NFL News & Analysis

Ranking the AFC West's top pass-rushers

HOUSTON, TX - NOVEMBER 27: Joey Bosa #99 of the San Diego Chargers rests on the bench during the fourth quarter against the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium on November 27, 2016 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images)

The AFC West will destroy your pass protection.

Over the past few seasons, the AFC West has been steadily adding pass-rushing phenoms, and in Week 12, all four teams had an edge defender absolutely destroy the opposition, including two facing off in a battle on Sunday Night Football.

The combination of Von Miller, Justin Houston, Khalil Mack, and Joey Bosa combined for eight sacks, three hits, 29 QB total pressures, two batted passes, 28 defensive stops, a pick six, and two forced fumbles on Sunday.

They averaged more than seven total pressures from an average of 35 pass-rushing snaps each, and were all four among the most dominant players of the week.

For the season, they rank as three of the top five edge defenders, with overall grades of 92.7 (Mack), 91.2 (Miller), and 89.8 (Bosa); although Houston hasn’t played enough snaps yet to qualify for the rankings, his current season grade of 88.1 is following close behind.

The eldest of the four is just 27 years old. This is a division that is loaded with fearsome edge rushers, and that is just among the four star players. Players like Melvin Ingram (Chargers), DeMarcus Ware (Broncos), Shaq Barrett (Broncos), and Tamba Hali (Chiefs) remain capable-to-excellent complementary pass-rushers, while players like Aldon Smith and Dee Ford are interesting question marks for dramatically different reasons. The AFC West could be the stuff of nightmares for opposing QBs for years to come if each franchise can all hold onto its star players.

Let’s look a little more in-depth at each player in the order they currently sit in the PFF rankings (in terms of overall season grade).

1. Khalil Mack, Oakland Raiders

Generating sustained pressure is extremely important for an edge rusher. Even if you don’t make the play, putting a QB under that kind of stress has a marked positive effect on the defense. The next step from that is converting that pressure into game-changing plays that the pass-rusher alone controls.

If you pressure the quarterback only, you are still relying on the QB to make the mistakes to convert that into positive plays for the defense, but an edge defender can take the ball out of his hands literally, as well as figuratively, to change games. This week, we saw Khalil Mack do exactly that against Carolina, single-handedly forcing two turnovers and swinging the balance of the game in Oakland’s favor.

Mack read a screen from Cam Newton and made a spectacular play to pick off the pass, returning it for a touchdown—in a game that was decided by just three points. And with the game on the line on the final drive, he completed the perfect trifecta for pass-rushers: beating his man, forcing a fumble in a strip sack, and recovering it to secure possession for the Raiders.

Mack notched six total pressures and five defensive stops against Carolina, which would be a good game for most edge defenders, but it was the difference he made by taking that step to game-changing plays that separated him this week.

He is now tied for the league lead with 60 total QB pressures this season, and that’s after beginning the year in a relative slump. Mack is in just his third year in the league, and has already become one of the game’s most dominant players, equally as capable against the run as the pass, and only length at the top separates him from Miller.

2. Von Miller, Denver Broncos

It’s at the point where we’re running out of things to say about Von Miller, and he’s only 27 years old. When the Broncos were trying to tie Miller down to a long-term, big-money contract in the offseason after his monstrous playoff run, GM John Elway talked about legacy-chasing. There is no doubt about Miller’s quality, but to go down as one of the best players the game has ever seen, he needs the longevity.

For his career, Miller is averaging 4.9 total pressures per game overall, and 5.9 per playoff game. He has sacked the QB 85 times in 90 total career games, and is currently on a march up the all-time sack leader board. In his 13-year career, Lawrence Taylor notched 132.5 sacks, by the NFL’s count. Miller is more than halfway there (72.5) in six seasons, having missed half of the 2013 season through suspension. Those are the names that John Elway had in mind when he talked about legacy-chasing.

In Week 12, Miller notched three sacks, a hit, four hurries, a batted pass, and nine defensive stops as he destroyed the blocking of the Kansas City Chiefs, and was unlucky not to come out on top when the result was decided. He is unquestionably one of the league’s most dominant players at any position, and has decided games this season with his play—notably a strip sack against Andrew Luck and the Colts. He is currently tied for the league lead with 60 total pressures with five games still to play.

3. Joey Bosa, San Diego Chargers

Joey Bosa has 38 total pressures in his first seven games in the NFL. In the first of those games, he was on the field for just 23 total snaps, and this came after a protracted contract wrangle, holdout, and injury that kept him off the field and away from the meeting rooms where he could get up to speed.

That figure is the most pressure any player has notched over their first seven games in the league in the past decade. In fact, it’s the most by a clear 10 pressures. Miller had 25 pressures over his first seven games. Mack had 22. The gap between Bosa and the next-best player seems to grow by the week, and he actually already has four more pressures than any other player had over their first eight games in the league, never mind seven.

Ordinarily, this might seem like an unsustainable level of play that would see the rookie come back down to earth with a bang pretty soon, but PFF has graded the last two seasons of Bosa’s college play, and dominance is nothing new for him. He was by far the most dominant pass-rusher in the nation in each of the past two seasons, consistently generating a huge amount of pressure for Ohio State, while playing the run well, and having barely any drops in performance. He was the No. 1 player on PFF’s draft board all through the process, and was the clear best player available in the draft, in our analysts' eyes.

Many were caught up overanalyzing his play and potential ceiling, and simply lost sight of how incredibly, unstoppably productive he is. That seems to have translated immediately to the NFL level. San Diego has used him as both a defensive end and outside linebacker, and on both sides of the line; wherever he is, he makes plays for them. Bosa may be better than anybody else on this list was in their first year in the league, and while his room for growth may not be as high, he is already within touching distance of their production and greatness as an edge-defending force.

4. Justin Houston, Kansas City Chiefs

Justin Houston has missed a lot of time over the past season and a half, so it’s easy to forget just how destructive he can be when fully healthy. The last 16-game season he played (2014) saw him sack the QB 23 times, recording 85 total QB pressures from 462 pass-rushing snaps. Houston was arguably the best pass-rusher in the game that year, and led all edge defenders in defensive stops, as well as the high pressure count.

This week gave us a reminder of the kind of force Houston can be. Against Denver, he racked up three sacks, seven total pressures, and a ridiculous 10 defensive stops. In one game, he moved to within one defensive stop of Tamba Hali’s season total, that has come on 444 total snaps—and Hali has played well. Given the superstar status of two of the other three stars we are looking at, Houston always seems to be a little bit in the shade, but at his best, he is every bit the match of the rest. The issue with his play has been staying healthy and on the field where he can dominate. We have gone too long without seeing Houston at his best, but for one week, at least, we have been reminded of just how good he can be.

If Houston can remain healthy down the stretch and beyond, he should take his place among this group and create a terrifying division of pass-rushers for opposing QBs to contend with.

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