When fans think of NFL pass-rushers, they probably imagine edge rushers such as Micah Parsons or interior threats such as Aaron Donald. However, players like Parsons and Donald aren’t the only dangers opposing offensive coordinators gameplan for in protection plans.
In simulated pressures, defensive coordinators will call a blitz where an off-ball defender comes in, and a defensive lineman drops into coverage, creating a four-man rush. These types of blitzes can often create mismatches and catch an offensive line by surprise.
Here are the top nine blitzers in the NFL who can be defined as “off-the-ball pass rushers.”
Top 9 Off-Ball Blitzers
9. Budda Baker, S, Cardinals
It will be interesting to see if this missile gets deployed often under the new Arizona Cardinals regime. Much was made about head coach Jonathan Gannon rarely blitzing as defensive coordinator for the Philadelphia Eagles. But any coach with one of the greatest pass-rushing defensive lines of their era would elect not to blitz – especially if they also had the subtle, sound and creative twists in their split-safety coverages that Gannon did.
That said, only about three Cardinals defenders (give or take) would be starters in that Eagles lineup. With less veteran talent, the Cardinals could feel compelled to take more chances through scheme.
Remember, Gannon won’t be calling plays. Those duties were awarded to first-time coordinator Nick Rallis, who developed a rich and extensive understanding of NFL pressure concepts as a Minnesota quality control and assistant linebackers coach (2018-20). Don’t be surprised if Budda Baker still gets to attack quarterbacks in 2023 occasionally.
8. Josey Jewell & Alex Singleton, LBs, Broncos
We’re bunching them together because they played largely the same role in the Denver Broncos‘ nickel package last season. Alex Singleton did an admirable job with Josey Jewell’s dime duties when Jewell was injured.
Broncos 2022 defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero hails from the Vic Fangio tree. But contrary to that tree’s foundational philosophy, Evero, in obvious pass situations, blitzed 46 percent of the time – second most in the NFL behind the New York Giants and 50 percent more on average than the six other Fangio-schemed teams.
Those blitzers often came from legitimate second-level depth, with linebackers holding their disguise. They often had layered stunts, with the linebackers looping and intersecting on elongated pass-rushing paths. Linebackers must play fast for this to work. Singleton and Jewell consistently do.
7. Demario Davis, LB, Saints
We’re fudging just a bit here. Demario Davis is an off-the-ball player, but some of his best pass-rushing work comes when he’s aligned on the ball, which he is frequently in the New Orleans Saints‘ 3-2 dime package.
But even without those de facto standup defensive tackle snaps, Davis would make the cut. He triggers from zero-to-60 as suddenly as any linebacker, and his mechanics at the point of contact (be it against blockers or ball-handlers) are deft and violent.
6. L’Jarius Sneed, CB, Chiefs
Opposing offenses had just a 29 percent success rate on snaps where L’Jarius Sneed rushed the passer last season. It helps that he plays for one of the greatest blitz-callers ever in defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. Two things that get overlooked with Spagnuolo’s Kansas City Chiefs defense:
- How good the secondary is, especially out of split-safety contours.
- How creative and diverse the pressure packages are.
Sneed is at the epicenter of both items. Besides being a top-level corner who can cover a diverse array of different wide receivers playing both outside and inside, he is also a shrewd, physical box defender.
5. Matt Milano, LB, Bills
The Buffalo Bills blitz infrequently but are highly effective when they do, especially when you count their simulated pressure four-man rushes.
Matt Milano, who was finally recognized as an elite linebacker last season and earned First-Team All-Pro honors, is a big reason why. Per Buffalo’s philosophical approach, he frequently presents himself as a half-in, half-out part of the rush in obvious pass situations, aligning a yard or two off the ball. His pre-snap demeanor makes it difficult to determine if he’s coming or dropping.
More notable, however, is the way Milano green dogs. When he’s in man coverage, and his assigned player (usually the running back) stays in and blocks, Milano proficiently morphs into an improvised blitzer.
4. Brandon Jones, S, Dolphins
Few players are good at timing their blitzes from the second level. Brandon Jones will align directly behind a defender and not tilt toward his blitz lane until late in the quarterback’s cadence. He is not a household name because his pass-rushing excellence does not always result in him making the stop. But as a puzzle piece, Jones is superb – and the Miami Dolphins‘ defensive numbers bear that out:
Offensive success rates on third and fourth down against Miami’s defense in 2021 and 2022:
- When Jones is NOT part of the pass rush = a 44 percent offensive success rate, which would rank Miami’s defense as 29th in the NFL.
- When Jones IS part of the pass rush = a 33 percent offensive success rate, which would rank Miami first in the NFL.
New Dolphins defensive coordinator Vic Fangio runs (and invented) the league’s most popular defensive scheme, emphasizing sound coverage over designer pressure. So don’t take to Twitter when Jones’s blitz rates are low this season. They weren’t huge under the previous Dolphins regime, either. But be alert when the fourth-year safety creeps into the box, which will likely be in third-down dime situations.
3. Bobby Wagner, LB, Seahawks
The future Hall of Famer spent most of his career in the Seattle Seahawks‘ famed Cover-3 scheme, which had him covering check-downs and deep over routes a lot more than blitzing. But under new Seahawks defensive coordinator Clint Hurtt in 2021 and Los Angeles Rams defensive coordinator Raheem Morris in 2022, Bobby Wagner got more snaps as a pass rusher, both in fire zone blitzes and simulated pressures (where he thrived).
Deliberate mechanics and deceptively loose hips allow Wagner to elude guards. And he disguises his blitzes well enough to get in clean opposite a false overload pressure look occasionally.
2. Devin White, LB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Todd Bowles can comfortably play nickel in almost any situation because of linebackers Lavonte David and Devin White‘s speed. Bowles has been highly creative with interior pressure designs, and last season he sent White after the quarterback a league-high eight times per game.
White rewarded the aggression with a league-leading 12 quarterback hurries plus eight hits. Raw speed was to credit, though it helps that White plays bigger than his typical 6-foot, 237-pound size suggests.
1. Mike Hilton, CB, Cincinnati Bengals
Charles Woodson cemented his Hall of Fame credentials by transitioning into a dominant box safety late in his Green Bay Packers career. Woodson slithered through traffic and made countless impact plays while rarely squaring up and tackling someone.
Mike Hilton is similar. Unlike Woodson, Hilton is purely a slot corner. Unlike Woodson, Hilton, while a quality player, is far from Hall of Fame caliber. But Hilton’s sense of timing, play recognition, and agile, swerving angles to the ball make him one of the league’s most disruptive defenders. Importantly, Hilton displays these traits against the pass and the run.
Andy Benoit worked for Sean McVay and the Los Angeles Rams coaching staff from 2020 through 2022. Before that, he was a football analyst, writer and content producer for Peter King’s MMQB at Sports Illustrated, CBS Sports and The New York Times. You can follow him on Twitter @Andy_Benoit.