It was March 1986 when Gunther Cunningham first experienced the
thrill of discovering a gifted pass rusher. Cunningham, the
defensive line coach for the San Diego Chargers at the time, had
traveled to Stillwater, Okla., to scout a prospect from Oklahoma
State named Leslie O'Neal. Coaches and scouts from six other NFL
teams were there when Cunningham arrived, but when he was asked
if he wanted to work out O'Neal individually, Cunningham
declined, saying that at 6'4", 251 pounds, O'Neal was too small
to play defensive end. Actually, Cunningham had already seen
enough of O'Neal and was trying to keep from tipping his hand. As
O'Neal went to work for the other scouts, Cunningham--grinning
like a mad scientist--scurried up a hill overlooking the field and
marveled at the prospect.
O'Neal displayed impressive coordination, quickness and a feel
for pass rushing that couldn't be taught. The Chargers were
impressed enough to make him the eighth pick in the '86 draft,
and O'Neal did not disappoint them. In his first season, he set
an NFL rookie record with 12 1/2 sacks, and during a 14-year
career with the Chargers, the St. Louis Rams and the Kansas City
Chiefs he has piled up 132 1/2. What Cunningham, who was reunited
with O'Neal in K.C. in 1998 and is entering his second year as
Chiefs coach, found that day in Stillwater was the kind of weapon
every team is looking for now. The pass rusher who comes from the
outside with strength, speed, athleticism and attitude has become
one of the league's glamour players, a power forward in shoulder
pads who can turn a team's fortunes around.
Last season no rookie made a bigger impact in the NFL than
Tennessee Titans defensive end Jevon Kearse (page 114). The 16th
choice in the draft, Kearse accumulated 14 1/2 sacks, won NFL
Defensive Rookie of the Year honors and helped the Titans make
the jump from three consecutive 8-8 seasons to 13-3 and within a
whisker of beating the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXIV. Maybe
that explains why it was a good off-season to be a free-agent
defensive end. Kavika Pittman, owner of 10 career sacks during a
four-year career with the Dallas Cowboys, got a seven-year, $28
million deal ($3.15 million signing bonus) from the Denver
Broncos. Orpheus Roye had one fewer sack over the same span with
the Pittsburgh Steelers, but he parlayed those nine takedowns
into a six-year, $30 million contract ($7.5 million signing
bonus) with the Cleveland Browns. Finally, Phillip Daniels, who
racked up 21 1/2 sacks in four seasons with the Seattle Seahawks,
landed a five-year, $24 million deal ($8 million signing bonus)
with the Chicago Bears.
The first two picks in the draft were a pair of Penn State
players who excel at getting to the quarterback: Defensive end
Courtney Brown went to Cleveland, and outside linebacker LaVar
Arrington was selected by the Washington Redskins. Not
coincidentally, the Redskins used the next selection to take a
player who specializes in stopping pass rushers: Alabama left
tackle Chris Samuels (page 126).
"It seems as though the prototype [pass rusher] these days is a
guy who has enough athletic ability to play basketball but can't
shoot his way onto the team," says Baltimore Ravens defensive
coordinator Marvin Lewis. "People are looking for the guy who
weighs between 225 pounds and 290 pounds. He's too big to be a
linebacker and too small to be a defensive end. LaVar Arrington
[6'3", 250 pounds] and Courtney Brown [6'4", 279 pounds] are the
kind of bodies that people are looking for."
Looking for a great pass rusher is one thing; getting your hands
on one is another. The best excel in three areas: anticipating
the snap and getting a fast first step; beating the blocker with
sound technique; and closing on the quarterback. "Getting off the
ball is everything," says Howie Long, a Hall of Fame defensive
lineman with the Oakland and Los Angeles Raiders from 1981
through '93. "If you watch the defensive line from the line of
scrimmage, you can always spot the great pass rushers because
they're off the ball a full yard ahead of everyone else."
In today's NFL, Kearse is the gold standard. When he worked out
before the 1999 draft, Kearse ran the 40 in 4.43. Even more
impressive was how quickly he covered the first 10 yards. A fast
defensive lineman may run between a 1.60 and 1.65; an average
player does maybe a 1.70 to 1.75. Kearse clocked in at 1.51
As critical as physical attributes and technique are, no player
will get to the quarterback without the right temperament. In
other words he had better be intense and driven yet patient. "If
a guy doesn't have success rushing the passer immediately, he
might start wondering if he can ever do it," says Anthony Munoz,
who thwarted many a pass rush as a Hall of Fame tackle with the
Adds Kevin Greene, who had 160 sacks during a 15-year career with
the Los Angeles Rams, Steelers, Carolina Panthers and San
Francisco 49ers, "Everybody gets blocked. A young pass rusher has
a tendency to shut down after he gets blocked once or twice. The
key is to stay alive--to keep fighting, twisting, scratching and
Ravens Pro Bowl defensive end Michael McCrary, who has had
double-digit sacks in three of his last four seasons, agrees.
"The key is not to get frustrated," he says. "You have to keep
fighting because the opportunity will come. A common mistake
among young players is that they show their move with a stance or
a certain angle, and once they get engaged, they quit."
Cunningham will have none of that. While he was the Chargers'
defensive line coach, from 1985 through '90, he established
himself as one of the most creative men in his profession, and
San Diego led the AFC in sacks three times. He's always been big
on film study, compiling a library of close to 200 videotapes of
the game's best pass rushers, from Reggie White, the NFL's
alltime sacks leader with 192 1/2, to old-school types like Deacon
Jones. Cunningham tries to match current players with these sack
icons according to their build and style. If Cunningham has a
6'5", 270-pound player, he might hand him footage of former
Broncos defensive end Rulon Jones. A 6'3", 280-pounder will go
home with tape of Long. Last season Cunningham was so impressed
with the athleticism of Chiefs second-year defensive end Mark
Word that he gave him video of O'Neal to study.
Cunningham isn't afraid to experiment, either. While visiting the
San Diego Padres clubhouse one day, he stumbled upon a large,
circular device hanging on a wall. The contraption, which was
about five feet in diameter and had 50 tiny lights, was used by
eight-time National League batting champion Tony Gwynn, among
others, to enhance hand-eye coordination. Within a few weeks
Cunningham had concocted a similar device, which was designed to
improve his players' anticipation and explosiveness. Linemen
would get in a three-point stance, then slap the board whenever a
Before the 1987 season Cunningham brought in a seventh-degree
black belt, Jim Advincula, to take his charges through exercises
that would improve their peripheral vision, balance and hand
quickness. There were skeptics. O'Neal, for one, never bought
into the program, and players would assume the "crane" position
that Ralph Macchio popularized in The Karate Kid, balancing
themselves on one leg while they raised their arms above their
heads--just to needle Advincula. Eventually, however, several
players found that the martial arts training could help them.
Cunningham believes so much in the benefits of martial arts that
he hired another expert, who calls himself Grandmaster Lee, to
work with his team last off-season. The Chiefs attended 14
sessions that lasted 45 minutes each. "When we started doing it,
I didn't see how this was going to help us," says third-year
defensive end Eric Hicks. "Then you watch tapes of other players,
and you see how it changed their game."
Although instincts can't be taught, a player can develop his
sense of anticipation and improve his ability to react. "A lot of
things are happening before the ball is snapped," Long says. "The
question is, Who's paying attention?"
Eleven-year Kansas City veteran Derrick Thomas, who died from
complications following an auto accident last January, was a
master of anticipation as he amassed 126 1/2 sacks. He focused on
the quarterback's hands while they were cupped under the center.
A drop of the bottom hand meant that the ball was being snapped,
and Thomas burst across the line of scrimmage. Ravens Pro Bowl
outside linebacker Peter Boulware watches the center. He
maintains that some centers squeeze the ball immediately before
snapping it, while others move their legs or duck their heads.
Greene studied various other aspects of the offense. "I tried to
get into the quarterback's cadence," he says. "I tried to study
the steps of the offensive linemen and how deep the quarterback
dropped. When the wide receiver goes in motion, he usually
throttles down where he's going to release into a pass pattern,
which is about the same time the ball is snapped. You can use
keys like that to get off the ball."
In today's offense-friendly NFL, pass rushers need all the help
they can get. Agile 300-pound offensive linemen have become the
norm, making getting to the quarterback all the more daunting for
the pro prospect who got by mostly on speed in college. As a
Seahawks rookie in 1993, McCrary discovered that all his speed
and aggressiveness wouldn't make a bit of difference if he didn't
learn the finer points of pass rushing. So his position coach,
Tommy Brasher, had him learn two moves a week during that first
season, while emphasizing that for every move McCrary developed
he would need a complementary one to offset the offensive
"The problem with college is that if a guy has any speed, he's
usually told to just get after the quarterback," says Rams
defensive line coach Carl Hairston, whose team tied the
Jacksonville Jaguars for the league lead with 57 sacks last
season. "But you can't run around guys anymore at this level.
They're too big."
The trend toward mobile quarterbacks and the prevalence of the
West Coast offense, which is built on short drops and quick
routes, also gives defensive players less time to reach the
quarterback. In the late 1980s, Cunningham timed quarterbacks
like John Elway, Dave Krieg and Warren Moon to measure how long
they took to throw out of the shotgun. That trio usually released
the ball from about 10 to 12 yards deep in 1.85 to 2.15 seconds.
In today's game, almost no one holds the ball that long and only
punters handle it that far from the line of scrimmage. "You still
see pass rushers who don't get that part of it," says Chiefs
defensive line coach Bob Karmelowicz. "As soon as the ball is
snapped, it's like Saturday Night Fever. They're wiggling and
shaking all over the place, trying to make a bunch of moves. You
don't have time for all that."
That's a message Cunningham repeatedly drills home. During a
minicamp in early May, he winced as he watched the inexperienced
Word take a step outside while going against 6'6", 316-pound
tackle John Tait. The coach pulled the youngster aside and
reminded him that his first step should always be toward the
quarterback. In coaches' parlance, Cunningham wanted Word to
"shorten the corner."
The move came naturally to O'Neal and Thomas, two of Cunningham's
favorites. Cunningham has had such a difficult time coping with
Thomas's death that earlier this year he moved a framed
photograph of Thomas from the wall in front of his desk to a spot
behind his left shoulder. The picture is striking. It is of an
athlete with a shaved head, sitting on his helmet on the
sideline, his back to the camera--the calm before the storm that
usually rolled in over Thomas's opponents. But while Cunningham
has put the image of Thomas behind him, he can't ignore the fact
that life in today's NFL is much tougher without a premier pass
"If you have a player with the right attitude, you can develop
him," says Cunningham. "But rushing the passer is still a special
FOUR COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHY BY BILL FRAKES
ST. LOUIS RAMS
SIXTH YEAR IN NFL
52 CAREER SACKS
The sixth pick in the '95 draft out of Florida, he led the NFL in
sacks last year, with 17.
"He's a durable guy who can beat you with a bull rush or just
plain speed. Last year he became a guy you had to devise a game
49ERS OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR MARTY MORNHINWEG
10TH YEAR IN NFL
66 1/2 CAREER SACKS
A 1991 sixth-round draft choice out of Eastern New Mexico, he led
the league in sacks in 1998 with 16 1/2, capping a three-year
stretch over which he piled up 41 1/2 takedowns.
"The toughest thing about him is his deceptive quickness. You
always have to play at a fast tempo with him because he'll sneak
up and get you."
RAIDERS TACKLE LINCOLN KENNEDY
ROOKIE YEAR IN NFL
33 SACKS IN COLLEGE
The first pick in the 2000 draft, he holds Penn State records for
career sacks and tackles for a loss, with 70.
"He plays the run and pass as well as any rookie I've ever seen,
and he plays them 100 miles an hour, in games and practice."
BROWNS CORNERBACK COREY FULLER
EIGHTH YEAR IN NFL
55 CAREER SACKS
A seventh-round draft pick of the Seahawks in 1993, the former
Wake Forest star has 46 1/2 sacks in his last 54 games and has had
a pair of four-sack afternoons in the past four years.
"He has one strength above all others: sheer relentlessness. He
would rather be rushing the passer than doing anything else on
the face of the earth."
RAVENS COACH BRIAN BILLICK