Only a few weeks into the preseason, oddsmakers are pondering the question: Who will win the Super Bowl? Fans of every team are certainly hopeful — yet hesitant, to be sure — the Lombardi Trophy will be theirs in February.
But how can you be sure? What makes your team comparable to Super Bowl champs of recent seasons?
Looking at similarities between champions, we see one very important thread — a potent pass rush.
It’s true, a great quarterback puts teams in a position to win a lot of games during the regular season. But when it comes to winning Super Bowls, Trent Dilfer and his 76.6 passer rating led to wins as long as Ray Lewis, Peter Boulware and Michael McCrary were rushing the passer. And let’s not forget Tony Siragusa, Sam Adams and Rob Burnett (who led the 2000 Ravens with 10.5 sacks).
Disrupting the quarterback disrupts an entire offense. When the Saints flushed Vikings QB Brett Favre and forced him to throw across his body during the 2009 NFC Championship Game, they not only forced an interception but washed away much of what was a renaissance year for the future Hall of Famer.
Kerry J. Byrne of SI.com recently wrote that passer-rating differential, the difference between a quarterback’s efficiency rating and that of the opposing quarterback, is the most important statistic in football. Last season, the Packers ranked No. 1 in the stat, at +31.7.
Quarterback pressure forces incompletions, interceptions and sacks, as well as setting up offenses with good field position — a stat that can go unnoticed. A lot of credit is pointed toward Aaron Rodgers for last year’s Super Bowl victory, but don’t forget the pressure sent by defensive coordinator Dom Capers. You can’t forget the hit on Ben Roethlisberger that laid a pick six in the hands of Nick Collins.
As you go down the list of past Super Bowl champions, the importance of a pass rush only becomes more clear. The 1999 St. Louis Rams are remembered for being “The Greatest Show on Turf,” starring Kurt Warner, Isaac Bruce, Marshall Faulk and Torry Holt. But the St. Louis defense tied for the league lead in sacks, with Kevin Carter (17.o sacks) coming off the edge and D’Marco Farr (8.5) pushing through the middle.
Tom Brady‘s 2003 Patriots terrorized quarterbacks — they ranked sixth in sacks during the regular season — while the Panthers did the same that season, finishing in the top 10.
The list goes on and on: Simeon Rice and the Buccaneers, Willie McGinest and the Patriots, Joey Porter (and later James Harrison) and the Steelers, Dwight Freeney and the Colts, the Giants with Michael Strahan, the Saints and …
Wait, but who on the Saints?
The Saints might not have had a big name on the front four (the biggest being Will Smith), but their success revolved around defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. For example, Darren Sharper, in his 13th season, tied for the league lead with nine interceptions and returned three for touchdowns. Sharper might not have been the most fleet-footed safety that season, but the pass rush dictated where a lot of throws would go. Understanding the pressure up front allowed Sharper to anticipate where the ball was headed.
Ernie Accorsi helped build the 2007 Giants by drafting Osi Umenyiora in 2003 and Justin Tuck in 2005. Between Strahan, Umenyiora and Tuck, the trio had 32.0 sacks that year. Then, in Super Bowl XLII, the Giants sacked Tom Brady five times and made the Patriots undefeated no more.
It seems front offices have taken notice of the value of pass rushers since the Giants’ championship. Following the 2007 season, an average of nine pass rushers have been drafted in the first round, including a high of 12 in 2011. Before then, the high was 10 (2003) and the average was seven first-rounders dating back to 1999. With the amount of money being spent on left tackles, team understand the need to invest just as much into DREs (designated rush end) and build from there.
So the memo is out: Teams better have a stud at DRE — or start crossing their names off the list of Super Bowl contenders.
Stay tuned for an upcoming blog post in which we evaluate defenses equipped to rush the passer in 2011.
– Jon Blau, “Playbook” video editor/researcher
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