard. If he's double-teamed, which will happen often, it may be his role to soak up blockers so that other defenders can make plays. If you can penetrate from that alignment and through the double-team, as Joseph did here against the Buccaneers in Week 4 with center Ryan Jensen and left guard Ali Marpet (a fairly impressive duo), you can make Tom Brady nervous with what has been that rare Kryptonite throughout his career -- interior pressure. Joseph didn't have any sacks from the 2i alignment last season, but nobody had more total pressures than his 14.

2-Technique: Cameron Heyward, Pittsburgh Steelers

(Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports)

Heyward has been one of the NFL's best defensive linemen regardless of gap assignment for a long time, so it's no surprise that he would show up somewhere on this list. In this case, it's as the most productive pass-rusher from the 2-technique alignment -- head over the offensive guard. On this sack of Philip Rivers, Heyward starts off head-up on Indianapolis' Quenton Nelson, the best guard in the NFL, and gets stoned off the snap as he tries to beat Nelson to his outside shoulder. No matter, though -- Heyward gets an effort sack by following Rivers across the formation. Heyward had one solo sack, one combined sack, and a league-high 12 total pressures from the 2-tech alignment.

3-Technique: Chris Jones, Kansas City Chiefs

(Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports)

The 3-technique role -- aligned to the outside shoulder of the offensive guard -- is a role most common for interior quarterback disruptors, and while the aforementioned Aaron Donald has made this role his own throughout his career, nobody was more prolific as a 3-tech last season than Kansas City's Chris Jones. Jones had five solo sacks in that role, and 45 total pressures -- Donald finished second last season with 31. It also had something to do with opportunity, as Jones lined up as a 3-tech on 201 snaps in 2019, and expanded that to 299 last season. When he did, as Falcons left guard Matt Gono discovered on this sack of Matt Ryan, Jones' combination of upper-body strength and speed to the quarterback made life very tough for opposing offenses.

4i-Technique: Jarran Reed, Kansas City Chiefs

(Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports)

The Chiefs signed former Seahawks defensive lineman Jarran Reed to a one-year, $7 million contract this offseason, and interior offensive linemen facing Kansas City's defensive front this season are not going to enjoy it. Not only will they have to deal with the aforementioned Chris Jones, but here comes Reed with his five solo sacks and 14 total pressures from the 4i alignment -- on the inside shoulder of the tackle. Who will Kansas City's opponents double in this case?

4-Tech: Stephon Tuitt, Pittsburgh Steelers

(Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

A straight-up 4-technique tackle lines up right over the head of the offensive tackle, and nobody doing that was more disruptive last season than Pittsburgh's Stephon Tuitt, who amassed three solo sacks and nine total pressures in that role. Here, against the Browns, Tuitt takes right tackle Jack Conklin on an unpleasant ride outside, and then right into the pocket for the sack of Baker Mayfield.

5-Technique: Emmanuel Ogbah, Miami Dolphins

(Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports)

The Dolphins signed Ogbah, the former Browns and Chiefs pass-rusher, to a two-year, $15 million contract before the 2020 season. It turned out to be one of the better free-agent bargains last year, as Ogbah had more than his share of dominant moments. This was especially true when Ogbah was aligned in a 5-technique role, just outside the offensive tackle in a three-man front. He had two solo sacks and 13 total pressures on that role, and on occasion, as he did here against the Patriots, Ogbah would turn on the jets with an inside move, and just bull his way to the quarterback.

6-Technique: Jerry Hughes, Buffalo Bills

(Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports)

The 6-technique pass-rusher will line up right over the tight end in formation, and it's his job to not only get past the tight end, but also deal with the tackle to that side. It's a tough gig, and last season, Buffalo's Jerry Hughes was as good as anybody in the NFL in that role -- he had two sacks and 14 total pressures on just 75 snaps as a 6-tech. Here, Hughes does quite a number on Baltimore's right-side protection on the way to Lamar Jackson.

7-Technique: Trey Hendrickson, Cincinnati Bengals

(AP Photo/Brett Duke)

Technically speaking, the 7-technique defender is the one who aligns himself on the inside shoulder of the tight end. But with so many tight ends detached from the formation on passing plays, you don't often see a 7-tech end work through the tight end to get to the quarterback. More often than not these days, a 7-tech pass-rusher is working outside the tackle from a more reduced position than the 9-tech. If we go with that specific designation, Trey Hendrickson, formerly of the Saints and now of the Bengals after signing a four-year, $60 million contract this offseason, is the king of the pass-rushing 7-techs, and it isn't even close. Last season, Hendrickson had 10 sacks and 34 total pressures on 217 pass-rushing snaps from that technique. It's a Saints thing, too, as Cameron Jordan, Hendrickson's former New Orleans teammate, finished second with four sacks, and had 28 total pressures out of 208 pass-rushing snaps from a 7-tech alignment. In this sack of Patrick Mahomes in Week 15, Hendrickson is lining up inside Travis Kelce and outside left tackle Eric Fisher, but Kelce runs a curl up the seam, and it's up to Fisher to handle Hendrickson's quickness off the snap all by himself. This, Fisher does not do.

9-Technique: T.J. Watt, Pittsburgh Steelers

(Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports)

If you've watched Watt burn off the edge over the last few seasons, it should come as little surprise that he was the most productive pass-rusher as a 9-technique end -- the speed-rusher who aligns not only outside the tackle, but also the tight end. Your average 9-tech end is tasked to get past the tackle, who has to adjust to his placement, and just blow right by his blocker. Last season, both Cleveland's Myles Garrett and Detroit's Romeo Okwara both had 10 sacks from the "wide-9" alignment -- one more than Watt's nine -- but nobody had more total pressures as a 9-tech than Watt's 59. Both Garrett and Okwara had 41. Against the Colts in Week 16, you can see Watt adjust his alignment when tight end Jack Doyle motions outside right tackle Chaz Green. Doyle isn't staying in to block, which means that Green has to deal with Watt one-on-one with no help. Probably a bad idea in general. Watt sacks Philip Rivers, Rivers fumbles, and cornerback Mike Holton returns the ball to the Indianapolis three-yard line.

1

1