In a league where quarterbacks are worth their weight in gold, the players responsible for making the quarterback uncomfortable have become more and more valuable.
In Week 1, defensive linemen across the NFL justified that value. Whether they affected the quarterback as a pass-rusher or dominated the line of scrimmage against the run, many were able to make their presence felt.
Let's hand out a few defensive-line superlatives.
(Note: Since 3-4 outside linebackers have essentially the same roles as 4-3 defensive ends, and typically play defensive end when their defense goes to nickel - five defensive backs, two off-ball linebackers, four defensive linemen - this weekly feature will treat them as defensive linemen.)
He may have been playing against a below-average Seattle Seahawks offensive line, but Von Miller was unblockable Sunday, registering six tackles, four quarterback hits, three sacks, two forced fumbles, and a fumble recovery.
The foundation of Miller's skill set is his speed off the edge. Listed at 6-foot-3 and 250 pounds, his upfield burst is just too quick for 300-pound humans moving backward to handle. When Miller combines that with varied footwork and pacing, he becomes nearly impossible to block:
Here, Miller is in a two-point stance aligned on the outside edge of Seattle's right tackle. After the snap, he slow-plays his rush, reading the Seattle backfield to determine whether it is a run or pass. Once he identifies that it's a pass, Miller quickly expands his rush to the outside, using a concise two-hand swipe to defeat the balance and hands of the right tackle. After beating the block, Miller does an excellent job of flipping his hips, allowing himself to accelerate toward and then sack the quarterback.
Miller may have been even more dominant against the run, finishing with three stops, per Pro Football Focus. He uses superior leverage and a wide array of hand techniques to keep offensive linemen off balance, making it easy for him to shed blocks and make plays on the ball carrier.
Miller has arguably been the best edge defender in the NFL over the last half-decade. Sunday, he proved that he's not even close to slowing down.
Genard Avery may have been the 20th edge defender selected in the 2018 NFL Draft, but he was the best rookie edge defender on the field Sunday.
The Memphis product finished with four tackles, a hurry, a QB hit, and a sack against the Steelers, demonstrating why he was one of the biggest steals of the draft. Avery, who is listed at 6-feet and 250 pounds, fell down draft boards due to size and competition-level concerns; however, his skill set is ready-made to produce in the NFL.
In college, Avery was known for his ability to consistently soften the corner with his powerful hands, similar to what made James Harrison famous. However, against Pittsburgh, Avery used a pure speed rush to virtually eliminate the Steelers' chances of winning the game:
With Pittsburgh driving for the game-winning score late in overtime, the Browns needed someone to make a play. Avery, who is in a two-point stance with a wide alignment toward the bottom of the screen, takes advantage of his one-on-one opportunity with a masterful speed rush.
Avery does a great job of timing the snap, laying the foundation for him to win with speed. Through his first three steps, Avery gains a good bit of ground, forcing the right tackle to bail on his pass set in lieu of attempting to push Avery past the pocket.
Unfortunately for him, Avery does an excellent job of reducing his blockable surface area by dipping his inside shoulder. This allows Avery to accelerate through the corner and pursue Ben Roethlisberger. When the Steelers QB steps up in the pocket, Avery uses his lower-body pliability and footwork to turn at an acute angle and make the sack.
Avery saved the game and even put Cleveland in position to win with a field goal (which ended up getting blocked, forcing the tie).
The Browns already possess two excellent edge defenders in Myles Garrett and Emmanuel Ogbah. Don't be surprised if Avery becomes the third prong in Cleveland's monstrous pass rush.
For this Pass Rush of the Week, we're going to cheat and look at two different rushes on the same play.
Patriots defensive ends Trey Flowers and Adrian Clayborn gave the Texans' offensive line fits, finishing with 10 total hurries and 1.5 sacks between them. Both players used excellent timing and technique to generate pressure and make life miserable for Deshaun Watson.
This play was especially impressive:
Let's start with Clayborn, the right defensive end aligned to the outside edge of the Texans left tackle. After the ball is snapped, Clayborn bursts upfield for three steps at the left tackle's midline, attempting to disguise his true intentions.
Once Clayborn's third step lands, he is within range for the left tackle to land hands. However, as the left tackle initiates his punch, Clayborn expands to the tackle's outside edge while employing a well-timed cross-chop-to-club-to-rip-move sequence, using the proper footwork to trim a tight arc to the quarterback.
Unfortunately for Clayborn, Flowers was able to get to Watson just before he did, so Wise just missed out on the sack.
Flowers is the left defensive end aligned to the outside edge of the right tackle. After the ball is snapped, Flowers doesn't try to disguise anything, opting to use sheer power, explosiveness, and leverage on his bull rush.
A common saying among defensive linemen is "get under the chin and you will win," and that's exactly what Flowers does here. He drops his pad level so that he can get beneath the right tackle's center of gravity, maximizing his ability to generate power while limiting the right tackle's ability to anchor against Flowers' bull rush. Once he has the right tackle on skates, Flowers easily discards him and sacks Watson.
While Clayborn and Flowers used different methods, they were both able to generate pressure using high-level technique and nuance. If they can do this consistently, the Patriots' defense could be among the best in the NFL.
In a losing effort, Demarcus Lawrence was a monster against the Carolina Panthers, finishing with seven tackles (three for loss), a QB hit, and a sack.
While he put together a number of noteworthy pass rushes, this stop against the run was the most extraordinary play he made Sunday:
Here, Lawrence is the left defensive end aligned head-up on the tight end. The Panthers are using a pin-and-pull concept - Carolina is looking to "pin" Lawrence and the play-side defensive tackle so the center and play-side guard can "pull" around the edge - to get running back Christian McCaffrey to the edge of the Cowboys' defense.
Initially, it works perfectly for Carolina, as the tight end does an excellent job of pinning Lawrence inside. However, Lawrence identifies the pin-and-pull concept and uses a spin move to defeat the block, freeing himself to pursue and tackle McCaffrey at the line of scrimmage.
It was a brilliant display of awareness, technique, and effort from Lawrence as he looks to prove that his breakout 2017 season was not a fluke.
Not many people know who D.J. Reader is. The 2016 fifth-round pick is an easily forgotten name on a loaded Texans front seven. Nevertheless, the Clemson product has become a valuable member of Houston's defensive line.
Listed at 6-foot-3 and 335 pounds, Readers is a hulking presence. While his size and strength allow him to eat up double teams against the run, his deceptive quickness and well-developed hand technique allow him to be more productive as a pass-rusher than most defenders his size. This play against New England is a great illustration:
Reader is the nose tackle with an outside shade on the center's right edge. With the right guard worried about J.J. Watt on the right edge, Reader executes a lightning-quick club-rip move on the center's snap hand, which allows Reader to continue upfield unimpeded for the sack.
Altogether, Reader finished Week 1 with three tackles, two sacks, and a QB hit. Next time you're watching Houston, keep an eye on big No. 98, who may be the most underrated part of the Texans' defense.
John Owning is a football writer at theScore. He has written for Bleacher Report and Football Insiders. He was also the lead NFL content editor at FanRag Sports. John provides analysis on the Dallas Cowboys for the Dallas Morning News and edits for The Quant Edge. Find him on Twitter @JohnOwning.
(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)