Elite Pass Rushers 101

You want to know who’s a beast? Tamba Hali. I’ve trained with him a lot in the offseason, and he practices martial arts to work on his hand speed and attacking. Seeing it up close gave me a whole new appreciation for how quick and methodically his hands work. That dude’s an animal.

This guy is 6-foot-3, 275 pounds, and has some of the quickest hands I’ve ever seen. If you’re an offensive tackle, you just can’t keep your hands on him.

I don’t know how anybody blocks that guy.

I played four seasons in the AFC West with the Raiders. That’s gotta be a tough division to be a quarterback in. When I started thinking about the NFL’s best pass rushers, I went straight back to my AFC West roots and the guys I’ve seen live on the field getting after the quarterback.

So this isn’t a complete list, but it’s a breakdown of the elite guys I’m most familiar with.

Let’s start in Kansas City, where if you’re a visiting quarterback, Tamba might not even be the guy you’re most worried about …


Justin Houston and Tamba Hali

I don’t think anyone scares quarterbacks — and offensive tackles — right now as much as Justin Houston. Like all the guys on this list, he’s the complete package. But what it comes down to for Justin is that he’s always in a position of power. He has the ability to get lower (and stay lower) than the blocker, so he always has leverage. And when he gets low, he still maintains his speed, so he can just bull-rush guys and get to the quarterback.

In the trenches, the low man wins. But most guys lose a little speed and power the lower they get. Justin doesn’t. He stays low and stays fast.

He’s also a good speed rusher, but he uses that more as a changeup to set up his power rush. He’ll throw a speed rush at a guy a couple of times, then he’ll sell the speed rush to the outside and get the tackle to bail on him, and once he has the blocker off balance, he’ll come back and power rush right through him to the quarterback.

And if Justin coming from one side isn’t scary enough, you got Tamba Hali coming from the other outside linebacker spot.

Like I said, with Hali, it’s all about his hand work. He’s got all the other tools, too, but his hands are what make him special. His hands are always connecting with the offensive lineman in different patterns, like a boxer on a punching bag, and his hands are just violent and fast. He’s always attacking, and his ability to keep the blocker’s hands off him allows him to use his speed and quickness to get around him.

Look at the left side of the screen here and notice how the offensive tackle is never able to engage his hands on Tamba:

You can’t block what you can’t get your hands on. It’s as simple as that.

I wouldn’t want to be a quarterback staring across the line at those guys in a passing situation. When you got one guy coming from each side and they each require an extra blocker to hold them off, there just aren’t enough guys to block them.


Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware

It’s pretty much a tie for best pass-rushing duo in the AFC West. The big difference is that Tamba and Justin are more power rushers, while Von and DeMarcus are more speed rushers.

Von Miller is just a freak. An athletic freak. People aren’t supposed to be as big as he is and still have that kind of speed and agility. I mean, 6-foot-3, 250 pounds and still runs a 4.49 40-yard dash? That’s just crazy.

Look at how he just blows by the offensive tackle so fast that he almost runs past the QB:

These highlights are starting to make me feel bad for Phillip Rivers …

Von is going full speed, stops on a dime, changes direction and reaches out with one hand to grab Rivers.

Who does that?

Von Miller does.

DeMarcus Ware is another freak athlete. Hands, feet, speed, quickness — he’s got it all. And he’s crafty, too. He uses a lot of different moves to get past guys, so you never know what he’s going to do. Like that time he faked out the 49ers offensive tackle with a half-spin that left him turned around like he didn’t even know where he was.

His 34-inch arms don’t hurt, either. It seems like he always has great separation. Offensive tackles can never get their hands inside his chest. They’re always reaching and grabbing, hoping to hold him off long enough to let the quarterback get the ball out.

He wasn’t in Denver yet when I was with the Raiders, but he’s been around a long time, so I’ve gotten to see him a lot. He’s basically an older, more seasoned version of Von Miller. If you’re a Von Miller fan, you can literally look down the other side of the defense and see the future.


Cameron Wake

The get-off. You don’t have to look any further than that when talking about what makes Cameron Wake elite. His get-off is freakish. You rarely see him get stopped at the line of scrimmage because by the time the ball is snapped and the offensive tackle can get his hands up, Wake is either already into his chest on a power rush, or a step into the backfield on an outside speed rush.

He understands how to get to the top of the rush quickly and use the offensive lineman’s body to help flip him, and he does it without having to stop his feet. And once that lineman flips, he’s toast. Watch his helmet here before the snap. Look at that anticipation.

Nothing fancy. Just straight explosion. I look at this and think, How did this guy go undrafted and have to spend two years in the CFL before anybody brought him in? What didn’t they see in him?

The NFL is a crazy place, man. I don’t think there’s a guy in the league with a better first step on the pass rush than Cameron Wake.


Pernell McPhee

You see Pernell’s size — 6-foot-3, 275 pounds — and you don’t expect him to be able to move the way he does. His change of direction is as good as I’ve seen, especially for a guy as big as he is. He can plant and cut while he’s still moving full speed upfield — almost like a Euro-step in basketball.

He’s a beast. To move laterally and still stay downhill to the quarterback like he does here is one of the hardest things to do in the game. You only have a couple seconds to get to the quarterback. Every step you take laterally is a step you’re not taking toward your target. But he makes it look so natural, so easy. I’ve never seen anybody rush like that.

I’ve seen Pernell break a couple ankles in practice when we’re in just jerseys and shorts. He gets off the ball quick, plants his foot and throws in a little juke and the offensive lineman goes flying the opposite way. It’s like a basketball highlight.

Imagine a 275-pound point guard, only after he throws a crossover, instead of taking the ball to the basket, he’s laying huge hits on quarterbacks.

Pernell’s a fun guy to watch.