NFL sacks leaders see teammates as keys to bringing QBs down
DALLAS (AP) — DeMarcus Lawrence lost his NFL lead in sacks when he didn’t have one for the first time in eight games this season with the Cowboys.
The Dallas defensive end still said it was his best game of the year.
Such is the art of the sack, a stat so focused on the individual — down to the celebrations the sack stars create along the way — and yet one that pass rushers and their coaches like to think is more about the entire defensive line.
“I use the term ‘four equals one,’ four men working as one,” said Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, a longtime defensive line coach. “It’s really neat because it’s not just the diagrams. They have to feel it.”
The Jacksonville Jaguars sure felt it in the opener, setting a franchise record with 10 sacks, including four from Calais Campbell. The 10th-year end grabbed the league lead from Lawrence with one sack last week, giving Campbell 11 to Lawrence’s 10 1/2.
The Jaguars matched that franchise mark in Week 7 against Indianapolis. They lead the NFL with 35 sacks and have a shot at Chicago’s season record of 72 from 1984. They like to credit what they consider one of the NFL’s best secondaries.
Lawrence gave his first sackless game a high grade in part because tackle David Irving extended his streak to all four games since returning from a four-game suspension for violating the performance-enhancing drug policy.
Despite the absence, Irving leads all tackles with six sacks, according to Sportradar. And if Irving keeps it up, Lawrence might see fewer of the double teams he was proud of battling in a 28-17 win over Kansas City last weekend.
Lawrence and Irving have been working mostly on the same side, and the Cowboys are averaging nearly four sacks per game since they were paired.
“It just depends how you rush,” Irving said. “If I’m at tackle and DeMarcus is at end, I go inside and DeMarcus goes outside, that’s a huge gap, that’s a huge window for the quarterback. You’ve got to scheme up your rushes and rush smart.”
Minnesota’s Everson Griffen and Arizona’s Chandler Jones are the others with double-digit sacks so far with 10, and Griffen’s number is somewhat remarkable considering coach Mike Zimmer’s system doesn’t necessarily promote high individual totals.
Former Vikings star Jared Allen almost set the sack record in 2011, finishing with 22, and left the team for Chicago in free agency in 2014, the year Zimmer arrived as coach. He probably wouldn’t have been the best fit in Zimmer’s scheme.
“When you have a good sack number, there’s usually one or two guys that are higher,” said Seattle coach Dan Quinn, who came up as a defensive line coach. “But it takes all four because if one guy’s just kind of doing his own thing, it kind of can get out of whack.”
The NFL’s best pass rushers don’t necessarily wish for a statuesque quarterback in the pocket every week. Take Denver’s Von Miller, the runaway winner in September in The Associated Press rankings of the top outside linebackers.
Considered among the most dangerous rushers in the game, Miller plays in a division with two quarterbacks who built their reputations on mobility — Kansas City’s Alex Smith and Philip Rivers of the Los Angeles Chargers.
“I like sacking them all,” said Miller, a three-time All-Pro and 2011 AP Defensive Player of the Year. “It’s not like if I’m going against Alex Smith, I’m like, ‘Man I wish I was playing Philip Rivers this week.’ The player’s the same.”
Campbell has turned into perhaps the biggest free agent pickup of the season, joining the Jaguars following nine years without a double-digit season with Arizona. The 31-year-old is the first double-digit sacker for Jacksonville since Bobby McCray in 2006.
And the Jags (5-3) are tied for the AFC South lead with Tennessee, well on their way to ending a six-year streak of double-digit losses.
“Any time you can get production, it usually comes from other people,” Campbell said after a 27-0 win over Indianapolis last month. “I happened to fall into some good stuff, but it really is because of our secondary. They make the quarterback hold the ball for four seconds. If they hold the ball longer than 2.5, we’re supposed to be there.”
Lawrence emerged from obscurity with 6 1/2 sacks in the first three games, and needed just five games to surpass his previous career high of eight sacks. Naturally, that led to the age-old concern for all dominant pass rushers — double-team, and sometimes triple-team blocking.
Miller, the second overall pick in 2011 who finished in the top 10 in sacks in five of his first six seasons, knows that drill.
“If a team doesn’t want you to get a sack, that’s top on their agenda,” said Miller, who ended a career-long streak of five games without a sack in Week 2 against the Cowboys.
“Don’t let Von get a sack. Don’t let him ruin the game. Ninety percent of the time, it’s not going to happen. You have to find other ways to change the game. You have to find other ways to impact the game. That’s what I try to do.”
And the best pass rushers also look to their teammates along the defensive front for help.
AP Pro Football Writers Dave Campbell in Minneapolis and Arnie Stapleton in Denver contributed.