The AFC West is filled with elite edge rushers. And last season the division added another one in Melvin Ingram. Jon Ledyard breaks down why the former first round draft pick took a leap into the upper echelon of NFL pass rushers.
Sometimes we let the word “bust” escape our fingertips on the keyboard a bit too soon, cutting short the beauty of a raw prospect’s growth from the collegiate level to the NFL. While it is true that the majority of premier pass rushers take a big step in production during their second or third seasons, exceptions have been noted in the form of edge defenders James Harrison, Jerry Hughes, Whitney Mercilus, Michael Bennett and others, showing that it does occasionally take more time to blossom at the position.
For the San Diego Chargers’ Melvin Ingram, that step came in 2015, when the outside linebacker finally began to make good on the team’s first-round investment with 10.5 sacks, the vast majority of which were of the high-quality variety. In examining Ingram’s tape, I was extremely impressed at how far he’s come as a pass rusher, yet shocked at how little publicity he’s received despite this fact. In the AFC West, pass-rushing is basically a rite of passage for edge defenders, and 2016 could be the season in which Ingram begins to be mentioned with the likes of Kansas City’s Justin Houston, Denver Super Bowl MVP Von Miller and Oakland’s Khalil Mack.
This area is where I typically begin when evaluating any edge rusher, and Ingram does not disappoint. Injuries and a heavier frame kept him from showing off an elite burst early in his career, but the outside linebacker dropped 25 pounds last offseason, playing at 240 after spending most of his collegiate and early NFL career at 265. Carrying a lighter frame allows Ingram to maximize his athleticism and move more fluidly, making him a nightmare for offensive tackles to contend with off the snap.
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Ingram explodes out of his stance before Cardinals left tackle Jared Veldheer (#68) can even move, putting the lineman in a disadvantageous position almost immediately. Veldheer lunges to attempt to bump Ingram slightly off track, but the pass rusher does an excellent job of fending off the tackle’s feeble efforts with an active left hand.
Something subtle to note: Even though Ingram knows he can probably clear Veldheer’s hands with pure quickness on this play, he still utilizes proper hand technique at the top of the arc to ensure he won’t be impeded on his way to the passer. Textbook.
Speed Rush / Athleticism
Of course, Ingram’s success still begins with that beautiful burst off the football, a trait not every pass rusher possesses. His explosiveness allows him to consistently win with speed rushes off the edge, forcing offensive tackles to attempt to match his quickness up the arc.
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The athleticism almost speaks for itself here, but what I love is that Ingram isn’t careless in his attention to detail. By keeping his shoulders square up the field, he gives Ravens left tackle James Hurst (#74) a very small target to land a punch, forcing the lineman to hold him as a last resort. Even that illegal tactic doesn’t fare well for Hurst, as Ingram shrugs him free to finish the play with a sack.
Not every tackle is as easy to defeat on the edge as Hurst however, so the need for variety is still crucial, even for an edge rusher as twitched-up as Ingram.
This is probably my favorite sack of Ingram’s season, as the outside linebacker uses an inside-out stutter step to beat Bears left tackle Charles Leno (#72).
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It’s a gorgeous move by Ingram, who ties Leno in knots by stepping hard inside, forcing the offensive tackle to pinch down and shift all his weight to his set foot (inside foot). As soon as this happens, Ingram knows he has Leno beat to the outside, as the lineman’s wide stance and poor weight distribution have made it impossible for him to react in a timely fashion to the defender’s counter move. Leno lunges in vain, and Ingram easily clears his hands for the sack of Jay Cutler.
When you can consistently dominate the edge with pure speed and athleticism as a pass rusher, as well as keep offensive tackles honest with quick inside counters, you’ve opened up a world of possibilities to truly dismantle your opponent. One of those is a spin move, a relatively simple maneuver that longtime Indianapolis Colts star Dwight Freeney has made a living off of during his NFL career. While many identify the spin with Freeney, the catch is that if the current Atlanta Falcon were not an explosive athlete capable of threatening the edge with speed rushes on any given down, his spin counter would never be as successful as it has been.
Ingram has the same ability, perhaps due to the time he spent learning from Freeney during the veteran’s short stint in San Diego. Just ask Broncos right tackle Michael Schofield (#79), who found out the hard way what happens when you try to overset and stop Ingram’s outside rush.
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Did you say you wanted to see him go inside-outside on the spin move? Not a move you see very often, but when you sell an inside rush hard and get the tackle to pinch, highly athletic pass rushers can pull it off. Ingram does so here, almost untouched.
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This sack is actually very similar to the Cutler sack shown above in its evolution, as Ingram stems inside, forcing tackle Bradley Sowell (#79) to shift hard to his set foot. Few offensive linemen will be able to match Ingram’s transitionary lateral quickness from that point, but to finish with a spin here rather than simply an outside speed rush is tremendous.
It may never be a heavy part of his repertoire, and that’s OK, but Ingram is not a great power rusher. He can convert speed to power, but he’s not a player that will physically bully many opponents, even if he wins inside position. Hurst did catch a bull rush right in the mouth during their matchup last season, but he’s a lighter tackle that Ingram pushed around all game.
I love that Ingram is violent with his hands, and he does a great job attacking half the man when he does engage physically with an opponent, but he’s much more adept at going around you than through you. Thanks to his elite set of tools, there likely won’t be anything wrong with that moving forward, except when he gets into the rare matchup where an offensive tackle can match his maneuverability. Linemen like that are few and far between, but at this point, it is one of the key areas of pass-rushing where Ingram remains behind top-tier players such as Houston and Miller.
If you’re asking yourself, “Why doesn’t [insert pass rusher’s name here] do any of this off the edge more often?” it’s probably because he is not physically or athletically capable of pulling off these types of maneuvers. Plays like these are why athleticism, fluidity, flexibility, and lateral agility are so vital as a foundation for edge rushers. It doesn’t necessarily guarantee that player will become a star, but the likelihood is far greater than it would be with a less gifted prospect.
For Ingram, it was about getting his body right and learning the nuances of pass-rushing before he could unleash his natural abilities to their fullest potential. Now that this growth has occurred, expect even bigger things moving forward for the Chargers fifth-year starter.
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All video courtesy of NFL Game Pass.