Now there is no question that having an active pass rush is beneficial to a defense, but in reality there isn't a direct correlation between number of sacks and winning. The Redskins are a prime example of this as in 2009 they finished in the top 10 in the league in sacks with 40, yet only managed 4 wins. Fast forward a year and the Redskins sack total plummets to 29 good for 25th in the league, yet the Redskins win just 6 games. Well if wins aren't an accurate indicator of how effective a pass rush can be what is?
In truth there is no single stat that will tell you the impact of an effective pass rush, mainly because there isn't a single stat that defines the pass rush. While we are most familiar with sacks as a measure, and they are the best because there are only two outcomes a sack results in, either a basic sack and loss of yardage, or a fumble and a potential change of possession. While sacks are the best measure there are two other important categories to look at, hits and pressures. While neither are as good as a sack, they both cause numerous interceptions and incomplete passes. Penalties are another factor that aren't even measured in traditional stats, yet occur more with quality pass rushers. There isn't a holding call at the end of last year's season opener if Brian Orakpo wasn't a quality pass rusher. And it isn't just holding calls, as you are more likely to see false starts as well when facing a higher quality competition.
The other issue in determining the effectiveness of a pass rush is that a few dominant players can have a huge impact that a team's overall sack total might be low, but they are still effective. Two perfect examples are the Ravens and Colts (the Ravens had two less sacks than the Skins, while the Colts had one more). While their sack totals, pressures and hits are nearly the same as the Redskins (slightly better overall), they were far more feared because they each had a pair of players (Suggs and Ngata and Freeney and Mathis) that could just take over games. On the flip side you have teams that don't even have a single star pass rusher, but get by with schemes and just a number of very good players. Both the Jets and Patriots are examples of this, neither team had an elite pass rusher last year. Instead they were more aggressive in blitzing from multiple spots, and getting the most out of every man out on the field. Of course the ultimate goal is to combine the star player with the scheme mentality, so that way not only do they have to try to neutralize one or two stars, but they also have to worry about any number of blitzes from quality players. This is exactly what the Steelers do, and what the goal for the Redskins should be.
Last year with the exception of Brian Orakpo and Albert Haynesworth when he wanted to play or wasn't in Mike Shanahan's dog house the Redskins simply didn't have the talent to get to the quarterback. Vonnie Holliday generated some pressure and if he was the fourth best pass rusher on the team it would have been fine, but the fact that he was the second best (usually) meant the Redskins were in trouble. Adam Carriker was forced more often than naught to play the pass, which wasn't his strong suit. This led to below average production and ensured that opposing quarterbacks didn't have much to fear. Kedric Golston, Ma'ake Kemoeatu and Phillip Daniels also saw quite a few snaps, and their level of play, left the Redskins far out of the reaches of the QB. At rush linebacker opposite Orakpo the Redskins went with the out of position Andre Carter and their utility star Lorenzo Alexander who due to the scheme change was not only out of position, but he wasn't in shape for the role.
This year though is a new day, as only Orakpo, Carriker and Alexander return (Golston as well, but he shouldn't see too many snaps). And of those only Orakpo will be a primary pass rusher. Carriker will still get quite a few snaps, but the majority of them should come against the run. And Alexander is likely to see time in nickle situations and spot duty, but he will no longer be relied upon to be an edge rusher. In their place the Redskins added Barry Cofield, Stephen Bowen and rookies Jarvis Jenkins and Ryan Kerrigan. Here is a quick look at how these guys might impact the Redskins:
Barry Cofield: Cofield's four sacks last year would have been second on this team, while his 10 QB hits would have been tops for Washington. His 14 pressures would have tied for third on the team. There is a question of how he does with the scheme change, but he should offer quite a bit more pressure than Kemoeatu from the nose tackle position.
Stephen Bowen: Isn't a sack machine as evidenced by his 5.5 career sacks, but he does get after the quarterback quite a bit. He has 44 pressures over the last two years combined, and ranks as one of the better 3-4 defensive end's at getting after the quarterback.
Jarvis Jenkins: Jenkins didn't have great sack numbers in college, but much of that had to do with the scheme that he was being asked to play. He was asked to occupy blockers so his defensive ends could get all the glory, but that doesn't mean that he can't get after the QB. During Senior Bowl week Jenkins consistently got a good deal of pressure in both one on one matchups and full team drills. Washington shouldn't expect a ton of sacks, but he will push the pocket and generate some pressure.
Ryan Kerrigan: Kerrigan will be Orakpo's bookend, and potentially the best pickup made this offseason when it comes to improving the pass rush. He was highly productive in college at getting after the quarterback, and has continually shown good instincts. He is going from defensive end to rush linebacker, so there could be an adjustment, but he has a lot of potential.
Overview: Although I'd expect a pretty good sized jump in the Redskins sack numbers, the true test will be on improving the hits and pressures on quarterbacks as well. Washington may or may not have added another top level pass rusher in Ryan Kerrigan (and what he does this year doesn't mean he won't develop into one), but what they did do is improve across the board. Now considering how low the bar was set last year, that wasn't too hard to do, but it looks like they made significant steps. They might not have the star power, but guys like Bowen, Cofield and Jenkins will be a big improvement, and help allow the Redskins to get more aggressive with their blitz packages. They aren't on the Steelers level yet, but they are poised to take the step to the Jets/Patriots level of defense (as related to the pass rush).
Steve Shoup has been a Redskins fan his entire life and dreams of the day they get back to the glory days of his youth. In addition to his regular piece on Hogs Haven, you can find his daily writings at Fanspeak.com.