Listen, don’t be scrolling down right now. I need to give you guys some perspective before I drop a top five list on you. Don’t just skip down the page to see who I picked. Not yet. We’re gonna do a deep dive here so you can understand my position better.
My man Chris Harris Jr. had a great line when he did his 5 Toughest Receivers list. He said, “At least 80% of interceptions start in bed, or in a recliner.”
Chris was talking about how many hours of film study go into making a pick. That’s definitely true when it comes to the secondary, but for me as a linebacker, the game is a little bit different. There’s still a big mental aspect to pass rushing, but my position is more about attacking than reacting. Most of my sacks come from winning that tiny fraction of a second after the ball is snapped. If I don’t anticipate the snap count and get an explosive first step, I don’t really have a chance. The thing is, I don’t get many true one-on-ones with an offensive lineman anymore. I typically get a double team, or even a triple team, with a “chipper” at the line of scrimmage.
When it comes to a double team, it almost doesn’t matter who the personnel are. Like, in Madden terms, a guy could be a 70-overall player or a 90 — if he has help, it’s gonna be really tough to get pressure no matter what.
When Chris did his article, he used a clip of his interception off Cam Newton in Week 1. So let’s run that clip back and break down how the Panthers were protecting Cam on my side, because it was a good example of what I’m talking about.
The first thing you have to watch is the tight end. He’s going to chip me to the outside, just to slow down my release. Then he’ll go out for his route. The tackle won’t even engage me. Look how far back the right tackle slides after the snap. He’s like four yards deep, by Cam’s side, by the time I get around the chipper. He’s just a second line of protection.
This is why it is so important to have two good outside pass rushers. I’m fortunate to have DeMarcus Ware — one of the best to ever do it — on the other side. So teams have to pick their poison against us. You can’t overload both sides of the protection without sacrificing your options downfield. If you pick on me and give DeMarcus a clean edge all game long, your QB is gonna be banged up.
So how do I still get sacks if I’m facing double teams? Well …
Sometimes I’m able to blow past the chipper completely just with pure speed and by anticipating the snap count. Then I get the tackle one-on-one, and he’s going to be on his heels, expecting the chip. At that point, I’ve got two options: I can do a spin move to get inside, or I can get really low and dip around his shoulder on the outside.
The problem with dipping around is that the best QBs get the ball out of their hands in three seconds. Those guys aren’t gonna give you four seconds to take the scenic route. Sometimes you’ve gotta find a way to get inside and blow things up quick.
This sack on Cam from the Super Bowl is a good example.
If you watch that clip once, you’ll probably think, Oh ok, he did a spin move and got to the quarterback. But the spin is really just the last part of it.
That sack was about two things: anticipating the snap count and an explosive first step.
Let me break it down for you. Anticipating a snap count is kind of like playing that reflex game Hot Hands (aka Red Hands, aka Slap Jack). You have to develop a sixth sense for the quarterback’s timing. Of course, the QB can always give you a hard count to draw you offside, but if you’re really in tune with the game, you can feel the hard count coming. With young QBs especially, you can sense it. You see them coming up to the line, and something is a little different about their demeanor — maybe their body language is different, or their voice is a little deeper. Some quarterbacks even have a little tell where they lift their heels up right before they call for the snap.
But now let me really, really break it down for you.
Let’s say I sniff out the count, and my brain says, “Here we go.” That signal still has to get from my brain all the way down to my legs. So I have to get a slight lean forward, and then as soon as the ball is snapped I have to explode in a split second. This reaction doesn’t just come naturally. Whenever I train, I’m always taking my first step off a whistle or a flashing green light or something — and I have to react instantly.
So let’s go back to the sack in the Super Bowl. If you freeze-frame the clip right after the snap, you’ll see why I got to the quarterback.
You can see that I’m already exploding. The chipper doesn’t have a chance.
And as a pass rusher, a few offsides are just the cost of doing business. Five yards? That’s a trade-off I’ll take. If I have the QB worried about executing hard counts, I’ve already got an edge, because now he’s not fully concentrating on his presnap reads.
We’re just scratching the surface, but I hope that gives you a better understanding of my position. Because it’s not just me vs. the tackle. There are a lot of variables. So with that said, I’m not just going to do the five toughest tackles I’ve faced. I’m going to show some love to a few positions.
Let’s start with the Animal.
Toughest Offensive Tackle: Trent Williams
The four-time Pro Bowler. The classic Beast. Trent has all the physical tools. But what separates him is that he’s also the most mentally tough guy I’ve ever seen. He has that swag about him that makes him almost more like a defensive player. He loves talking to you. Usually it’s just the defensive guys talking — “I’m on your ass all day, bruh!” But Trent has that defensive mentality on the other side of the ball. Some tackles, they just want to not get beat, but Trent is always in attack mode.
The battle at the line of scrimmage is like a 12-round boxing fight. He’s going to get some punches in, and I’m going to get some punches in. What makes a great offensive lineman is the ability to take a shot on the chin and get right back up and not be rattled. If Trent gets beat, he knows it’s part of the game. He doesn’t get passive — he’s right back on your ass the next play. His mind-set is like, “You beat me? Alright, you got lucky on that play. Let’s go.” That’s the confidence you need to be great over four quarters. He’s the toughest guy on the field every single play.
Toughest Quarterback: Tom Brady
What makes him the best isn’t just his accuracy throwing the ball. His presnap vision is the best I’ve ever seen, bar none. He’s able to predict your play just based off the presnap coverage. You can disguise your look all you want, but he’s still able to move guys around and forecast what’s coming. Brady almost turns the whole game into a seven-on-seven drill because of how fast he’s able to get rid of the ball.
And let’s be honest — he hasn’t always had the best talent in the world around him. But no matter who his receivers are, his presnap adjustments set them up to excel. Let me bring it back to Madden again. Sometimes if you have the right matchups, or check into the right play based on the defense, it doesn’t matter if your receiver is a 70-overall or a 90-overall. Brady will almost always check into the play that allows his first or second reads to get open.
The biggest challenge in playing the Patriots is simply getting off the field. You’re never worried about Brady hitting you for 70 yards, but he’ll chip away at you and keep drives alive, which wears you down. So if my whole game is based on an explosive first step, that’s a problem. Getting a consistent first step on a 15-play drive is pretty much impossible.
He keeps himself pretty clean, too. It’s very rare to see Brady get popped, but I’ve seen it. As a matter of fact, Elvis Dumervil got him my rookie season. It was one of the few presnap mistakes I’ve ever seen from the Patriots. Brady didn’t shift the protection to counter our blitz, and Elvis came completely free. I was on the other side. I remember watching Elvis bearing down on him like, Daaaaaaaaaamn.
There’s no feeling like that free run to the quarterback. Oh my God.
Respect to Tom, though. He popped right back up.
Toughest Running Back: Chris Ivory
I know everybody thinks I’m going to say Adrian Peterson or Marshawn Lynch here, but the thing is, I only played against those guys a few times. And you already know what makes them great anyway, so let me shed some light on a guy who’s under the radar.
Chris Ivory is such a punishing back. Honestly, the punishers are the guys who you really hate playing against, because even if they don’t have the blocking, they’re gonna make you hurt. Over the course of 60 minutes, you’ll get to the point where you don’t wanna tackle them anymore. It’s human nature. You don’t want to put yourself in that kind of harm.
And Ivory causes harm, bro. He almost never runs out of bounds to preserve himself. He lays his body on the line for his teammates. There’s one play in particular that sticks out to me, and it’s from 2013, when Ivory was on the Jets. I couldn’t find the film, so I’ll diagram it for you:
I’m out in pass coverage on the tight end, who runs a deep over. So I get pulled all the way down the field, near the sideline. We’re in Cover 3, so I don’t have any help underneath. Ivory runs a little checkdown route, and everybody’s cleared out. I turn around to see him catching the ball, and I’m all by myself. He’s got the rock in 15 yards of space.
It’s me and Chris. One-on-one. Man, by the time I turn around and get my legs churning, he’s coming at about 20 mph. I’m coming at about five. So I do what every coach tells you to do, from Pop Warner on up to the NFL — I get my head across the ball and meet him shoulder to shoulder.
Boom. It was an incredible blow.
It was right on the Jets sideline, too. I got up all wobbly, and their whole sideline was yelling to our sideline, “Come get him! He’s out! Yo, he’s done!”
At first, I was trying to pass it off like it was nothing, but I couldn’t make it back to the sideline. I took a knee and the trainers helped me up. Luckily, it was just a little issue with my contact. 😉
Toughest Tight End: Rob Gronkowski
There’s not a more dominant tight end right now than Gronkowski. But he’s not just dominant as a receiver— he’s the total package. I think his blocking is underrated. This term is almost overused in the media now, but Gronk really is a true game-changer. He’s almost like LeBron James in that his body type and skill set has never been seen before at his position. The NFL has never seen anything like his combination of size, speed and hands.
Chris broke down his crazy catch against us from two years ago, but I want you to pay attention to something else.
Brady’s throw is perfect, and Gronk’s catch is ridiculous, but you know what? Watch the protection. If it wasn’t for the running back’s chip on me, that play never would’ve happened. I could’ve dipped and taken the edge on the pulling guard. See, there’s so many little things that go into a successful play, which is why I have to show some respect to the last man on my list.
Toughest Head Coach: Bill Belichick
I like Jack Del Rio, too. He knows us very well, and I have a lot of respect for him. The Raiders presented a lot of challenges when we played them in Oakland this year, but we play them again in Denver at the end of the year, so we’ll see….
But with Belichick, his genius comes from the fact that he always gameplans based on the personnel he has. He’s had Hall of Famers like Randy Moss, and he’s also had guys who you never heard of before, and no matter what, the Patriots are always contenders.
Some of the packages we see from the Patriots, I’ve never seen before on a football field.
They’ll line Gronk up way out wide at the X receiver position, and the running back will be lined up on Brady’s left side. So in my mind, I’m thinking, Damn, it’s all good. No tight end. No RB chipper in sight. Here we go. Let’s eat.
… And then all of a sudden Brady sends Gronk in slow motion back toward me, then the ball is snapped. So I release and Gronk is coming from the outside to chip me, and I don’t even see him coming. I’ve played a lot of football, but there’s still stuff the Patriots do that surprises me.
Respect to Belichick, but hey, I think we proved last year that we’ve got some tricks, too. That’s what makes football the best. This game is deeper than it might appear. For every style of football, there’s a counter.
(Bonus Shout Out)
Toughest Pop Warner Quarterback in DeSoto, Texas: Vernon Frazier
Vernon Frazier was cold. This guy was running a 4.6 40 in fifth grade. Everybody else was still running in the fives. It was hell trying to keep up with him. He was the Pop Warner Mike Vick. Shout out to Vernon.
Hopefully y’all enjoyed this and you didn’t skip right to the end. We don’t do listicles, bro!