clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Explain both sides: will Greg Rousseau become an elite pass rusher in 2023?

He is Groot?

New England Patriots v Buffalo Bills Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images

If you ascribe to the multiverse theory, then in at least one of the infinite number of parallel universes, the Buffalo Bills have won at least one Super Bowl. They’ve held the Lombardi high and celebrated with their fans. They’ve gotten the monkey off their back.

But the universe we live in today hasn’t had that event yet. The Bills in our universe are still pursuing their first Super Bowl championship. The good news is that this also means there’s a universe where any number of yet-unsure futures have come to fruition in the Bills favor.

In this series of articles, I’m going to take both sides of a stance related to a potential future event with the team and explain both why it could happen and also why it may not. Both arguments will likely contain statements strongly worded because I am, in essence, debating against myself and meaningful delineations must be made between the two sides. As with most things in life, the answer will likely lie between the two arguments, but they will sit on clearly opposite poles to draw a clear distinction and to allow conversation to be had between the two established boundaries.

Today’s topic is Gregory Rousseau. Will he rise to elite pass rusher status in 2023?

The argument against:

Gregory Rousseau got off to a hot start in 2022. He had five sacks in his first four games, including a contest against the Miami Dolphins where he only rushed the passer 14 times and still collected two sacks. His year was off to a tremendous start.

But then the slow came. Rousseau would collect just one sack over his next five games, pulling his sack productivity back to the mean after his blazing start. Rousseau injured his ankle and was out for three weeks, only to return as the top pass rusher on the team as star Von Miller tore his ACL in Rousseau’s absence. Once Miller was no longer a threat to offensive lines, Rousseau’s pass-rushing finishing productivity took another hit. He accumulated three sacks in total after Miller’s departure from the lineup in seven games and was a key part of the Bills’ pass-rush drop off after losing the future Hall of Famer.

Rousseau wasn’t ready to be “the guy” as a number-one pass rusher. He played well when he had one of the best pass rushers in football on the other side of the defensive line, but when forced to be the focal point of an offensive line (even with Rousseau playing more snaps after the Miller injury), his impact was lessened. Any projection to elite pass-rusher status is just that: projection, and one not based on anything we’ve recently seen.

The argument for:

The argument against Rousseau taking a step and joining the elite status leaves out a very important piece of context: Rousseau had an ankle injury that cause him to miss three weeks in the middle of the season, and him coming back to play after doesn’t mean he was void of being affected after. I wrote this piece on Ed Oliver and the possibility of his ankle injury lingering during the season (and noted the difference between a low ankle sprain and a high ankle sprain), and it would be intellectually dishonest for me to opine that Oliver could be affected in his pass rushing productivity after returning from an ankle injury, but Rousseau could not be. The Oliver injury also adds some context regarding the level of support that Rousseau got after Week 1 of the 2022 NFL regular season: he didn’t just suffer the loss of the pass-rushing edge opposite him, he also suffered through the partial loss in effectiveness from the pass-rushing 3-technique defensive tackle on his same line.

The Bills have four starting defensive lineman: Miller, Rousseau, DaQuan Jones, and Ed Oliver. Three of the four suffered lower-body injuries during the regular season that eliminated or reduced their ability to rush the passer.

Leaving out injury context feels disingenuous to the anti-elite jump argument when there were sections of 2022 when Rousseau did look and produce like an elite-level pass rusher.

In addition, the usage of sacks alone to measure pass-rushing productivity on Rousseau’s part is short sighted. Prior to his ankle injury, Rousseau was averaging 2.875 pressures per game per Pro Football Focus and registering a pressure on 13.5% of his pass-rush snaps. After returning from his ankle injury, he averaged four pressures per game and tallied a pressure on 15.4% of his pass-rush attempts. The finishes weren’t there in part because he didn’t have any help remaining. It’s a cart-before-the-horse scenario. The Bills’ pass rush didn’t falter down the stretch because Rousseau wasn’t helpful, they faltered down the stretch because Rousseau wasn’t getting help. From Week 13 on (when Rousseau returned to the lineup but Miller was gone), Boogie Basham averaged 1.83 pressures per game and collected a pressure on 10.3% of his pass rushes, while A.J. Epenesa averaged two pressures per game and picked up a pressure on 11.2% of his pass-rush attempts. (For reference, getting 12% of your pass rushes to convert to pressures is a strong bar for edge rushers. Von Miller pre-injury was at 14.5%, Justin Houston had 13.7%, and John Franklin-Myers was at 13.5%.)

Yes, the Bills’ pressure rate died after Miller’s injury, as noted by Warren Sharp above — but Rousseau was doing his part. He stepped up despite his return from an ankle injury (which likely affected Rousseau and Ed Oliver for much of the year), but the other pass rushers (including two recent second-round picks) didn’t step up to the same degree.

Rousseau’s pass-rush win rate was 17th in the NFL among all edge rushers per PFF. He did this over the course of the season despite losing his pass-rushing mate, not getting much help from the replacements opposite him, suffering through an ankle injury of his own, and experiencing diminished production from the starting 3-technique defensive tackle on his line. Given how incredibly raw Rousseau was coming out of college and his trajectory so far, it’s not difficult to project a double-digit sack season and a continued push into elite pass-rushing status for him in 2023.

...and that’s the way the cookie crumbles. I’m Bruce Nolan with Buffalo Rumblings. You can find me on Twitter and Instagram @BruceExclusive and look for new episodes of “The Bruce Exclusive” every Thursday on the Buffalo Rumblings podcast network!