The 2012 NFL season has been just as much about young pass rushers as it has been about rookie quarterbacks. While Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson are battling it out for offensive rookie of the year honors, second-year defenders Von Miller, Aldon Smith and J.J. Watt are each fighting for defensive player of the year.
With three games to go, all three players are within reach of Michael Strahan‘s 2001 record of 22 1/2 sacks. Smith is on pace for 25, Watt for 21 and Miller for 20. The 49ers’ Smith may have the best chance at the sack record, but that doesn’t mean he should automatically win defensive player of the year. Still, one of those three players should take home the award.
Smith is your pretty traditional pass rusher, but that’s not a knock on him. Simply, there have been other players like him, and there will be more like him in the future. In the league right now, DeMarcus Ware or Clay Matthews could be considered similar players. All three are every-down players who are good against the run but incredible at turning the edge and getting to the quarterback. All three also play outside linebacker in their team’s base 3-4 alignment and line up at defensive end in sub packages.
In today’s NFL, those players are more valuable than they have ever been before. Passers are dropping back at record rates, and because of that, elite players are needed to get after them. Luckily, pass rushers are one of the best positions that can be judged from statistics. Pro Football Focus measures sacks and also quarterback hits (plays where the pass rusher still connects with the quarterback but doesn’t get there in time for a sack) and quarterback hurries (plays where the pass rusher generates pressure but doesn’t hit the quarterback). Sacks are the most impactful result for a pass rusher, but they’re not the only one. All pressure generated forces quarterbacks to throw the ball away, rush a throw, make a bad decision or affect play calls.
Smith may lead all NFL players in sacks, but he’s not the leaders in total pressures. Smith has 10 QB hits on the season and 29 hurries for 59 total pressures. Cameron Wake actually leads the NFL with 76 total pressures, but he’s also only been asked to drop into coverage 23 times versus Smith’s 77.
The Broncos’ Miller has 16 sacks, 13 QB hits and 45 hurries for 74 pressures. Miller may also be the most complete player in the NFL. He’s not only one of the best pass rushers in the league, but he’s an elite run defender who’s also proficient in pass coverage. Miller has dropped back in coverage 117 times, and he’s allowed 16 receptions for 152 yards with an interception.
Miller plays strong-side linebacker in the Broncos’ 4-3 defense — a position usually saved for the “worst” player in a linebacker corps. Miller has essentially redefined the position. In Denver’s base defense, he’s either filling his gap or setting the edge in the run game or dropping back into coverage or blitzing up the middle or from the edge. When the Broncos get into a sub package on obvious passing downs, he turns into a seven-technique defensive end, rushing the passer on the line (outside the tight end’s shoulder).
Due to Miller’s versatility, he brings more to the Broncos’ defense than Smith does. He may not actually sack the quarterback more, but he provides much more in run defense, he can drop back in coverage better and he actually pressures the QB more than Smith, despite taking less snaps rushing the passer.
Watt is also a player redefining his position. Watt, like Miller, is a three-tiered player who is effective rushing the passer, stopping the run and, in his own way, defending the pass. Watt is the best pass rusher and run defender at his position (in base defenses: five-tech defensive end in a three-man front, in sub packages: three-tech defensive tackle in a four man front) in the NFL. He’s also the best pass defender due to his long arms and play awareness (that’s why the call him J.J. Swat).
The Texans’ defensive end has 16 1/2 sacks on the season with 21 QB hits and 23 hurries for 61 total pressures — also more total pressures than Smith. Watt — once again, like Miller — may not sack the quarterback more than the 49ers’ defensive end, but he gets after the passer more, is impossible to budge against the run and can affect the passing game even when he can’t get by the offensive line.
While you can at least offer a player comparison for Smith, there is no one in the NFL asked to do as much as Miller or Watt. Those two players are just as important to their team as 30 NFL quarterbacks are to their offense — Tom Brady and Peyton Manning being the exception. If Brady and Manning weren’t having such fantastic seasons, Watt or Miller would be more than deserving for the league’s MVP.
While Smith may go down in record books as the single-season sack leader, that doesn’t mean he should win the defensive player of the year award. Defense can be difficult to gauge from one single statistic, and while the sack is one of the most successful outcomes a player can have, it’s not the only one. Smith is good against the run, but he’s nowhere near as stout as Watt and Miller.
While players like Watt and Miller are redefining their positions, Smith is just playing his at the highest current level. Setting the single-season sack record is a very impressive feat — if he gets there — but with defense, sometimes you have to look deeper to find the more dominant players. And in this case, that’s either Watt or Miller.
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