Rushing the passer and getting sacks are how defensive linemen make a name for themselves. Taking down the quarterback isn’t the only way for the big boys upfront to disrupt the passing game, though.
Just ask Zach Allen, whom the Arizona Cardinals drafted 65th overall to open the third round in the 2019 NFL Draft.
During his final season at Boston College, Allen batted down seven passes and had 6.5 sacks. That number of batted passes is comparable to the number of pass deflections of some of the top cornerbacks in this class. Georgia’s Deandre Baker and LSU’s Greedy Williams each deflected nine passes this past season.
To get a better idea of how Allen became pass-swatting savant, SB Nation talked to him at February’s NFL Combine to ask him he got so good at knocking down passes.
How in the world does a defensive lineman get his hands on so many passes?
There’s a lot that goes into batting down the ball while trying to rush the quarterback. Mainly, having the awareness to know that your pass rush is likely dead and to get your hands up — that’s not a bad strategy when your arms are almost 35 inches long like Allen’s.
Having grapevines for arms definitely helps, but there’s a bit more nuance involved than just being a physical specimen.
“I think it’s just keeping eyes on the quarterback,” Allen told SB Nation at the NFL Combine. “Luckily, I had three great positional coaches in college and all three of them preached that you want to affect the game. If something’s not there, then you can affect it in the passing lanes.”
This is an example of Allen knowing when there isn’t a real chance to get a sack. Temple is running a screen toward the edge of the field and purposefully leaves Allen unblocked. This is meant to be a quick release by the quarterback to get the ball to the receiver as fast as possible — there isn’t really an opportunity to sack the quarterback.
Once Allen recognizes that the ball is about to be thrown, he gets his hands up, deflects the pass, and ends the play before it can get going.
Here’s another example from the same game. This play is a bit different than the first because Temple is running a traditional passing play instead of a screen.
Temple’s quarterback is taking a quick drop out of shotgun before throwing the ball. Like the previous screen play, the opportunity for a sack just isn’t there.
Once Allen notices that the quarterback is pulling the ball back to throw, he gets his hands up into the passing lane to force an errant throw that almost gets intercepted.
It was a crucial play on third down to get the Boston College defense off the field.
Allen attributed his quick hands to playing a different sport, and a different position in football, before playing defensive line full-time in college.
“I played baseball a little bit when I was younger and I played tight end in high school,” Allen said with a laugh. “So, I guess I’ve always wanted to have the ball in my hands.”
Allen isn’t the first defensive lineman to be adept at batting down passes. His favorite player, Houston Texans defensive lineman J.J. Watt, has had a lot of success deflecting the ball at the line of scrimmage — and he’s a player that Allen has studied relentlessly.
Allen has tried to put pieces of Watt’s game into his own
Allen obviously isn’t as good as Watt is right now, but they do have a lot of similarities to their game. They’re both versatile defensive linemen who can play just about any technique across the line of scrimmage, and they have a knack for knocking down passes.
When Watt had his 20.5-sack breakout season in 2012, he also knocked down an insane 16 passes, which ranked ninth in the league. He hasn’t matched the 16 he put up in 2012 yet, but he’s still a disruptive force against the pass even when he’s not getting sacks. He had a pass deflection in the Texans’ playoff game against Indianapolis that wound up causing an interception.
Allen is well aware of the greatness Watt brings and made an extra effort to study his game tape.
“Every Friday before games I’d watch his most recent game just to learn from him,” Allen told SB Nation. “If you want to be the best you have to learn from the best, and he’s the best doing it right now.”
Allen has a connection to Watt outside of watching all of his games. Paul Pasqualoni, Allen’s old defensive line coach who is now the defensive coordinator for the Detroit Lions, coached Watt with the Texans before moving on to Boston College. Allen said he used to ask Pasqualoni about Watt when he was trying to take his game to the next level.
“Luckily, having coach [Paul] Pasqualoni for two years right after he came from Houston, I was able to pick his brain a little bit on what made J.J. so great.” Allen said. “I really think that’s what helped my game my junior and senior year kind of blow up a little bit. He’s a tremendous player and someone that I look up to.”
Zach Allen might not be as highly touted of a prospect as Nick Bosa, Quinnen Williams, or Ed Oliver, but he’s a damn good player in his own right. Allen can still get sacks, but having the creativity and awareness to end passing plays without actually bringing down the quarterback will serve him well as he adjusts to the NFL.
Over his final two seasons, Allen stuffed the stat sheet with 161 tackles, 30.5 tackles for loss, 10.5 sacks, 10 pass deflections, two fumble recoveries, and two interceptions. That’s rare production for a defensive lineman.
That versatility will also give him an opportunity to be an instant-impact player and could make him one of the gems of the 2019 NFL Draft.