On Pass Rush: Nick Mullens is Sore

The reunion between Richard Sherman and the Seattle Seahawks had the former’s teammates flying back to San Francisco with their tails between their legs. This had a lot to do with the pressure brought on the 49ers quarterback du jour, Nick Mullens. A three-sack day is a respectable total, but nothing to write home about in and of itself. Luckily, that figure is accompanied by twelve additional quarterback hits the Seahawks’ defense generated.

And here I am, writing home about it.

Jarran Reed headlined, tallying six hits and a sack, with two of said hits resulting in very, very near-sacks. Reed was drafted in the second round of the 2016 draft with the mind that he would become a dominant block-eating, run-stuffing 1-technique defensive lineman that would replace the Brandon Mebane sized hole at that spot, with not much put on his shoulders by way of pressure production expectation. His NFL run defense has displayed the technique and resolve from his days at Alabama that got him drafted. But in an interesting twist, Reed’s development as a pass-rusher year to year has been on a healthy incline and, to date, presents to the world (and more importantly quarterbacks) a near…elite interior pass rusher? At 3-technique? Who would have thought? Truly. In college, his pass rush production was nearly non-existent and the tape seemed to explain why. Judging from his combine performance, he lacks the requisite athletic traits (generally reflected in the 10-yard split, broad and vertical jumps, and 3-cone) conducive to being an explosive penetrator. These aspects still seem to hold. Yet the performance and quarterback-eating endure. Despite a lack of pronounced lower-body explosion, Reed manages to beat the lineman aligned opposite him and pressure the quarterback at the clip he currently is essentially through excellent technique and grind through the snap.

The building block of his pass-rush (although his entire rush tool-kit is hardly limited to this) is found in his bullrush, the effectiveness of which is a carry-over of his run defense technique. He comes out of his stance firing his hands and extending his hips, with his feet soon to follow. Establishing inside hand positioning on the guard’s or center’s chest allows him to take control of his blocker.

Despite the absence of quick twitch and explosive power of someone like Geno Atkins or Aaron Donald, Reed does possess their brute strength to capitalize on his consistently expert hand placement and leverage. His effective bullrush is not unique to this year, however. He registered performances last year of gaining pressures by crudely bullying guards back into quarterbacks’ laps.

What remained to be seen was whether or not Reed could convert his blocker-control into earlier wins in the snap through use of counters to become a more frequent factor in the passing game. This year has seen Reed shedding blocks and getting lateral with a sickness and rate hitherto undreamt of by Seattle interior defensive lineman during the Carroll era. That is said with no disrespect to the likes of Brandon Mebane, Clinton McDonald, and the perhaps underappreciated Sheldon Richardson (who should’ve been retained but that’s neither here nor there — well, Minnesota technically).

And versus the 49ers, Reed put forth a masterclass in unfurling a pass rush plan primarily built off a devastating power bullrush.

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On this 3rd and 4, the 49ers come out in 11 personnel, and Seattle shows pressure with Wagner sugaring the A-gaps. Dion Jordan, aligned at right edge, appears to have a green-dog call, and either rushes if the back stays in to protect or must match the back if he releases. The back leaks out, but Wagner’s pre-snap alignment is enough to get the defensive line the desired mano a mano matchups.

While the focus is on Reed here, it is difficult to ignore Wagner’s ludicrous blitz swimming over the center and leaving him on the ground. After all, Wagner gets Mullens moving to his left, where Reed, rushing from right 3-technique, opens the door on the left guard and just has to get upfield on him to deliver the hit. Reed sets this up rushing speed to the left guard’s outside half, engaging with a strong arm to the guard’s chest while his outside arm gains arm control on the guard’s outside arm and forklifts him up and off of his (Reed’s) body. His penchant for controlling blockers’ hands, in addition to knocking them off balance with initial hand placement, negates the need for devastating explosiveness. This is something that Reed proves throughout the entirety of this match-up.

This rep comes from left 3-technique. Reed sets up wide before converting to power on the right guard:

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Reed’s drift to the outside forces the guard to open up his stance a bit which Reed uses to optimize his angle to corner. While I did harp on Reed’s sub-optimal measurables, he is no stiff. Here is another angle:

After his initial bob to the outside, Reed starts to angle his hips back toward the guard and drops his pads for a violent knock-back of a bullrush. He has obtained control over the blocker simultaneous to wrapping his hips around toward Mullens. He finishes the guard with a rip and displays excellent dip to get under him and get to the quarterback for a hit.

Again from left 3-technique, Reed rushes straight for the right guard’s centerline and bulls him with the aforementioned expert technique.

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Reed is able to grind through the guard for multiple steps before shedding him with a club-arm-over to get inside and force a throwaway.

Aligned at 3-tech once more, Reed fires out of his stance with his bullrush.

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Reed establishes power and deliberately starts sliding his hips through the B-gap, opening up the guard’s hips in the process. Having him on the retreat and off-balance from the jump, Reed takes advantage, feigning a rip so as to completely sell the outside rush, and then spinning off of it into a clean path at Mullens who wisely gets rid of the ball on sight.

Once again, Reed bullrushes this poor right guard, extends his left arm to toss him out of the play and swims over for good measure, flattening Mullens.

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This was called for roughing the passer. While the flag is nothing but Big Quarterback guarding its henhouse, it’s hard to disagree with the qualifier. He really put the hurt on this guard and Mullens all day.

Reed simply has a preternatural sense of hand use and fluid hip maneuvering to manufacture angles and free himself in the backfield.

Ironically, his one sack on the night (that also ended the night) was hardly his most impressive rep, but he shows off his underrated mobility and frankly, speed, on this stunt here:

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Coming from the opposite B-gap, Quinton Jefferson smashes the A-gap and condenses the interior offensive line well enough for Reed, who times his scrape perfectly and loops around into Mullens who thought he was moving into vacated space.

It would also behoove offenses to not leave Reed unblocked:

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There goes that speed again that I claimed he doesn’t have.

Reed’s been having himself a season as a pass rusher, but his outing against the 49ers might’ve been the best of his career. His skillset is fully fleshed out this point. His understanding of how to use his strengths and maximize himself reminds of Michael Bennett in that he too is/was limited in his athleticism yet put forth nearly elite — if not fully elite — pressure rates.

While Reed stole the show, he wasn’t the only one to make his presence felt.

Quinton Jefferson’s speed and power put San Francisco’s guards to task frequently. Rushing from a wide right 3-technique, Jefferson eats up ground quickly before slightly angling his path toward the guard to get him lunging and committed toward bracing.

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Jefferson quickly swipes his arms away and provides himself a clean corner and thus a clean path toward a retreating Mullens who also faces slot pressure from Coleman.

On Wagner’s pick-6, Jefferson gains enough depth in the backfield to make Mullens fire off-balanced.

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These two plays are microcosmic of Jefferson’s skill set and what have made him a factor all year. His heavy hands complement his lateral agility and raw power, which are traits that he can continue to build off of.

On the final drive, while Reed was taking over, Clark nearly had himself a sack on this devastating bullrush of his own:

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Standing up off left edge, Clark rushes upfield, eating up grass so quickly that the right tackle has to literally flip his hips like a cornerback trying to keep up with a wide receiver running a go-route. This instantly throws off any balance the tackle has, of which Clark reads and converts to power decimating him. It is by the grace of a higher power that Mullens is able to get the ball out and not get sucked into the black hole that is Frank Clark trying to pad his stats at the end of a game.

Brandon Jackson managed some shine as well.

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It is unclear if this was a designed stunt or if happenstance just made it look like one, but here he walks back the guard deep enough to allow space for Jacob Martin to scrape over, and wrap around the tackle for a quarterback hit.

On the final drive, Jackson nearly sacks Mullens:

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The right tackle sets deep in the pocket. Jackson elects to rush speed but is forced to convert to power due to the set of the tackle. He drops his pads, gets underneath the tackle and lifts his outside half out of the play into a shot at Mullens.

The cumulative performance was encouraging, but, again, everything comes back to Jarran Reed.

Recent weeks have seen Reed reach new heights. He has been having a marvelous season rushing the passer, but is now firmly in league with some of the NFL’s best interior rushers and currently sits tied at sixth in sacks among DT’s. I admit that while I saw potential in his pass rush ability, I never would have fathomed he’d be able to dispense blockers in the manner and frequency that he is.

Seattle found its three-technique it has so long desired in the Pete Carroll era.

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