During the 15th century, a young Leonardo da Vinci was the greatest artist of his time. 500 years later, the NFL’s class of 2011 sack artists are etching their names into league record books.
While the rookie Treacherous Three of Russell Athletics, Andrew Luck and RG3 embark on their crusade against ravenous defenses, young sack artists led by J.J. Watt, Aldon Smith and Von Miller are rising from the trenches to knock ‘em out.
Like da Vinci, the class of 2011 isn’t waiting to leave their mark all over the league. Instead of splashing paint onto canvases, these pass rushers are splattering the NFL’s protected species all over the gridiron.
After watching Mark McGwire shatter Roger Maris’ 37-year-old single season home run record in 1998, Brett Favre predicted that it would take just as long for Marino’s single-season touchdown record to fall. Not only did Maris’ record become a casualty of the Steroid Era just three years later, but both Tom Brady and Peyton Manning made Marino’s record mincemeat. League-wide pass attempts are rising quicker than Two Chainz popularity.
Eleven years after Michael Strahan (fifth in career sacks) painted the defensive Mona Lisa with his 22.5 sacks, a pair of 23-year-old sack da Vinci’s donning the 99 digits are in pursuit of his record.
This season marks the 30th anniversary of the sack’s official birth in 1982. During its nascent years of record book recognition, defensive players were credited with OTAPs or "Opponents Tackled Attempting Passes."
However, the 1985 Draft is recognized as the genesis of the golden generation of pass rushers. Led by No.1 overall pick Bruce Smith, who would retire as King of QB KOs, ‘85 also hatched Kevin Greene and Chris Doleman.
Doleman retired in second place in the league’s post-’82 OTAP tabulations. Greene recorded more sacks than any linebacker in NFL history. The ’85 season also witnessed the late great Reggie White make his NFL debut and two years later, White gathered 20 sacks in a lockout-shortened 12- game season.. Spotting his name throughout defensive record books, you would think he invented sacks.
That quartet comprises the NFL’s top four career sacks leaders. Aldon Smith, Miller and Watt are sacks symbols of a new generation. Only eight pass rushers have ever lassoed 20 sacks in a single season and this season may witness three second-year players from the same draft class reach that magical number.
Smith leads the 49ers Gold (Pass) Rush from the 3-4 OLB position after recording 14 sacks in his rookie season as a situational player on passing downs. He’s outpaced White as the NFL’s fastest player to 30 sacks.
However, Denver’s 237-pound 4-3 OLB Von Miller swooped up the Rookie Defensive Player of the Year Award in the shadow of Tebowmania and has been a key cog in Denver’s top ten ranked passing defense. Smith propelled himself towards Strahan’s record by collecting a Monday Night Football record 5.5 sacks against the Bears, but he’s also in the midst of a two-game sackless streak.
Out of the triumvirate, J.J. Watt is the true Renaissance Man of 2011’s Advanced Placement pass rushing class. Not only is Watt two sacks behind Strahan, but the 6-5, 295 pound 3-4 DE is also half Howie Long/Half Bill Russell. In his Wild Card playoff debut last season, Watt gave a sneak preview of his breakout season by using his anticipation skills to time Andy Dalton’s throw, and scampered to the end zone for a pick-six.
The ex-Wisconsin tight end dubbed J.J. Swatt, has used his lengthy wingspan to deflect more passes at the line this season than any defensive lineman in league history after eclipsing Reggie White’s NFL record of 13.
Watt has a daunting task ahead in Week 17 against the Colts if he expects to swat down Strahan’s record. However, in his Week 15 matchup against Indianapolis, Watt sacked Luck three times. Three more would give him the record. Needless to say, for defenders of the 2011 class, the thirst for quarterbacks begins, but doesn’t end with Watt, Miller and Smith.
Redskins hybrid 3-4 OLB and pickpocket Ryan Kerrigan hasn’t missed a down in two seasons and has returned his two career interceptions for a matching pair of touchdowns. In a Sunday must-win against the Philadelphia Eagles, the FBS Division’s all-time leader in forced fumbles sacked Nick Foles twice including a discount forced fumble , which the Redskins recovered in their own territory to raise his 2012 sacks total to 9.5.
After recording five sacks as a rookie, Rams defensive missile Robert Quinn has doubled his output in his first season as a full-time starter opposite Chris Long, and has given St. Louis’ its best pass rushing ends since Grant Winstrom and Kevin Carter were wreaking havoc on Lovie Smith’s Super Bowl defense. If defensive coordinator Greg Williams’ suspension is lifted next season, Quinn’s best days are ahead of him.
The defensive revolution is here. Quarterbacks beware.