Edge rushers are extremely important in today's NFL. Just maybe not quite as important as we think. I know this hurts my brand, but the truth is that interior pressure is undeniably more valuable to a defense than edge pressure. Justis Mosqueda (@JuMosq on Twitter) is the first one who brought my attention to this idea.
This may seem like an unconventional concept since we traditionally think of interior defensive linemen as run defense oriented. Think about it, though. If a quarterback is pressured on the edge, all he needs to do in order to maintain a clean pocket is to step up away from the pressure. Climbing the pocket and delivering an accurate pass is a pretty easy task for most quarterbacks, or at least good ones. Interior Pressure is a different animal all together. Even the best of quarterbacks can be easily flustered by a collapsing pocket. It's as if a car bomb is blowing up in the face of the quarterback. No matter how poised of a passer, that car bomb is going to abandon his frame of mind and flee the scene (in this case abandoning his progression and scrambling from the pocket. All pressure is valuable, but anytime a quarterback is forced to abandon the pocket and break down the structure of a play the defense gains a huge advantage.
This concept is what helps make Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett such as a highly touted pass rusher. Bennett is a fantastic player in his own right. That, combined with the way the Seahawks employ his talents, maximizes the return. Bennett is built big for traditional defensive end, listed at 6'4" and 274 pounds, but plays even bigger. The Seahawks use that size to shift Bennett around the defensive line, playing just as much on the interior as on the edge. Using Bennett to create more valuable interior pressure, instead of less valuable edge pressure, is one of the largest driving forces behind the success of Seattle's defense.
Bennett's Pressure Production results provide a look at his performance in 2015.
The Situational Success Rates chart effectively demonstrates the role in which Bennett has been used by the Seahawks this season. Most EDGE rushers take the large majority of their snaps, usually more of 80%, on the edge. Bennett has an exactly even split of attempts on the edge and interior. Bennett's success has also been evenly split between both areas. He has created pressure 38.2% of the time (21 out of 55) on edge attempts and 40% of the time (22 out of 55) on interior attempts. Seattle also effectively employs Bennett on stunt rushes, which allows Bennett to rush on the edge when lined up on the interior and vice versa.
When facing one blocker on his pass rush attempts, Bennett has success more frequently than any of the other 22 EDGE rushers charted. At a 44.8% clip he creates pressure on 1.8% more of his attempts than the next highest player, Justin Houston. That may not be a very significant difference, but when dropping to the 10th best the difference becomes 6.2%. That equates to around 2 extra pressures per game. Bennett doesn't have quite the same success against double teams. His 17.4% success rate isn't anything to frown at, either, as it is still one of the 10 best in the 22 player sample.
Overall, Bennett has created pressure on 39.1% of his 110 attempts. That is good for third best this season, behind only Justin Houston (by 1.5%) and Jadeveon Clowney (by 0.1%).
Bennett has one of the more evenly distributed Reason for Pressure charts of the 22 players charted. He creates the largest percentage of his pressures (32.5%) employing a bull rush and the least percentage of his pressures (2.3%) on a spin move, coverage, and being left unblocked. Bennett is also very effective when using a rip move (16.3% of his pressures), a swim move (11.6% of his pressures), a shoulder dip (13.9%), and an explosive initial jump (18.6%). Bennett's versatility in this regard, as well as his ability to line up in various positions on the defense line, maximizes his talent level and forces offensive linemen to be prepared for anything when blocking him. On any given play Bennett could line up at 3-tech and run a stunt around the edge of the offensive line, line up over the center and beat him with a quick first step, or line up wide of the offensive tackle and bull rush right through him.
Once Bennett does create pressure, he does a great job of converting that pressure into sacks. The majority of EDGE rushers lie right around 10% or slightly lower. Bennett's 16.3% percent Sack Conversion Rate is 5th best out of the 22 players charted. Anyone who can create pressure as consistently as Bennett can and then convert that pressure into sacks at a high rate will be an invaluable piece to the success of their defense. Michael Bennett is just that.
With the way the Seahawks optimize Bennett's talents the Steelers could be in for a long day of pressure on Sunday. Especially against a team that is employing two reserves as starters, Bennett's tendency to move around on the defensive line and be used on various stunts could put a strain on the offensive line. Communication among offensive linemen is key in this situation and I'm not sure that the Steelers offensive line has enough experience playing together to effectively combat Bennett.
It will be especially important to stop Seattle's pass rush with a hobbled Ben Roethlisberger, who has been injured twice this season, at quarterback. We could see Todd Haley call a number of shorter pass plays targeting Antonio Brown and Heath Miller instead of deeper attempts to Martavis Bryant. I also think we see Mike Munchak focus two blockers on Bennett for much of the game, forcing the Seahawks to create pressure with other members of their defense line. Regardless of how the Steelers choose to combat him, Michael Bennett is an extremely difficult pass rusher to stop and should continue to be so for the rest of the season.