Last weekend’s divisional round was filled with unexpected twists and turns — and not just from Patrick Mahomes‘s ankle. The football world was treated to a surprisingly close game between the upstart Jacksonville Jaguars and Kansas City Chiefs. It also saw a defensive masterpiece from the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers. Sandwiched between those two contests were blowouts courtesy of the Philadelphia Eagles and Cincinnati Bengals. The divisional round featured eight teams that have uniquely different styles of play, which is to be expected in professional football.
But at the end of the day, the eight teams that played last weekend all shared the same particular characteristic. And no, it’s not the one you’ve probably heard a time or two over the past week. This has nothing to do with the fact that each of their respective quarterbacks had dual-threat capabilities with their legs.
What unifies all eight teams that made the divisional round this year was their front fours and the desire to consistently re-invest in their pass rush.
Let’s start with the Cowboys. Over the past three years, Dallas invested a first-round pick in Micah Parsons, a second-round pick in Sam Williams, and third-round picks in Neville Gallimore, Osa Odighizuwa, and Chauncey Golston. That’s five Day 1 or Day 2 picks over the past three drafts. And this came after already having former 2018 fourth-round pick DeMarcus Lawrence as an anchor up front.
On Sunday against the 49ers, Dallas’ front did everything they could to win the game:
- Parsons: 8 pressures & 27.6% pressure rate
- Odighizuwa: 4 pressures & 18.2% pressure rate
- Lawrence: 3 pressures & 13.6% pressure rate
Speaking of the 49ers. Let’s dissect their resource allocation into their front four. They currently have three former first-round picks in Arik Armstead, Nick Bosa, and Javon Kinlaw up front. They also spent a 2022 second-round pick on edge rusher Drake Jackson. What really ties this front together is the home runs they hit by trading a sixth-round pick to the Houston Texans at the 2021 trade deadline for edge rusher Charles Omenihu, and signing Samson Ebukam to a two-year, $12 million deal in free agency back in 2021.
Here’s how DeMeco Ryans‘ front performed in their win against the Cowboys:
- Bosa: 5 pressures & 13.9% pressure rate
- Armstead: 5 pressures & 15.6% pressure rate
- Ebukam: 4 pressures & 12.5% pressure rate
- Omenihu: 2 pressures & 15.4% pressure rate
Staying in the NFC, the Eagles are leading the charge in prioritizing its pass rush after what general manager Howie Roseman accomplished this season. Instead of relying on longtime anchors and former first-round picks in Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham, Roseman signed edge rusher Haason Reddick to a three-year, $45 million this past offseason in free agency. Two years after signing defensive tackle Javon Hargrave to a three-year, $39 million in free agency.
Mind you, the Eagles already had edge rusher Josh Sweat in the fold before signing both Reddick and Hargrave in free agency. The Eagles also traded up in the 2022 draft to select Jordan Davis at 13th overall. And just in case this Monstars pass rush needed even more, Roseman traded a 2023 fourth-round pick to the Chicago Bears for edge rusher Robert Quinn. And just for shits and giggles, they signed potential future Hall of Famer Ndamukong Suh for the stretch run.
Philadelphia’s front dominated on Saturday against the New York Giants, just as they’ve done all season:
- Reddick: 7 pressures & 29.2% pressure rate
- Sweat: 4 pressures & 17.4% pressure rate
- Hargrave: 2 pressures & 8.7% pressure rate
- Cox: 5 pressures & 25.0% pressure rate
- Davis: 2 pressures & 20.0% pressure rate
- Graham: 3 pressures & 42.9% pressure rate
- Suh: 0 pressures
- Quinn: 0 pressures
Moving over to the AFC, let’s start with the Buffalo Bills, who were without their crown-jewel pass rusher in Von Miller. The Bills placed the two-time Super Bowl champion on IR earlier this season when he suffered a knee injury. This came after the Bills signed him to a six-year, $120 million deal in free agency this past offseason. What’s interesting about Buffalo signing Miller to a massive free-agency deal is that their front office was already investing significant resources into its front four. They had previously spent three first-round picks on Shaq Lawson, Ed Oliver, and Gregory Rousseau. And in 2020, they spent a second-round pick on A.J. Epenesa.
Granted, Buffalo’s defensive front didn’t perform well against the Bengals on Sunday. But it certainly wasn’t due to negligence from its front office.
The Bengals have built their dynamic front differently than the previous teams mentioned. Instead of investing first- or second-round picks, they’ve spent three third-round picks since 2018 on Sam Hubbard, Joseph Ossai, and Zachary Carter. The real showstoppers of this front have come via trade and free agency. Two weeks before the start of the 2021 season, Cincinnati traded backup center Billy Price to the Giants for defensive tackle B.J. Hill. Cincinnati would re-sign Hill to a three-year, $30 million deal this past offseason. In 2020, they signed defensive tackle D.J. Reader to a four-year, $53 million deal in free agency. The following year they signed edge rusher Trey Hendrickson to a four-year, $60 million deal in free agency.
Here’s how Cincinnati’s front completely (and literally) erased Josh Allen and the Bills:
- Hill: 3 pressures & 8.1% pressure rate
- Hubbard: 3 pressures & 8.8% pressure rate
- Ossai: 2 pressures & 7.1 pressure rate
- Hendrickson: 4 pressures & 17.4 pressure rate
- Reader: 5 pressures & 22.7% pressure rate
The headlines surrounding the Chiefs are justifiably directed to Mahomes, Travis Kelce, Andy Reid, and the offense. But general manager Brett Veach and his front office have quietly invested sizeable resources into their front four. It started in 2016 by spending a second-round pick on All-Pro defensive tackle Chris Jones. In 2019, they traded their first-round pick to the Seattle Seahawks for edge rusher Frank Clark and immediately signed him to a five-year, $104 million extension. They recently spent a first-round pick in the 2022 draft on edge rusher George Karlaftis.
Although the stat sheet on Saturday against the Jacksonville Jaguars doesn’t necessarily wow anybody aside from Jones, Clark’s impact can’t be forgotten. On Kansas City’s defensive drive immediately before Chad Henne‘s 98-yard scoring drive, Clark singlehandedly took points off the board for the Jags. On second-and-five from Kansas City’s 25-yard line, Clark drew a 10-yard tripping penalty after easily beating Jacksonville’s left tackle. And on the very next play, Clark sacked Trevor Lawrence, which took the Jaguars out of field goal range.
- Jones: 6 pressures & 14.6% pressure rate
- Clark: 3 pressures & 7.5% pressure rate
- Karlaftis: 0 pressures
Why is this exercise so important, you might ask? Because defensive fronts that can dominate playoff football games don’t just fall out of the sky. They require serious investment by way of the draft, free agency, and/or trade. And every team mentioned today has spent multiple years building their front four into units that play a tremendous role in their respective team’s chances of being a legitimate contender.
When it comes to the Minnesota Vikings, they have simply overlooked their defensive front for far too long. Was signing 2022 Pro Bowler Za’Darius Smith to a three-year, $42 million free agency deal a serious step in the right direction? Absolutely. The Vikings don’t win 13 regular-season games and the NFC North without him. And spending a 2015 third-round pick on Danielle Hunter has proven to be one of the best draft picks in recent franchise history. But, aside from those two, the resources have simply gone elsewhere — most notably the defensive backfield. Granted, Dalvin Tomlinson is a good, not great, player. His 51 pressures and 7.2% pressure rate over the past two years reflects that. Still, I won’t complain about Rick Spielman signing him to a two-year, $21 million deal in 2021.
This past weekend showed the football world what it requires to be a team that is taken seriously in the playoffs. And that means front offices must take big and successful swings at building a dominant front four that can shut down elite offenses instead of relying on a surplus of defensive backs.
The Vikings haven’t spent a first- or second-round pick on their front four since Sharrif Floyd in 2013. And when you compare that to the actual contenders in the league, it should come as no surprise that the Purple and Gold have resorted to a laughingstock defensively over the past three years.