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New Research Identifies Most Effective Methods

By Mike Kuchar Senior Research Manager X&O Labs

For the last couple of Coaching Research Reports, we have centered on offensive and defensive concepts and schemes. Sure, the scheme all looks pretty on the whiteboard, but what good does it do when their X is better than your O? So what we’ve decided to do for this report is get back to the core – focus on the fundamentals of the game. And what better way to do that than start with the defensive unit up front – the backbone of any solid team. In this report, we’ll focus solely on effective pass rush moves and rush points – an area often neglected in coaching. What our researchers found astonishing was that among all problems that coaches encounter when instructing their defensive rushers, 38.3% felt that losing gap integrity was the most alarming concern.

So we’ve consulted with a select group of coaches from various levels of football – from high school through the professional ranks – to bring you a detailed report on the science of pass rushing. No need for diagrams here, we’re focused on mastering the technique.

Based on our research these are what are considered to be the most high percentage, most productive pass rush moves. It’s no nonsense content, in a way that only X&O Labs could produce. But before we get started, it all starts with the hands.

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Case 1: Coordinating the Eyes and Hands

Without question, this area seemed to be the most integral when developing a pass rush. In fact, 60.7% of our coaches train their players to lead with the eyes – meaning focus their eyes on the blocker, while feeling the QB. While most coaches would agree that the use of the hands and feet were vital in getting the QB to the turf, teaching that correlation is something many coaches spend a ton of time on – even at the highest level of football. Ray Hamilton, the defensive line coach of the Atlanta Falcons takes his entire unit through a hand placement circuit every day of practice. According to Hamilton, who has 24 years experience in the league tutoring greats such as John Abraham and John Henderson, hand placement is one of the most under taught skills in the game. 

"Everything starts with hands," says Hamilton. "We teach our defensive linemen to first identify how the offense lineman is trying to attack us. When you’re rushing the passer, if you’re at a point where you can touch him or he can touch me we call that a contact zone. As soon as you get there, it’s a boxing match; you need to have your hands ready. They need to replace his hands. We need to knock his hands off two or three times before he gets inside on us. If he can’t get his hands on you he starts to retreat by moving his feet and that’s when you got him."

Once he feels that his player is in the advantage, Hamilton then teaches a swipe move, with the aiming point being the forearm of an offensive lineman, not the wrist. "The wrist is too small an area," he says. "We go from forearm to elbow. Some guys are betting at wiping them off, knocking both down or just knocking one arm down. The key is to get his hands off as quickly as possible." In order to teach this concept, Hamilton breaks what he calls his "quick hands" segment into the following progressions for drill work:

  • Quick hands on sled from four-point stance (knees)
  • Quick hands on sled from two-point stance
  • Quick hands on sled from three-point stance
  • Quick hands and shed block on sled
  • Quick hands and feet on sled – with the use of a board behind rusher. It emphasizes the straight ahead rush rather than losing ground.

Once he feels his players have mastered the use of quick hands, he begins to teach them aiming points on offensive lineman. This doesn’t need to be relegated to a perimeter rusher. Our studies have shown that when rushers work "half the man" it cuts down surface area and allows them to get penetration. "They can never be in the middle of that guy," says Hamilton. "They need to work on an outside or inside edge. We talk about either going to New York or LA and not St. Louis. Don’t pick the middle."

Case 2: Most Effective Interior Moves (Bull Rush) Before addressing specific interior moves, it’s important to note that this doesn’t necessarily pertain to interior defensive lineman. To clarify, an interior move is used when the rusher has no pass contain responsibilities. With the frequent use of two man defensive line games and with various zone pressures, the position is not relevant. Yet, the concept of the interior rush is. When researching power moves, we’ve found that the old school "bull rush" is still widely utilized among coaches. Like many other concepts in football, the science of the bull rush has evolved enough to where it can suit the needs of all rushers, not just the brutes inside the tackle box.

This was the case for Tim Walters, an assistant coach at Destrehan High School in Louisiana. He found that the bull rush didn’t need to be pigeon holed into defensive tackles. Walters used to teach all ends and tackles different moves but he started to see athletic quarterbacks darting out of the pocket each week, so he focused on bull rushing every down. Walters teaches his players to ball key, which was true of 28% of the coaches we polled. "Once the ball is snapped, we take a quick power step to shoot hands. Our aiming point is one hand on shoulder and one hand on sternum. Thumbs should be as far apart as an Adam apple is wide. You have to punch the offensive lineman before he punches you. If he gives you a good punch and stalemates you – shock him and get on him. You need to lock out at elbows, hands above eye – take short choppy steps – without getting out of the framework of the power step. This can’t change because if it’s a run situation, we don’t want contact with one foot on the ground. We tell them to disengage once they feel the offensive lineman’s pressure coming back into them. As soon as that offensive lineman plants the back foot we take a shrug release by pulling him down and breaking wrist off."

Case 3: Most Effective Exterior Move (Power Rip)

All defensive rushers want to get to the edge because that’s where all the fun is. Once a defender gets to edge of the blocker, his arsenal is limitless. But in order to get there, you need speed. Not just any speed, speed that would get an offensive lineman on his heels. We’ve found that while many coaches at the high school level still teach the rip move – it can be a dead end street against a vertical set of an offensive tackle. "All a rip does is get you held," said Hamilton. So in order to combat that, Mickey Mays, a member of X&O Labs' research staff and the DL coach at Sequatchie County High School (TN) coaches what he calls the "power rip" move.


With over 20 years of coaching experience at the professional and college ranks, Mays teaches his players (like Walters) to play the run first. He wants his guys to control their gaps, but not to get on the tip of any lineman where they can easily be washed out of the play. In order to execute the power rip, Mays teaches his players three targets:

  • Eyes to outside armpit
  • Inside hand down the middle of offensive lineman
  • Outside hand to outside shoulder

"As soon as we see high hat we engage right into blocker. We work to turn the outside shoulder, but in order to do that we must first knock him off balance. We need to press the outside shoulder and get hips outside to clear him. Then we take a tight rip with our inside arm to his outside arm with the aiming point being the bicep. (Mays notes that if the lineman’s shoulders are turned it may in fact end up at the elbow). We turn the corner and beat him outside. But the key is to point the toe at the QB, so you don’t get washed too far outside."

Now what if the lineman doesn’t let you outside? Mays has an answer for that too. "Once his shoulders get perpendicular to the line of scrimmage and I no longer have outside access, now I use his momentum against him by jerking him forward with my outside hand and ‘slipping’ my body off his hip to get to QB level. My inside hand is going over my helmet and I jerk the outside shoulder down."

Another effective counter move that Mays uses is the "power stab," which is similar to the power rip. Instead of bringing the inside hand over the helmet, once the defensive lineman oversets, Mays will teach his players to "stab" the inside hand to attack the armpit (a natural pressure point) and run him back to the QB. "If we continue to work hard up field, at some point his shoulders will turn to us," says Mays. "Then we can execute the stab."

Researchers’ Note: You are reading the summary version of this Research Report. To access the full version of this report – including the corresponding Statistical Analysis Report featuring the raw coaching data from our research – please CLICK HERE.

Concluding Report

It’s a tall task to sum up the science of pass rushing in under 2,000 words. We realize that we’re literally just scratching the tip of the wealth of knowledge that can be expounded on these subjects. But we’ll give you pure "clinic speak" when we say we hope our researchers have found at least one coaching point you can use with your program after reading this Coaching Research Report. The good news is we’ll have plenty more research on this topic to come, just keep opening our emails.

Have questions? Post your questions or comments below and Mike Kuchar and Mickey Mays will respond.

Copyright 2011 X&O Labs



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