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Doom and the Pursuit of History

With 15 sacks already to his credit, Elvis Dumervil is within reach of setting an NFL record for sacks in a single season. The record is currently held by Michael Strahan, who reached 22.5 sacks in 2001, the highest total since the stat was first recorded. With only 3 games left, Doom is in a race with time as well as against the offensive linemen who stand between him and his goal. He's also one sack behind Simon Fletcher for the Broncos team record.

Once considered to be too small and too light to play at the NFL level, Doom's career has leapt forward following his change from defensive end to outside linebacker during the summer of 2009. Following players like Mike Vrabel and James Harrison, Elvis is one of a growing number of 'tweener' players who did not exactly fit into one position or another due to unusual metrics. Like the best of those tweeners, Doom has some unique abilities. Doom has large hands that are unusually strong for his size and possesses a skill at leverage that few players can boast. Once he was moved away from the left tackles who outweighed him by 60-100 lb, Elvis was also able to bring his speed to bear on the plays, getting a running start that let him hammer into ball carriers, dodge around linemen and use his unique blend of speed, power, balance and leverage to bring down quarterbacks.

Every player learns from those who have played before, and Dumervil is no different in that respect. Recently, Men's Journal ran an article on Michael Strahan, who gave several pointers on exactly how he managed to achieve 141.5 sacks over the course of 216 games between 1993 and 2007. While Strahan had a considerable size advantage over Dumervil (he played at 6-5 and 278 lb, compared to Doom's 5-11 (some still say it is 5'10) and 248 lb, the principles he laid out are just as important regardless of metrics. Some of them clearly are a benefit to Dumervil.

Job 1 - The Film Room


Strahan believed, as most of the best NFL players do, that the game is won in the film room, although played out on the field. He stated that finding "tells" on the part of the offensive linemen, quarterbacks and running backs, as well as tells in the form of certain tendencies due to formation, were the first key to making the sack. Many fans are aware that the color of an offensive lineman's knuckles (lighter or more reddish) can vary depending on exactly where he is holding his weight and that this can lead to knowing before the snap whether the play will be a run or a pass. Strahan, like many others, used film to discover far more than that. One quarterback (who is still playing) claps his hands before a passing play if he's in the shotgun. Certain linemen turn their heads to one side unconsciously. There are as many in the NFL as their are in poker. In both games, it's up to the superior player to discover what they are and what they mean.

An example came in the contests against Strahan's Giants' division rival Philadelphia Eagles and their huge (330 lb) left tackle, Jon Runyan. Strahan had studied Runyan exhaustively, and had learned some things that made theirs an unequal matchup. Runyan, for example, would leave his foot straight with the heel slightly up if he was going to man block straight ahead. He also left his heel high if he was dropping back to pass-block. If his heel was on the ground and turned in, Runyan was going to go down inside and if the foot was flat and the heel turned out, he would step out to reach block. Strahan had learned to read him like a book.

Not surprisingly, Strahan gave Runyan fits. In a single game in 2001, Strahan notched 3.5 sacks against Donovan McNabb before halftime. By the third quarter, Runyan didn't have a clue as to how he was to stop #92, who was on his way to his record-setting year's total of 22.5. If Doom wants to break that record - and to continue to play at this level over the next decade - he'll be talking to other rushers and hunkering down with a lot of film each week. Victory goes to the prepared, over and over again. It's a lesson that can't be overstated.

Job 2 - What's Your Plan?

Every poker player knows that misdirection can be a key to a match, and many of the matchups within the game at the NFL level can be much he same way. Coaches will use a formation that is well known, but will run a new pay off of it at a crucial moment. Earlier this year, Brandon Marshall changed a hitch route to a go route against the Dallas Cowboys and turned an 8-yard gain into a TD. In any one-on-on matchup during a game, if one player can convince the other that he'll be moving in one direction, he can gain the advantage by changing to another. It happens within every game.

Strahan had a plan of action that he liked to use during games that used both technique and psychology to gain advantage. His first 4 pass rushes would almost inevitably be bull-rushes - using his strength, one on one, to try and overpower the lineman who was unenviably tasked with stopping him. Strahan believed that if you beat a man with a speed move early on, he will respect your speed but if you overpower him you'll create a psychological advantage that can be used in a variety of ways over the rest of the game. The lineman will expect more power rushes and can be taken out of the play when you begin to open up your own book of moves. The results - 141.5 sacks over 216 games - speak for themselves.

On his fifth rush, most lineman are preparing themselves for a power move by squatting back slightly, sitting their weight down and back and reaching out with their arms. At that moment, Strahan would chop their hands, reach for their outside shoulder and swing around them. The lineman would be in no position to shift his weight and interfere with the maneuver. After that, the lineman was often at Strahan's mercy. If he moved to protect the outside, Strahan was already clubbing him and spinning inside. Perhaps the best example of this came in Strahan's final game, Super Bowl XLII against New England. Nick Kaczur, according to Strahan, "...didn't know what to expect". Kaczur wasn't the only one, but this example went a long way towards granting the Giants their Super Bowl Victory.

One of the areas where Dumervil has a substantial advantage over most players is that his height/strength ratio is unusual - for a man less than 6 feet tall, he's extremely powerful. That strength, combined with balance and an unusual ability to find his opponent's "tipping point" are among the things that has set Doom apart from many other players at the same position. Big, sinewy hands, an ability to get them onto the lineman before he is grabbed, a tenacious grip and a talent for upsetting another player's balance are among the many keys to standing out at the rush linebacker position.

By the way, having a tell can also hurt the defender. When the San Francisco 49ers were matched up against the NY Giants during the Lawrence Taylor days, they were slated to meet in the playoffs. Head Coach Bill Walsh noted that Taylor had a short series of tells when he was planning on rushing the quarterback. Taylor really didn't care if people knew what he was going to do - he'd flop his hands around, wave his arms and generally, as Giants defensive back Beasley Reese would put it, act " a cop putting a siren on top of his car." Walsh used that to the 49ers' advantage - he had left guard Dan Ayers, at 6'5", 270 lb (Taylor, although incredibly strong, fast and agile, was 6'3" and 237 lb by comparison, according to drop back and to the outside when Taylor prepared to rush, cutting him off before he could reach Joe Montana. This maneuver would cost the Giants in the 1981 Divisional Round. Ayers liked rodeos, calf roping and also enjoyed throwing a rope around a tractor tire and dragging it through freshly plowed fields for fun. He was strong and agile enough to slow Taylor since he had sufficient notice that LT was coming. Although those signs of LT's intentions had simply created fear in the past, in this case LT's tells worked against him. The 49ers won easily.

Job 3 - Knowing Where the Quarterback Will Be

Like the first one, this principle also requires a lot of time in the film room. Even when he's beaten his lineman or TE, Doom has to get to the QB before he can either throw the ball away or escape out of the pocket. Both can be rendered moot by learning where the quarterback will move to when he feels the pressure of the defensive rush. Each player is different but all have tendencies to one extent or another.

Some quarterbacks like to run with the ball. Those are the players who think, "Pass, pass, no ,RUN!" Although such players, including a spectrum from Michael Vick to Jay Cutler, will move to wherever they think there is an opening, most of them will prefer to move in one direction or another. Players like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning will move more within the pocket, but they, too, have tendencies - generally, they like to step up within the pocket. Last season, Matt Cassel liked to pull down the ball and run up the middle when pressured. After 47 sacks, you could hardly blame him, but by knowing where he would usually run to, the rush linebacker could maneuver his lineman so that he would break off on a bull rush suddenly and spin to the inside, cutting down the QB before he could escape. Some quarterbacks are a little slower to break from the pocket, or slower afoot (Kyle Orton is one of these) and those players can often be taken down from behind. The rusher can't take his angle too deeply, permitting the QB to step up into the pocket; and he can't let the angle go too shallow, permitting the QB to step back and to the outside.

The secret here, according to Strahan, is to keep the passer on your inside shoulder. If the QB likes to step up, you try to aim your rush so that you end up 2-3 yards from the line of scrimmage. If you watch a lot of film, many rushers fail to contact the QB because they are being ridden to the rear by the linemen (especially in a short-drop situation) or are being cut off as they attempt to go more inside, between the QB and the LOS. The rusher needs to know ahead of time where he expects the QB to be as the play finishes and to try and get there first. Obviously, factors such as whether a QB is using a 3-, 5- or 7-step drop also makes a great deal of difference in planning your attack. If the QB is throwing a lot of 'smoke' (hot), hitch, out and slant routes with the 3-step drop, you have to plan your finishing location to take that into account. If you're looking at other routes, ones that break the usual 12.5 yards from the LOS, you've got more time to achieve pressure.

By the way, this also illustrates the interaction among the different defensive positions. If a CB is playing off coverage, many QBs will audible to a 3-step drop using one of the four I listed (often the 'hot' or 'smoke' route, although terminology varies), the rushers will have to know the coverage the CBs will be playing to plan their own attacks in order to create the most disruption or success.

Job 4 - Tackling the QB

During the Broncos/Giants game, with 6:29 remaining in the 2nd quarter, Denver had NY backed up nearly to their own end zone. Anticipating a pass, Andre' Goodman suddenly dove in on a cornerback blitz. He caught Eli Manning in the end zone, but he didn't make the tackle cleanly. He was able to pull Manning down, but not before Eli had thrown the ball away out of bounds. The play still stopped NY, but it cost the Broncos 2 points plus the ball.

Tackling technique is a difficult issue in the NFL. Proper technique in wrapping up and bring the man down is especially important when rushing the quarterback because those situations really give you two opportunities. The first is for the strip - if you are coming up from behind the QB, he may have his hand struck before he even knows that a defender is there. Secondly, even if the ball is not stripped, there is a chance for negative yardage by making the tackle before the QB can get rid of the ball. And third, of course, is the opportunity like the one mentioned here, where the defender can put points on the board for a safety if he can tackle the QB cleanly and pin his arms to his body as the tackle is made.

Strahan managed just such a move in the thrid quarter of the same SB mentioned above against NE - he fired out of his stance, blew past Kaczur and wrapped up Tom Brady before the QB could dump the ball off. Strahan swears that he recalls yelling loudly, "Tom, do not throw the ball!. I got you! I got you!" And he did.

If Doom is going to break Strahan's record - whether this year or any other - he'll need to master his own set of rules. It's likely that he'll start with the ones listed here, though, and add some others. For instance, Doom can still learn a lot from another sack artist who has played in the league for a bit longer - Jared Allen. Since coming into the league in 2004, there has been no one with more sacks (70) than Allen. Allen uses a whole variety of sack moves to get to the quarterback. He uses the rip, a pure-speed rush, a bull rush, a two-hand rush, a single-hand rush, and a modified swim move in which he pulls at the top of the tackle's shoulder pads. In this highlight reel, he demonstrates all of these moves: The only type of rush that Allen doesn't generally use is the spin move.

There are two other things to like about Allen. The first is that, despite his "mullet' persona, he studies film quite a bit. In fact, before facing Chicago this year, he mentioned several times that he was going to go back and watch Rams games in order to get ready to face Orlando Pace:

"I've had some success against him..he's getting older, but the guy still has a resume that's quite impressive. I'll go back and watch tape of how I played against him when I was with Kansas City."

The other thing one has to like about Allen is his frequency for strip sacks. He has 3 strip sacks in 2009 and 19 forced fumbles over his career, most of which have come on sacks. From these estimates, about 1 out of every 4 of Allen's sacks result in a strip and/or fumble. It's clear that when he reaches the quarterback, he's thinking about getting the ball.

Dumervil is no slouch as a pass rusher but he would do well to add some more moves to his arsenal so that he doesn't become predictable with his speed rush. He must study all of the tackles he will face extensively in the film room--as we are sure he does--as well as mining the knowledge of everyone around him who has been up against those same tackles. Whether this year or another, the sack record may yet be under attack by Dumervil. If he successfully brings it down, it will be a tribute to all that he has learned from those who played the game before he did.