Wednesday, December 28, 2011

2011: Year of the NFL Pass Rusher

Due to recent rule changes in the NFL designed to protect receivers and quarterbacks, the league has become a passing-friendly league, which has resulted in a pass rushing-friendly league as well. As more and more teams take to the air, opposing defenses are doing whatever it takes to get to the quarterback.

As a result, three players have recorded 17.0 or more sacks this season, as opposed to zero last year and one in 2009. Broncos rookie linebacker Von Miller and defensive end Elvis Dumervil have combined for 21.0 sacks this season, with 9.5 of them coming from Dumervil over the past eight weeks.

On Sunday in Denver, two of the AFC's top rushers — Miller and Kansas City's Tamba Hali — will face off a month before playing as teammates in the NFL's Annual All-Star Game in January. If the Broncos win on Sunday, they'll clinch the AFC West and their first post-season appearance since the 2005 season.

The winner of Sunday's game may be the team that applies the most pressure on defense. During Denver's five game winning streak from Week 9 through Week 13, Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow was sacked six times. Over the past three weeks, Tebow has been sacked 13 times and Denver has gone 1-2.

When the Broncos started the year 1-4, quarterback Kyle Orton was sacked nine times. Over the past two weeks, Orton has been sacked just once and the Chiefs have gone 1-1, defeating the Green Bay Packers before losing to the Oakland Raiders a week later in overtime.

The Broncos and Chiefs — as well as every other team in the NFL — perform best when their quarterbacks are protected. When Denver and Kansas City met in Week 11, the game was somewhat of a run-fest. While the same may be true this week, the team that disrupts the opposing quarterback the most will come out on top if recent trends continue.

When the Broncos were defeated in Buffalo last week, it marked the first time in Tebow's career that he had lost back-to-back games as a Pro — he has never lost three consecutive games.

“At the end of the day it comes down to beating the man across from you and us executing well,” Defensive end Robert Ayers said on Wednesday. Ayers has recorded career highs in sacks this season (2.0), benefiting from Denver's disruptive pass rush.

Last season, the Broncos recorded a league-low 23 sacks. This season, under defensive coordinator Dennis Allen, Denver's defense has recorded the seventh most sacks (40), following Dumervil's return from injury and the arrival of Miller via last April's draft.

Forcing Orton to make mistakes and preventing Tebow from committing mistakes will be Denver's keys to victory on Sunday. A victory over the Chiefs or an Oakland loss will win the division for the Broncos.

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