Pressure makes life difficult on a quarterback, and based on each team’s PFF pass-rushing grade, these were the best NFL teams when it came to getting after the quarterback over the course of the 2020 regular season.
The Steelers are coming off one of the best pass-rushing seasons we’ve seen since 2006, generating pressure on a whopping 45.1% of their pass-rushing snaps over the regular season.
It was a well-rounded effort, with Defensive Player of the Year hopeful T.J. Watt leading the way with 73 total pressures (third in the NFL) and both Stephon Tuitt (71 pressures) and Cameron Heyward (62 pressures) not far behind that mark. Having three of the top 10 pressure producers on the same defense is a remarkable feat, particularly considering Pittsburgh lost starting edge defender Bud Dupree midway through the season.
The Eagles have had one of the better pass rushes in the NFL for years at this point, and despite the disappointing year overall for Philadelphia, 2020 was no different in the pass-rush department. The Eagles can consistently generate pressure without sending extra rushers, which is highlighted by a 38.4% team pressure rate (third in the league) paired with just an 18.1% blitz rate (29th).
Being able to generate that kind of pressure with guys like Brandon Graham, Fletcher Cox and Javon Hargrave should theoretically give a boost in coverage, but that’s an area where the Eagles are still looking for answers heading into the 2021 offseason.
The Rams have the best pass-rusher in the NFL in Aaron Donald, and he almost single-handedly gives Los Angeles one of the better pass-rushing units in the league. This past season marked the sixth consecutive season that Donald has graded out as the best pass-rusher in the NFL, and his 98 pressures during the regular season were 22 more than any other player. He is simply on a different level than everyone else.
That, of course, draws a whole lot of attention from opposing offensive lines, which frees up other pass-rushers to make plays for the Rams. You see that with a player like Leonard Floyd, whose 45 pressures in 2020 were a career-high.
Like Donald, Khalil Mack is one of those defensive linemen who immediately elevates an entire unit. He may have logged just nine sacks during the year, but Mack finished the regular season as PFF’s highest-graded edge defender thanks to 90-plus PFF grades both as a run defender and pass rusher. He was one of five edge defenders in the NFL to record a pass-rush win rate of 20.0% or higher this season.
The talent along this defensive line doesn’t end with Mack, either. Each of Akiem Hicks, Bilal Nichols and Robert Quinn also recorded pressure rates north of 10.0% on the year. It’s a big reason why the Bears were able to make the postseason despite subpar quarterback play for much of the season.
Everyone knows by now that the Washington defensive line is loaded with talent. Investing five first-round picks in any position group is undoubtedly one way to give yourself a chance to be dominant at that position, and the Football Team is trending in that direction.
Chase Young put up an 87.1 PFF grade on the year that trailed only 2011 Aldon Smith, 2011 Von Miller and 2019 Nick Bosa in terms of overall grades for rookie edge defenders in the past decade. That said, the best and most consistent pass rusher for Washington throughout the year was Jonathan Allen on the interior. Allen's 17.0% pass-rush win rate was a top-10 mark at the position — he was a much more disruptive force than his two sacks would suggest.
The Bills’ defense had its issues throughout the regular season, but the pass rush wasn’t one of those problems. They were particularly effective at getting to the quarterback quickly, recording a 25% pressure rate in 2.5 seconds or less that trailed only the Steelers. Getting to the quarterback is good, and getting to the quarterback quickly is even better.
Once again, their leader was Jerry Hughes, who generated pressure and won his pass-rushing reps much more consistently than one would expect from an edge defender with just 4.5 sacks on the season. That seems to be a common theme over the past several years. Since 2018, Hughes ranks sixth among edge defenders in total pressures (175) but tied for just 42nd in sacks (16.0).
The Saints boast one of the deeper defensive lines in the NFL; they have multiple players capable of beating their blockers. Cameron Jordan had yet another season where his name could be found among the league’s pressure leaders with 57 total pressures over the course of the regular season. Trey Hendrickson and David Onyemata both turned in 45-plus pressures, as well. Add in Demario Davis leading all off-ball linebackers in pressures on the year (29), and it becomes clear that there is no one player to take away in the pass rush.
Having multiple options like that makes things difficult for opposing offensive lines — something we saw play out all year against New Orleans.
The ace in the hole for Tampa Bay’s pass rush all season was the blitz. Their 42.3% blitz rate on the year was the third-highest mark in the league — and they had success with it. Devin White led all off-ball linebackers in combined sacks and quarterback hits (13); he's able to use his speed to cause problems as an extra rusher.
The Buccaneers’ pass rush could have finished even higher on this list with a healthy Vita Vea. At the time of his injury in Week 5, Vea joined Aaron Donald as the only two interior defenders with a pass-rush win rate of 20.0% or higher on 100 pass-rushing snaps.
Considering the Broncos lost one of the best pass rushers in the NFL before the season even started, this ninth-place finish doesn’t look too shabby in the slightest. Bradley Chubb stepped up in Von Miller’s absence with the best season of his young career, posting an 18.4% pass-rush win rate that ranked ninth at the edge defender position and 57 total pressures on the year.
If Chubb can return with that level of play in 2021, the Broncos should boast one of the better edge tandems in the NFL.
10. DALLAS COWBOYS
The 2020 season was not one to remember for Mike Nolan’s defense in Dallas, but the fault fell primarily with the team’s run defense and coverage. The pass rush, particularly off the edge, was effective for much of the year.
Demarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory both posted PFF pass-rushing grades above 80.0, and while Aldon Smith didn’t join that club in his return to the NFL, it’s safe to say that he exceeded expectations. Smith was one of just 20 edge defenders in the NFL with 50 or more total pressures during the regular season.
11. CLEVELAND BROWNS
If he doesn’t top the list, Myles Garrett is a guy who would sit very high on a list of pass rushers you would want to start a team with. Garrett finished the 2020 regular season with a 90.0 pass-rushing grade, and his 59 quarterback pressures undersell his ability to beat the man in front of him. Thirty-seven of his pass-rushing snaps ended in plays where Garrett beat his blocker but didn’t pick up a pressure — the fourth-highest mark in the NFL.
The reason Cleveland doesn’t finish higher than 11th here is that no other player on the defense came close to Garrett’s output. Olivier Vernon’s 71.6 pass-rushing grade was the next-highest mark on the defensive line, and Cleveland didn’t have a top-40 pass-rushing grade from any of their interior defenders.
Much like the Browns, the Chargers have one of the best pass-rushers in the NFL without a ton of other guys who typically worry an offense. Joey Bosa’s 23.8% pass-rush win rate in 2020 led all edge defenders, trailing only Aaron Donald among all players. However, Bosa dealt with several injuries and missed some time, as did his running mate Melvin Ingram, who played in just seven games all season.
Those injuries — along with a lack of pressure on the interior — kept the Chargers closer to the middle of the pack despite elite play from Bosa.
13. MIAMI DOLPHINS
Brian Flores has very much molded the Dolphins’ pass rush to match the New England pass rushes of recent years — a defense that relies on blitzes (fourth-highest rate in NFL) and scheme to generate pressure more than individual pass-rushing talent. Emmanuel Ogbah was the team’s pressure leader at 66, but even he earned a pass-rushing grade of just 64.5 on the year, with 50% of his pressures being tagged as unblocked or cleanup opportunities.
Without elite pass-rushers who can win their matchups consistently, blitzing is the best way to create pressure as a defense.
The biggest addition that the Colts made this offseason was bringing in DeForest Buckner via trade from San Francisco, and he did not disappoint in his first year in Indianapolis. Buckner’s 90.2 pass-rushing grade for the regular season was a career-high, ranking third among all qualifying interior defenders behind only Aaron Donald and Chris Jones.
Unfortunately, Buckner was the only defender on the team with 100 or more pass-rushing snaps and a PFF pass-rushing grade of 70.0 or higher. With Justin Houston set to be a free agent, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Indianapolis look to add pass-rushing help off the edge this offseason.
The Packers’ pass rush didn’t have quite the same bite in 2020 as it did following the addition of several edge defenders in 2019, but they still finish the season as a slightly above average pass-rushing unit on this list.
Za’Darius Smith followed up a 2019 season in which he led the NFL in pressures with another strong showing this season, which included an 86.0 pass-rushing grade. On the other hand, Preston Smith saw a significant dip in his pass-rushing production. He was one of just five edge rushers in the league to post a pass-rush win rate below 10.0% on 300 or more pass-rushing snaps.
16. ATLANTA FALCONS
It might come as a surprise to see Atlanta finish in the middle of the pack. Their big free-agent acquisition, Dante Fowler Jr., did not live up to the contract he signed, nor did it come remotely close to the year he had in 2019 next to Aaron Donald in Los Angeles. Fowler generated pressure on just 7.8% of his pass-rushing snaps in 2020 after that number sat at 14.0% in 2019.
Still, the Falcons posted a top-20 pressure rate on the season (29.3%), and Grady Jarrett — the star on this Atlanta defensive line — was a big reason why. Jarrett's 83.3 pass-rushing grade this season marked his third consecutive year with a pass-rushing grade of 80.0 or higher.
The Panthers have thrown a number of resources at the defensive line in recent seasons, and things are looking up. Brian Burns has some freakish athletic tools off the edge, and he’s already developing into one of the best speed rushers in the league. He raised his pass-rushing grade from 68.7 as a rookie to 86.9 this past season. Rookies Derrick Brown and Yetur Gross-Matos both flashed promise at various points, as well.
Carolina finished the year with just the 11th-lowest team pressure rate in the NFL in 2020, but that has a chance to jump next season with another year under each of those young pass-rusher’s belts.
18. NEW YORK JETS
One of the larger developments in what turned out to be another lost season for the Jets was the progression that 2019 first-round pick Quinnen Williams made in his second year. Williams (39 pressures) along with John Franklin-Myers (51 pressures) provided some push up the middle for New York this season. Still, the highest pass-rushing grade among the three edge defenders to rush the passer 150 or more times in 2020 came from Tarell Basham at just 65.6.
Adding some more pass-rushing talent on the edge makes sense for the Jets as they head into the offseason.
19. NEW YORK GIANTS
One of the more bizarre stats to come out of the 2020 regular season was that the Giants’ top four pressure marks all came from interior defensive linemen. Leonard Williams (62 pressures), Dexter Lawrence (29), Dalvin Tomlinson (28) and B.J. Hill (22) all produced more quarterback pressures than New York’s top mark from an edge defender — Kyler Fackrell with just 19.
The Giants will look to bring back Williams in free agency after a productive season, and it’s easy to see them looking to add an edge rusher, as well.
20. DETROIT LIONS
Trey Flowers was the player that Detroit could rely on to defend the run and get after the quarterback at a high level coming into the season, but his season was largely a disappointment with just 13 pressures through seven games before missing the remainder of the season with injury. It was the other edge defenders for the Lions who ended up surprising with their play.
Romeo Okwara posted a career-high 85.4 pass-rushing grade after four consecutive seasons below 60.0. And midseason signing Everson Griffen earned an 80.1 pass-rushing grade from his Week 9 debut with Detroit through the end of the season. While impressive, those performances weren’t enough to keep the Lions from the bottom half of this list.
The Cardinals got just over four games from their best pass-rusher, Chandler Jones, before he was knocked out for the remainder of the season with an elbow injury. That’s always going to hurt a team’s pass-rushing unit.
Arizona did get surprisingly efficient play from Haason Reddick off the edge, however. Reddick had 57 career pressures coming into this year, and he came out of this season nearly matching that total in 2020 alone with 55 pressures, including 12.5 NFL sacks. It was a good time for a career year, as Reddick is set to enter free agency this offseason.
The Chiefs are paying two defensive linemen at least $20 million per year. Chris Jones backed up his fresh new contract with his play this past season, logging a 93.1 pass-rushing grade that trailed only Aaron Donald at the position. He’s one of the toughest players to block in the league.
It’s hard to say the same for Kansas City’s other $20 million man, Frank Clark. Among 114 qualifying edge defenders, Clark ranked just 92nd in pass-rush win rate (10.0%) and 54th in pressure rate (9.8%). On a defense lacking pass-rushing options beyond Jones, the Chiefs need more than that from Clark.
How the mighty have fallen. The Patriots have quickly gone from perennial Super Bowl contender to a roster that has plenty of concerns heading into this offseason — pass rush not excluded. Chase Winovich and Deatrich Wise Jr. both gave the Patriots solid production with pass-rush win rates north of 17.0%, but the Patriots ranked just 26th as a team in quarterback knockdown rate, which includes both sacks and hits.
One name to watch for in 2021 is 2020 rookie Josh Uche, who flourished as a situational pass-rusher late in the season. He ended the year with a 75.1 pass-rushing grade on 99 pass-rushing snaps after making his debut in Week 8.
24. BALTIMORE RAVENS
A pressure rate of just 29.3% — 18th in the league — is a disappointing outcome for Baltimore given that they blitzed at the highest rate in the NFL once again in 2020. Their most productive pass rusher was Matthew Judon for the second straight season (39 pressures), but he had a higher pressure rate than pass-rush win rate, which points to the idea that a lot of his pressure has been schemed.
The addition of players like Yannick Ngakoue and Calais Campbell adds to the collective pass-rushing talent for Baltimore, but even they have pass-rushing grades of just 72.8 and 70.4, respectively, for the Ravens. As a defense, Baltimore’s strength remains in coverage.
25. HOUSTON TEXANS
This entire Texans roster outside of Deshaun Watson could use some work, and the pass rush is no exception. J.J. Watt was the lone reliable source of pressure with a 76.7 pass-rushing grade, and even he had a down year by his standards, producing pressure on fewer than 10% of his pass-rushing snaps. Beyond Watt’s 45 quarterback pressures, the only other player on the team with more than 20 pressures was Charles Omenihu (32).
26. SEATTLE SEAHAWKS
Through Week 14, Jamal Adams had a share of the Seahawks’ pressure lead at 26. Not only is Adams a safety, but he’s a safety who played just nine games over that stretch. Even if he is the best pass-rushing safety in the NFL, it’s a tough pill to swallow when a safety who missed significant time with injury has as many pressures as any other player on your team that deep into the season.
The only reason Seattle isn’t lower is that their pass rush started to improve as the season progressed, posting a slightly above average pressure rate from Week 10 through the end of the season. Carlos Dunlap was part of that push, with a team-high 12.6% pressure rate after joining the team.
The Raiders have been searching for a pass rush since Khalil Mack was traded away, and they once again had one of the lowest pressure rates in the NFL in 2020. Their 28.0% team pressure rate ranked 24th in the NFL over the course of the regular season.
Maxx Crosby took a step back after bursting onto the scene as a rookie in 2019 with a double-digit sack total and a 67.3 pass-rushing grade, and free-agent acquisition Maliek Collins generated just 14 pressures on 304 pass-rushing snaps (4.6%) in his first year in Las Vegas. To make matters worse, their most promising pass rusher — Maurice Hurst and his 78.5 pass-rushing grade — was affected by injury in his third season.
It appeared as if a second-year breakout was on the way from Josh Allen early in the 2020 season. His 13 pressures were a top-20 mark at the position through four weeks, and his 17.8% pass-rush win rate was one of the stronger marks among all qualifying edge defenders. However, knee injuries proceeded to hold him to fewer than 400 defensive snaps on the season. His last appearance would come in Week 11 against the Steelers.
It’s an unfortunate break for Jacksonville because there was not a whole lot of pass-rushing production behind him along the defensive line. Not one player on the team finished with a pressure rate above 10.0%, including 2020 first-round pick K’Lavon Chaisson (9.2%).
What a difference a year makes. The 49ers’ pass rush was one of the big reasons for their success and Super Bowl run last season, but they traded away one of the best interior defenders in the NFL in DeForest Buckner following that Super Bowl and lost their top edge rusher Nick Bosa in Week 2 to a season-ending injury. Add in Dee Ford playing just 46 snaps all season, and it’s not hard to see why we saw a steep drop from the 49ers in the pass-rushing department.
San Francisco’s team pressure rate dropped over 10 percentage points from 39.0% in 2019 to 28.4% this past season, and no one on the team cleared a 70.0 pass-rushing grade.
For years, Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap have anchored the Bengals’ pass rush. That changed in a big way this season. Atkins battled through injury and played just 119 defensive snaps with three total pressures, while Dunlap’s relationship with the Cincinnati coaching staff quickly became tenuous. He was ultimately traded midseason to the Seahawks.
That lack of production from typically reliable veterans resulted in a team pressure rate of 22.8% on the season that ranked 31st in the NFL. The one bright spot for Cincinnati was Carl Lawson's play, whose 20.0% pass-rush win rate was one of the best marks in the league. He’ll likely command a sizable second contract in free agency this offseason.
31. TENNESSEE TITANS
The Titans knew that their pass rush was something they had to address in the 2020 offseason. That’s why they brought in Jadeveon Clowney, but Clowney earned just a 69.6 pass-rushing grade and didn’t record a single sack before missing the final eight weeks of the season for Tennessee.
Beyond Clowney, there just weren’t many players who could reliably win their pass-rushing snaps consistently. Harold Landry led the team with 51 pressures, but that was mostly volume-driven – he recorded pressure on just 9.7% of his pass-rushing snaps. No player on the team besides Clowney produced a pressure rate above 10.0% for the season.
The Vikings lost their starting edge tandem from the 2019 season of Danielle Hunter (to injury) and Everson Griffen (to free agency), and they struggled to replace that production in 2020. The only player on the team with more than 25 pressures was Ifeadi Odenigbo (42), and their team pressure rate of 21.6% ranked dead last over the course of the regular season. That was just part of the story for a Minnesota defense that parted ways with many of their starters this past offseason.
More of PFF's postseason rankings