Inside the Mind and Mechanics of a Pass Rusher
Outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan breaks down the nuances of a position that requires far more than raw strength and a hell-bent mentality
Ryan Kerrigan is at the office, staying late on a sunny day in June, and he’s having IT trouble. The film projector in Washington’s conference room isn’t working. We’re meeting in here because the position-group meeting rooms are being remodeled. It’s a perfect recipe for frustration to boil over, but Kerrigan is nonplussed—even when he eventually has to bow out and admit the broken projector has won.
And so we huddle up and watch on a tablet. With its screen being about 1/30th the size of the projector wall, there is no longer any use for the laser pointer (the most fun part of watching film). Oh well. At least it’s still football.
We’re viewing Washington’s two games against the Giants from last year. Kerrigan didn’t think highly of his performances in either one. In the tone of a man who’s joking but not completely, he wishes aloud that we could instead view his Week 2 game against Jacksonville, in which he had had four sacks.
But I’ve picked this opponent because, barring injury, he’ll play the Giants at least six more times (including Thursday night) before he sees the Jags again. And it’s not like he was awful in these contests. He recorded a sack in each and, though credited with only five total tackles, he provided a meaningful presence against the run.
Besides, I tell him, we both know sacks are overrated. A “great” season is 15 sacks. There are roughly 1,000 plays in a season. It has to be about more than sacks, right?
“Yeah it is,” he says. “But, I mean, you want to be winning your rushes. Ultimately it comes down to, When do you put the offense in the most trouble? It’s when you put them in negative-yardage situations. So making plays, causing havoc in the backfield, I mean, that’s what we need to be doing.”
Let’s be clear: Kerrigan is not an “all about the numbers” guy. He cares about production rather than statistics. There’s a big difference. He’s critical of himself in a fair, genuine way. Perhaps that’s why he’s improved steadily since being drafted 16th overall out of Purdue in 2011.
“I had 13.5 sacks last year; I left a lot on the field with plays where I didn’t disengage from the blocker before I tried to tackle the quarterback,” he says. “So that results in a lot of missed plays—not only for me, it’s a missed opportunity [for our defense].” He says this at the end of our session. By then he’d made the point several times.
So tell me about the running back’s alignment here. What goes through your mind? This is the first play Kerrigan and I are watching.
“When he’s that wide, we have a general rule: if he’s out towards the offensive tackle in his alignment, he’s not getting the handoff. [Instead, he’s going to be involved in a pass of some sort.] If he’s in tight, more over the guard, then they have the option for a run play. But if he’s out that wide, then we have a good idea it’s a pass.”
It’s third-down-and-5, another good indicator of a pass. But I’m wondering about a potential chip-block. Running back Rashad Jennings is in perfect position to help right tackle Justin Pugh take on Kerrigan, if needed.
“You think about a chip in the back of your mind, but initially I like to have the same kind of takeoff each time. Because I don’t want to play for the chip and then not get chipped. Then you’re just delaying yourself.”
Kerrigan adds, “Something our coaches would emphasize last year is to chip the chipper. Attack him, hit him so that next time he won’t want to chip you as much.” This time, Jennings didn’t chip.
Throughout both games, Kerrigan repeatedly went one-on-one against Justin Pugh. The 2013 first-round right tackle has had a tough go of it these first two years and has since moved to left guard, where his body type is better suited. Presumably, that’s just fine with Kerrigan.
“One thing that I’ve noticed about him, and especially him going from Year 1 to Year 2, is his hands and his base and his overall strength have improved tremendously,” Kerrigan says. “That’s what made him much more difficult to go against this past year. He’s got some vice-grip hands, it’s tough to work through those.”
Late in the first quarter of the Week 4 contest, just before a second down snap in the red zone, tight end Larry Donnell stepped back off the line of scrimmage and shifted down to an offset fullback position. Upon seeing Donnell’s initial movement, Kerrigan stood up and made a ‘Y’ symbol, as if performing the Village People’s hit song from 1978.
“We call the tight end the ‘Y’,” Kerrigan explains. “So whenever he’s off the line of scrimmage, I’m letting everyone know. Because once he comes over, we have to kick our defensive front that way. This also lets my other defensive end know.”
On this play, Kerrigan, unblocked by design, worked aggressively down the line of scrimmage to help stop a Rashad Jennings dive. Jennings is a pure downhill runner. So would Kerrigan have attacked hard like this if the back were, say, LeSean McCoy?
“See how my shoulders are completely turned towards the sideline,” he says. “Against a guy like McCoy, you need to have them more parallel to the line of scrimmage.
“There was a play at home against Philadelphia last year, I came crashing down too hard on McCoy and stopped; he went right around me. That’s the difference between those kinds of guys. Jennings is a downhill guy so I can be more aggressive in attacking him and attacking at a really hard, aggressive angle. But a guy like McCoy, you’ve got to be ready for what he does best.”
Later we see Kerrigan sniff out a halfback toss on third-and-9. He had immediately widened outside to the point of attack, diagnosing the run on what’s typically a passing down. He’s not quite sure how he knew it was coming.
“On this I kind of got a feel for Larry Donnell’s body language. I don’t know if it’s the way he was standing, the way his eyes were, how he was looking at me, but I had a sense for it. I knew I had to knock everything back inside, obviously. I don’t want to sound like a grizzled vet, but you pick up on things and you kind of get a sense of what a guy is going to do presnap.”
Jennings was forced back inside and tackled short of the first down.
On the final play of the first quarter, Pugh got the better of Kerrigan’s pass rush.
“First, I think I might be lined up a little wide,” Kerrigan says. “When the ball is on the other hash, you don’t want to be that far out. I’d like to have my left foot maybe on the inside of that hash. I’m a little wide from the start, that puts me further distance from the quarterback.”
Talking to coaches and players over film study, I’m always amazed at how often the reason a play goes wrong is because somebody simply lined up incorrectly. Once the play started, Pugh took a short angle set to block Kerrigan, fanning outside rather than dropping straight back.
“That’s going to become something he’s pretty good at,” Kerrigan says. “He doesn’t deep-set much anymore because he’s got those good hands now; he wants to get his paws on you.
“On this play, my initial angle is good, initial target is good with the inside pad, and I did a good job leveraging him. But I’ve got to be able to find a way to shed him and get off him quicker. Now, the ball is out pretty quickly.”
The ball was out quickly several times; Eli Manning knows where to go with it.
“It's all about the quarterback,” Kerrigan says, going back to the importance of presnap alignment. “Our position coach last year [Brian Baker] would always emphasize that you don’t necessarily need to concern yourself with where the offensive tackle is lined up; it’s how far you are from the quarterback.”
Kerrigan, by his own admission, doesn’t have a huge repertoire of pass rush moves, but the ones he executes are precise.
“One of the things I've learned over the years is that pass rushing is different from running,” he says. “In running, it’s opposite arm opposite leg; in pass rushing, you want to use same arm, same leg on how you move. That's a tough thing to learn, but it's a necessary thing.”
If there were ever a time to stop reading and try running in place, this is it. The natural way of running is to fire your left arm forward along with your right leg, and vice versa. Pass rushers, however, train themselves to fire the same arm and same leg, because it allows them to maintain maximum distance between themselves and the blocker. Reach both arms in front of you for moment; now reach with just one. The reach of one arm is always longer, and preferred because defenders want to dictate the action. To give strength and stability to that one arm, a pass rusher should always attack by running with the same-side technique.
We watch another nondescript bull rush against Pugh.
“Little wide in my alignment,” Kerrigan notes. “I knew I wasn't going to rush inside on this one because I had a three technique to my side. He’s going to more than likely occupy that B gap. I knew I had to work outside or work through Pugh, and I decided to work through him. Not a bad rush; but I’ve got to get the hands off, just got to finish the rush.”
Then Kerrigan expands. “One of the problems I had, not only in this game but throughout most of last year, was I would try to make a play on the quarterback or the ball carrier without discarding the blocker first. So I need to know, whether it's throwing him out of the way and coming back underneath, or just getting his hands off me in some other way, I need to discard him before I make an attempt at the ball.” He cites plays from the Arizona and St. Louis games where failure to discard a blocker cost him a sack.
Kerrigan still forced Manning to move off his spot before throwing on this play. Any solace in that?
“I ultimately look at it as, You gotta get the guy on the ground,” he says. “Look what it does on this play. Third-and-9 turns into first-and-10. You've got to get the guy on the ground.”
A few snaps later, we see Kerrigan execute what he calls a “rip and pry” move. It didn’t work, and so he improvised a spin move late in the down.
“This isn’t good right here,” he says, slowing the film. “I get caught in a bad spin move. See right there? What you want to do when you spin, you want to spin with your hips, you don’t want to spin with your shoulders. When you spin with your shoulders you spin in place. When you spin, you want to spin and gain ground. See, if I spin with my hips, I gain ground back towards the quarterback.”
Late in the first half Kerrigan gets his sack. It halted a drive and forced the Giants to play for a field goal.
“What really made the play work was Trent Murphy getting vertical through the gap. When I saw that, I knew I had an option of going underneath [Murphy]. Because by going so high upfield, Murphy was becoming the contain player. Then I was just able to get a good punch on him, get off Pugh and then, quarterback’s right there.”
Any trash talking from you after this play?
“If I was good at it, I would. But I’m not any good at it.”
In the second half, I see what appears to be an E-T (end-tackle) stunt, with Kerrigan (the end) attacking inside to set up Chris Baker (the tackle) for a looping pass rush. It’s a bizarre defensive call; Baker has the body of a pregnant cow. He’s built to plug gaps, not loop and shoot them. Turns out, the play was spontaneous, not called from the sideline.
“I think on this, I might have told [Baker] to cover me, which gives me the freedom to run inside. From how wide, look, I’m so freakin’ wide—the blocker has time to recover when I’m that wide and coming underneath. That was more on my bad judgment of making that call right there.”
It wasn’t all pass rushing with Kerrigan. A swift mover, he’s adept at playing in space. At times, he was asked to drop into coverage. Not all edge players are like this. (It’s harder for agents to negotiate big dollars when a player’s contributions don’t show up on stat sheets.)
Kerrigan has a more optimistic view. “I like playing in space, it makes you feel more valuable. The more you can do, the better chance you have at having a job in the NFL. I look at it as just another feather in the cap.”
Multidimensional as he is, Kerrigan almost always lines up on the left side of the defense. I wonder if it’s because he’s deaf in his left ear (diagnosed at age eight after several serious ear infections). By aligning on the left, he can hear his teammates, who are on the right.
“Nah, that’s not why—it actually should be an advantage that I’m deaf because I shouldn’t jump offside,” he says. No specific reason is given for why Kerrigan plays on the left. But when we put on the Week 15 film, we’re reminded that rarely is a tendency 100 percent in pro football. Midway through the second quarter Kerrigan did not line up on the left. Instead, he drifted into an amoeba look and attacked the right guard as part of an inside blitz.
“Damn, almost,” he says, watching himself move Manning off his spot, again to no avail. “We just wanted to get us big guys down in the A gaps. It’s just showing a different look, and you can see the inside linebackers, they’ll go cover the guys on the edge. I think this was an adjustment, because when we used to run this blitz, we’d have those inside guys blitz and Murphy and I would be in coverage.”
Moving along, we see more battles with Pugh, who continues to pass-block at an angle, rather than dropping straight back.
“It's kind of tough to get a true speed rush when the guy is angle-setting like that,” Kerrigan says. “You don't want to rush straight up the field, because that pulls you away from the quarterback. So I found myself having to go more power, and that’s not ideal versus him.”
I’m surprised to learn that Kerrigan often doesn’t decide if he’ll go speed or power until after the snap. “Sometimes you predetermine, but ultimately it’s reaction stuff,” he says.
During the season, Kerrigan spends 90-120 minutes every night watching film, mostly of the offensive tackle he’s facing that week. In the trenches, football tends to be more individualized, less about the offensive scheme as a whole. “For me, playing on the line of scrimmage, it’s ultimately about being able to defeat a guy. So I kind of just tend to focus on that. That singular matchup.”
Again, there are few absolute truths in football. Not long after Kerrigan says this, we see him diagnose the offensive scheme and sniff out a reverse to Odell Beckham Jr.
“God, that dude is amazing. He had a really good game against us.”
But not on this play. Kerrigan contained the receiver for no gain.
“You see Beckham come in the backfield, that's not typical. We hadn’t seen that at all. I’m a C-gap player on this call. I kind of had a feeling it was going to be some kind of run with him or some kind of action with him, because they weren't bringing him back there just to be a decoy. And so it’s really just playing through my gap.”
Now midway through the fourth quarter of the second game, we start seeing concepts repeated. I tell Kerrigan we can skip through them if he wants. He pays no attention.
“Damn, again,” he says. He’s watching Pugh handle another one of his bull rushes. “See, didn’t get to the level of the quarterback before I came underneath, and so Manning was able to escape.”
I try to coax the silver lining out of this, asking if it’s at least a small victory to move a pocket passer like Manning off his spot before throwing.
“Nuh-uh, not to his right,” he says. “He's pretty good throwing while rolling to his right. We want to keep him in there—especially because, I mean, what if [another defender] would have had a winning rush and he's expecting the quarterback to be there, but then I let him out of the pocket? It’s shame on me. Gotta keep him in there. Damn.”
By the time we wrap up, the parking lot is almost empty. With minicamp practice having ended hours ago, the other players are long gone. Kerrigan, limping out of the conference room on a knee he recently had scoped, is handed a boxed lunch—salmon and salad—and makes his way outside. I tell him how much I appreciate his actual analysis, his lack of clichés.
You didn’t once say you “just wanted it more” or mention an “it factor” or any of that nonsense, I tell him.
He laughs. In the games we watched, he says, “I just had good intangibles.”