Defensive Line All-Stars: Ford, Suh dominate divisional round
After another slate filled with sacks, stops and stuffs, let's review the standout performers from the trenches in the divisional round of the NFL playoffs.
Defensive Lineman of the Week: LB Dee Ford, Chiefs
Justin Houston had more sacks (two), but Dee Ford was the Kansas City Chiefs' best line-of-scrimmage defender in their 31-13 victory over the Indianapolis Colts. Ford finished with two quarterback hits, one sack, a forced fumble, and four tackles, including one for a loss.
Ford's best weapon off the edge is his speed rush, as he's one of the best in the NFL at transitioning from the vertical-burst phase to the flattening phase, which allowed him to accumulate a career-high 13 sacks in the regular season. Along with blazing speed, he typically relies on flexibility and well-timed hands - the same ingredients that led to his sack against the Colts.
On this play, Ford begins in a two-point stance with an outside shade over Colts right tackle Braden Smith. Once the ball is snapped, Ford pushes vertical for three steps, beating Smith to the edge and stressing the blocker's pass set in the process.
Check out Smith’s third step below - he's perpendicular to the line of scrimmage while trying to stay in front of Ford:
That's bad news for any blocker, as their rear end should be facing the quarterback at all times. However, in this case, Smith's back is facing the opposite sideline.
Next, Ford enters the bend phase of his speed rush, which connects the vertical and flatten phases. Once he gets within distance, Ford paws with his outside hand, which leads Smith to raise his own hands, opening up space for Ford to execute a rip move.
The powerful rip move allows Ford to power through the contact while turning a tight corner at the apex of Andrew Luck’s drop. From there, Ford flattens to the pocket, where he's able to strip Luck for a fumble that's recovered by Kansas City.
Against a Colts offensive line that was the best in the NFL at limiting pressure and sacks this season, Ford consistently got to Luck while also maintaining his responsibilities against the run. The New England Patriots will certainly be in tough against Ford - one of the league's most improved edge defenders - in the AFC Championship Game.
Pass Rush of the Week: DE Brandon Graham, Eagles
Here, Graham begins outside of Armstead and then pushes vertical for two steps before squaring up the blocker and bobbing slightly inside, which causes Armstead’s feet to freeze for just a moment.
Even though Graham misses with his initial hand swipe, Armstead's slight hesitation is all he needs to win the edge. From there, Graham just barely turns a tight enough corner to get within range of Drew Brees before reaching forward to knock the ball loose.
It wasn’t the cleanest sack of the divisional round - and the ball was recovered by the Saints - but given Armstead's blocking prowess, it may have been the most difficult. Graham will be a free agent this offseason, and while he only recorded four sacks in the regular season, he's shown the ability to beat anyone around the edge on any given snap.
Run Defender of the Week: DT Ndamukong Suh, Rams
And though he didn’t make a huge impact as a pass-rusher, Suh was dominant against Dallas' potent ground game, finishing with four tackles and a ton of other disruptions. Because Donald received so much attention, Suh was often single-blocked by Cowboys center Joe Looney - and it didn’t go well for Dallas. Here's a great example:
On this snap, Suh's the nose tackle and is aligned in the play-side A-gap between Looney and Cowboys right guard Zack Martin. Dallas is running an outside-zone concept in which Looney's tasked with reach-blocking Suh to the inside.
However, once the ball is snapped, Suh does well to stay ahead of Looney and prevent the reach block. With Looney unable to cross his face, Suh intelligently uses his right hand to create separation and then continues pursuing down the line of scrimmage unencumbered, eventually making the tackle for a loss.
It’s rare to see a defensive tackle begin in an A-gap and make a tackle near the numbers, but Suh's a rare talent. Overall, the Cowboys' outstanding rushing attack managed just 50 yards against the Rams, and Suh was a major factor throughout the game.
In the Spotlight: DE Adrian Clayborn, Patriots
Adrian Clayborn's never going to lead the NFL in sacks - recording just 2.5 in the 2018 regular season - but he's a nice complementary piece on New England's defensive line. While pass rushing off the right side, Clayborn uses unique movement patterns and an outstanding cross-chop move to find success.
Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Chargers employ the worst starting offensive tackle duo in the NFL, and Clayborn took advantage on Sunday, especially during this sack:
Here, Clayborn's begins with a wide outside shade over Chargers left tackle Russell Okung. Once the ball is snapped, Clayborn first veers inside, which prevents Okung from getting the necessary width in his pass set to defend the cross chop.
Making matters worse, Okung attempts a two-hand strike while trying to hop back outside, meaning both of his feet are off the ground. Clayborn predictably uses the cross-chop move to defend the strike before transitioning into a rip move while powering through the contact.
From there, Clayborn fights through Okung's egregious hold to trip up Philip Rivers for the sack.
Unlike many of the top pass-rushers, Clayborn isn’t blessed with great athleticism or strength, and he doesn’t possess a vast array of moves to compensate. Instead, he's largely a one-trick pony, relying on varied footwork to set up his cross-chop move.
But not every pass-rusher can be Von Miller, and Clayborn still plays a valuable role for the Patriots while proving capable of beating the league's non-elite offensive tackles.
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.