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Power Ranking NFL's Most Dominant Pass-Rushing Duos

Russell S. BaxterContributor IJune 21, 2014

Power Ranking NFL's Most Dominant Pass-Rushing Duos

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    Holy quarterback sack, Batman. Did we make the list?
    Holy quarterback sack, Batman. Did we make the list?Associated Press

    "Rush the quarterback..."

    Many of us have seen (via NFL Films) then-Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Bill Cowher giving outside linebacker Greg Lloyd some sound advice.

    There are those who still dig the long ball in baseball, but football fans certainly dig the sack.
    So we are here to power rank the NFL's most dominant duos (by team) when it comes to dropping the quarterback in his tracks.

    Beavis and Butt-head, Abbott and Costello, Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson—all legendary pairings. But who are each club's best two options when it comes to the pass rush, and do they have the potential to be as legendary and dynamic a duo as the groups I just mentioned?

    While the basis of our analysis will concentrate on the teammates' 2013 performance (when applicable), we would be remiss if we did not include a player's career track record as well.

    Of course, it also takes more than two to tango in the opposing team's backfield, and we will mention some other key components when it comes to the pass rush. And along the way, there may be a prediction of some up-and-coming performer or even a rookie who may actually be poised to make this list a year from now...or sooner.

32. San Diego Chargers: DE Corey Liuget and OLB Thomas Keiser

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    Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

    The San Diego Chargers managed a late-season rally this past season, and it was enough to put them in the playoffs.

    However, John Pagano's defensive unit never managed to consistently keep opposing quarterbacks under duress. The Bolts totaled just 34 sacks, with defensive ends Corey Liuget (5.5) and Kendall Reyes (five) and outside linebacker Thomas Keiser (4.5) leading the way. The three were among 16 players who had part of a sack for the Chargers in 2013.

    Both Liuget and Keiser enter their fourth NFL seasons, so we may still see their best. Perhaps outside linebackers such as Jarret Johnson, Melvin Ingram and Larry English will step to the forefront. Is there one more productive year left in Dwight Freeney, who was limited to just four games in 2013 in his first season with San Diego?

    In any case, more pressure from Liuget, Keiser and the others would help head coach Mike McCoy's team improve on a mere 17 takeaways this past season.

31. Dallas Cowboys: DE George Selvie and DE DeMarcus Lawrence

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    USA TODAY Sports

    After nine seasons with the Dallas Cowboys, DeMarcus Ware was shown the door this offseason, and it swung wide open...all the way to Denver.

    Gone are 117 career sacks. To make matters worse, Pro Bowl defensive tackle Jason Hatcher and his team-high 11 sacks in 2012 left for Washington, D.C.

    There were a number of factors that led to Dallas being the league's most generous defense in terms of yards allowed this past season. Injuries were a big part of that, especially when it came to the defensive front. The Cowboys totaled only 21 sacks in their last 13 games after racking up 13 sacks in their first three outings.

    Journeyman defensive end George Selvie finished second behind Hatcher last season, totaling seven sacks. And here, we will take a flyer on rookie defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, a second-round pick from Boise State, to make an impact sooner than later.

    Is Jerry Jones hoping to strike gold with another DeMarcus? It should be noted that you can't spell Lawrence without the letters WARE.

30. Atlanta Falcons: OLB Osi Umenyiora and OLB Jonathan Massaquoi

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Atlanta Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan will give opponents a variety of looks in 2014.

    That's because last season's defense didn't have a lot to show for itself.

    Atlanta's pass rush improved from 29 sacks in 2012 to just 32 sacks this past season. Former New York Giants Pro Bowler Osi Umenyiora led the way with 7.5 sacks while fellow defensive end Jonathan Massaquoi finished third on the club with four sacks.

    Now, the duo will attack the quarterback from the outside linebacking spot in Nolan's 3-4. Defensive lineman Corey Peters, who totaled five sacks in 2013, could be a factor as well when he's totally healthy. The team added defensive linemen Tyson Jackson and Paul Soliai, but neither are regarded as big-time pass-rushing threats.

    These days, neither are the Falcons as a team. Perhaps that changes this upcoming season.

29. Jacksonville Jaguars: DE Chris Clemons and DE Andre Branch

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    Jacksonville Jaguars head coach Gus Bradley knows a little something about defense. He also knows a little something when it comes to veteran defensive end Chris Clemons.

    This will be the fifth NFL stop for the 10-year pro. In his first three seasons with the Seattle Seahawks, Clemons started all 16 games each year and totaled at least 11 sacks in every campaign.

    Now, he comes off a shortened season (following that knee injury suffered in the 2012 playoffs at Washington) and hopes to better those 4.5 sacks he totaled with the Seahawks this past season. Bradley will also be hoping to get more out of defensive end Andre Branch, a second-round pick in 2012 who has yet to blossom.

    Keep in mind that in each of the last two seasons, the Jaguars have finished last (20 sacks in 2012) or tied for last (31 sacks in 2013) in the league when it comes to tackling the other team's quarterback.

28. Pittsburgh Steelers: OLB Jason Worilds and DE Cameron Heyward

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    Tom E. Puskar/Associated Press

    When it comes to the Pittsburgh Steelers, getting to the opposing quarterback frequently used to be automatic.

    Not so these days. The big plays we used to see regularly from defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau's unit have been on holiday as of late. In their last 48 regular-season games, the Steelers have forced only 55 turnovers. Part of that problem has been a pass rush that has produced only 106 sacks over that span.

    In the previous three seasons (2008-10), Mike Tomlin's club rolled up 146 sacks and went to two Super Bowls.

    When it comes to getting to the quarterback in the Steel City these days, it was outside linebacker Jason Worilds (eight) and defensive end Cameron Heyward (five) who were at the top of the list in 2013. Ideally, the Steelers would love to see outside linebacker Jarvis Jones come into his own in his second NFL season. Could rookie inside linebacker Ryan Shazier have an impact on the pass rush?

    Pittsburgh has added both youth and experience to its defense this season. We will find out soon enough if either or both will be served.

27. New York Giants: DE Mathias Kiwanuka and DE Jason Pierre-Paul

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    Remember when the New York Giants were taking their turns pummeling New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady in a pair of Super Bowl wins?

    The key, besides quarterback Eli Manning's late heroics, was a defensive front that harassed Brady in both of those contests.

    We haven't seen a lot of that potent pass rush that rolled up a combined 101 sacks in 2007 (53) and 2011 (48), the team's last two championship years. This past season, head coach Tom Coughlin's team totaled 34 sacks, one better than in 2012 (33).

    If the pass rush is to get back on track, it will be up to defensive ends Mathias Kiwanuka (six sacks in 2013) and especially Jason Pierre-Paul, who has battled injuries as of late and has totaled a mere 8.5 sacks the last two seasons combined. In 2011, the two-time Pro Bowl defender racked up 16.5 sacks.

    The Giants are also hoping second-year pro Damontre Moore has a big year, and the team added defensive end Robert Ayers (Denver Broncos) in free agency. Veteran defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins also added five sacks this past season. But Kiwanuka and Pierre-Paul remain this team's best options when it comes to getting to the quarterback.

26. Cleveland Browns: OLB Jabaal Sheard and OLB Paul Kruger

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    Mark Duncan/Associated Press

    Before you ask, Johnny Manziel will not lead the Cleveland Browns in sacking the quarterback this season.

    Hopefully for new head coach Mike Pettine, he will find someone who can be a consistent pain in the backfield for opposing blockers.

    The Browns managed a respectable 40 sacks in 2013, but it was outside linebacker Jabaal Sheard who led the team with 5.5 sacks. He was followed by fellow outside linebackers Barkevious Mingo (five) and Paul Kruger (4.5 sacks).

    You can look for Pettine and defensive coordinator Jim O'Neil to work on increasing that total, especially in a division with the likes of quarterbacks Andy Dalton, Ben Roethlisberger and Joe Flacco.

25. Detroit Lions: DE Ziggy Ansah and OLB Kyle Van Noy

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    Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

    You may be surprised not to see the names Ndamukong Suh or Nick Fairley in the title of the Detroit Lions slide.

    That doesn't mean they won't have a big say when it comes to rushing the passer, but we are playing a hunch here.

    The team leader in sacks this past season was rookie defensive end Ziggy Ansah, who totaled eight sacks in 14 games in 2013. Fairley finished second with six sacks, followed closely by Suh with 5.5 quarterback traps.

    In the second round of May's draft, the Lions added outside linebacker Kyle Van Noy, who was Ansah's teammate at BYU. The versatile performer could play a huge role in getting to the quarterback in 2014. A year ago, Detroit totaled only 33 sacks, one reason the team managed only 22 takeaways.

    If Van Noy doesn't get the job done, keep an eye on second-year defensive end Devin Taylor.

24. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: DT Gerald McCoy and DE Michael Johnson

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    Over the past six seasons, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have totaled only 168 sacks, the second-fewest in the league during that span.

    Now, thanks to a Pro Bowl defensive tackle and a talented free-agent pickup, new head coach Lovie Smith and new defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier hope to get the team's pass rush back on track.

    Tampa defenders totaled 35 sacks in 2013, nine of those via standout defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. Defensive end Adrian Clayborn was tied for second on the team (with linebacker Lavonte David) with six sacks, but this team got its share of pressure from the back seven.

    Former Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson totaled only 3.5 sacks this past season but had a terrific overall season. In 2012, he amassed 11.5 sacks, teaming with Geno Atkins on Marvin Lewis' front four.

    There's potential here for the Buccaneers' pass rush to make a big comeback. Safe to say it's long overdue. But we will take a bit of a wait-and-see approach.

23. Indianapolis Colts: OLB Robert Mathis and OLB Erik Walden

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    Associated Press

    There's no doubting the ability of Indianapolis Colts outside linebacker Robert Mathis when it comes to harassing quarterbacks. The fifth-round pick in 2003 from Alabama A&M has been doing it for 11 seasons in the NFL.

    Of course, we do know he won't be doing it for the first four games of 2014 due to a league suspension. Still, that doesn't affect our rankings here.

    What does have an impact on placement is the fact that teammate Erik Walden wasn't much of a pass-rushing factor this past season. Mathis not only led the NFL with 19.5 sacks in 2013, but he had nearly half of the Colts' total of 42 sacks.

    Inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman finished second on the team with 5.5 sacks this past season, followed by 11-year veteran defensive end Cory Redding (4.5) and Walden (three). The latter will need to up his game in 2014, especially with Mathis taking a seat during all of September.

22. Cincinnati Bengals: DT Geno Atkins and DE Carlos Dunlap

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    Matt Sullivan/Getty Images

    In 2012, the Cincinnati Bengals featured a potent pass rush that totaled 51 sacks, nearly half of those from defensive tackle Geno Atkins (12.5 sacks) and defensive end Michael Johnson (11.5 sacks).

    This past season, Johnson's overall play improved, but his sack numbers decreased, and Atkins missed the final seven games of the season with a knee injury. The team sack leaders were defensive ends Carlos Dunlap and Wallace Gilberry, both with 7.5 sacks. While these two performers return, Johnson signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this offseason.

    Meanwhile, Atkins returns, and we'll see how effective he is, at least early in the season. In any case, the Bengals still totaled 43 sacks in 2013, and those numbers may be hard to equal this upcoming year.

    And don't forget that defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer is now the head coach of the Minnesota Vikings, with linebackers coach Paul Guenther elevated to take over the league's third-ranked defense in terms of yards allowed in 2014.

21. Minnesota Vikings: DE Brian Robison and DE Everson Griffen

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    Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

    We have gotten awfully used to watching Pro Bowl defenders such as Jared Allen and Kevin Williams run down opposing quarterbacks for the Minnesota Vikings.

    However, the pair of veteran defenders will now be showing off their skills in Chicago and Seattle, respectively.

    Defensive ends Brian Robison and Everson Griffen are hardly newcomers when it comes to the Minnesota defense. While Allen led the team with 11.5 sacks, Robison (nine) and Griffen (5.5 sacks) were second and third on the team, respectively. And with new head coach and defensive whiz Mike Zimmer at the helm, there could be a big bounce-back season ahead for the team that allowed the most points in the league in 2013.

    Free-agent pickup Linval Joseph and second-year defensive tackle Shariff Floyd hope to make life a lot easier for both Robison and Griffen. And keep an eye on rookie defensive end Scott Crichton, a third-round draft pick from Oregon State, when it comes to the Minnesota pass rush this season.

20. Oakland Raiders: DE Justin Tuck and DE LaMarr Woodley

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    For years, the Oakland Raiders were the team that gave prominent players second leases on their football lives.

    The organization always had a penchant for signing Super Bowl MVPs and Heisman Trophy winners, as well as one-time first overall picks in the NFL draft.

    Defensive ends Justin Tuck and LaMarr Woodley are none of the above. But the former New York Giant and ex-Pittsburgh Steeler know something about performing well on a big stage.

    Tuck has totaled four sacks in his two Super Bowl appearance. Woodley has 11 sacks in eight career postseason games, with at least one sack in seven of those contests. While the latter missed five games and totaled only five sacks in 2013, Tuck parlayed a strong second half and led the Giants with 11 sacks this past season.

    A little experience could go a long way for a team that has some promising defenders in Sio Moore and 2014 first-round pick Khalil Mack. Look for some early-season highlights from the veteran pass-rushers.

19. New England Patriots: DE Chandler Jones and DE Rob Ninkovich

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    Duane Burleson/Associated Press

    As low as the New England Patriots defense was ranked in 2013, you would have never thought this was a team that was among the league leaders in sacks.

    Bill Belichick's club gave up the third-most rushing yards in the league this past season and was ranked 26th overall in terms of total yards allowed.

    Still, the Pats produced 48 sacks. Defensive ends Chandler Jones (11.5 sacks) and Rob Ninkovich (eight sacks) did a lot of that this past season without veteran defensive tackles Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly in the middle.

    Jones is definitely a player to keep an eye on, and don't be surprised if he winds up among the league's top five in terms of sack leaders in 2014.

18. Philadelphia Eagles: OLB Trent Cole and OLB Connor Barwin

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    Michael Perez/Associated Press

    It took a little while for the Philadelphia Eagles to get on track last season. But once head coach Chip Kelly's team found its niche, they got hot, won seven of their last eight games and the NFC East title.

    If these Birds are to fly higher in 2014, the Philadelphia defense must take the next step.

    The opportunity is there as the team prepares for a second season under coordinator Billy Davis and his 3-4 defensive scheme. This past season, Cole (eight) and Barwin (five) combined for only 13 sacks, a little over one-third of the team's total (37) in 2013.

    If the Eagles are to repeat as NFC East champions, as well as improve on the league's bottom-ranked pass defense of a year ago, the sack totals of both Cole and Barwin (and others) must make a significant jump.

17. Chicago Bears: DE Jared Allen and DE Willie Young

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    Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

    How can how can you not pick up a few pointers from a guy who has totaled 128.5 career sacks in 10 seasons?

    Four years into his NFL career, new Chicago Bears defensive end Willie Young has totaled six sacks.

    Fellow new Bears defensive end Jared Allen has never had fewer than 7.5 sacks in any season.

    "He's like a coach sometimes because he has so much to offer," said Young regarding Allen to Kevin Fishbain of Hub Arkush's Chicago Football. "I find myself afterwards writing a lot of it down so I can retain it a little better."

    Young (No. 97) is part of a revamped defensive line that includes himself, Allen and former Oakland Raider Lamarr Houston. They hope to improve a pass rush that was tied for last in the league in 2013 with 31 sacks.

    And for those who feel his better days are behind him, don't be surprised if Allen throws a wrench into those plans.

16. Tennessee Titans: NT Jurrell Casey and OLB Shaun Phillips

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    Under new defensive coordinator Ray Horton, the Tennessee Titans are making the transition to the 3-4.

    Under new head coach Ken Whisenhunt, the Titans are hoping to make the transition from non-playoff participant to contender.

    Defensive tackle Jurrell Casey, he of a team-high 10.5 sacks with the Titans a year ago, moves inside to nose tackle, where theoretically his numbers figure go down. He will be joined this season by veteran outside linebacker Shaun Phillips, who lined up at defensive end for the Denver Broncos this past season and led that club with 10 sacks.

    Could outside linebackers Akeem Ayers and/or Kamerion Wimbley emerge as the Titans' top pass-rusher in 2014? With Horton calling the shots, expect some big things from this unit this season.

15. Arizona Cardinals: OLB John Abraham and DE Calais Campbell

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    Ralph Freso/Getty Images

    Very quietly, the Arizona Cardinals' defensive unit made its mark in 2013.

    Quiet because when you reside in the same division as the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers, it's hard to get a word in edgewise.

    Under defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, the Cards were sixth in total defense this past season. And while they were the best in the league against the run, only five teams in the NFL did better than the 47 sacks amassed by Arizona defenders in 2013.

    The team leaders in this department were outside linebacker John Abraham (11.5 sacks) and defensive end Calais Campbell (nine). A salary-cap casualty last offseason after a 10-sack season with the Atlanta Falcons, Abraham latched on with Bruce Arians' club and made an impact.

    What remains to be seen here is the impact felt with the losses of inside linebackers Karlos Dansby and Daryl Washington. A year ago, Dansby (now with the Cleveland Browns) finished third on the team with 6.5 sacks. This past season, Washington totaled only three sacks but led the team in this department with nine sacks in 2012. He won't be available this season after being suspended by the NFL.

    That means young linebackers such as Sam Acho and Alex Okafor may need to step up a bit this season.

14. Houston Texans: DE J.J. Watt and OLB Whitney Mercilus

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    Back in 2012, Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt totaled 20.5 sacks and was the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year. That sack total was impressive and one-half sack more than the Jacksonville Jaguars totaled that season.

    It was a down year for Watt's team this past season, with the Pro Bowl performer "only" totaling 10.5 sacks. Right behind him on the team list was fellow former first-round pick/outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus, who totaled seven sacks.

    But what can we expect from this tandem in 2014. If Watt does lead the team again in getting to the quarterback, will it be Mercilus or rookie Jadeveon Clowney putting up better numbers? It will be interesting to see how the first overall pick performs as a rookie in new defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel's system.

13. Washington Redskins: OLB Brian Orakpo and OLB Ryan Kerrigan

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    Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

    We haven't seen the Washington Redskins select a player in the first round of the last two NFL drafts, so let's be a little nostalgic.

    In 2009, the team used its initial selection on Brian Orakpo, who has gone on to be named to the Pro Bowl three times in five years. The exceptional pass-rusher bounced back with 10 sacks in 2013 after playing in just one game the previous season. Orakpo has amassed 39.5 sacks in 64 career games.

    Two years after grabbing Orakpo, Washington opted for Ryan Kerrigan, who has started every game in his three-year career. The 16th overall pick in 2011 has totaled 24.5 career sacks and earned a Pro Bowl invitation in 2012.

    Despite the presence of these talented defenders, the Redskins defense continues to be an enigma. And frankly, that's being kind.

12. New York Jets: DE Muhammad Wilkerson and OLB Calvin Pace

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    Rich Schultz/Getty Images

    You see the kind of year New York Jets defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson had in 2013, and you scratch your head (or helmet) in wonder as to why he was not named to the Pro Bowl.

    In any case, he and veteran outside linebacker Calvin Pace were the key cogs in a pass rush that produced 42 sacks this past season. Wilkerson led the way with 10.5 sacks, and Pace kept pace with a career-high 10 sacks of his own.

    While Wilkerson enters just his fourth NFL campaign, can we expect another big year from Pace, who just concluded his 11th season in the league?

    The answer to that question may or may not be emerging defender Quinton Coples, who finished third on the team with 4.5 sacks in 2013.

11. Green Bay Packers: OLB Clay Matthews and OLB Julius Peppers

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    Mike Roemer/Associated Press

    How's this for near symmetry? Green Bay Packers outside linebacker Clay Matthews wears No. 52 and has totaled exactly 50 sacks in five seasons.

    The former first-round pick in 2009 was not named to the Pro Bowl this past year for the first time in his career. Injuries limited him to 11 games, and he managed just 7.5 sacks, which was still good enough to lead the Packers in 2013.

    Now, Matthews will be joined by one of the premier defensive players the last decade-plus in the league. But we will now be seeing Julius Peppers in a different role in Dom Capers' defensive unit.

    Can he make the adjustment? Don't bet against it. The 12-year veteran and eight-time Pro Bowler has totaled 118.5 sacks, 40 forced fumbles and nine interceptions during his impressive career with the Carolina Panthers and Chicago Bears.

    And his presence alone makes Matthews all the more dangerous.

10. Baltimore Ravens: OLB Terrell Suggs and OLB Elvis Dumervil

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    When Elvis Dumervil left the building in Denver last season, who would have thought he would have ended up in Baltimore, home of the then-defending Super Bowl champions.

    While the Denver Broncos managed to reach Super Bowl XLVIII minus one of their best defenders, Dumervil wound up with a Baltimore Ravens team that finished just 8-8 and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2007.

    Just the facts...

    Still, Dumervil (73 sacks) and veteran Terrell Suggs (94.5) make for a potent pair of bookends, the duo combing for 167.5 career quarterback traps. The latter totaled 10 sacks, but it should also be noted that after totaling nine of those sacks in his first eight outings of 2013, he managed just one sack in his final seven games. Dumervil finished second on the team with 9.5 sacks this past season.

    With these two experienced and versatile performers getting ready to take the field this season together for a second straight season, expect some bigger things from this savvy pair in 2014.

9. Seattle Seahawks: DE Michael Bennett and DE Cliff Avril

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    Associated Press

    No team in the league in 2013 allowed fewer total yards, fewer points and totaled more takeaways than the Seattle Seahawks.

    Conversely, no other team in the NFL this past season would go home with a Lombardi Trophy this past February.

    Seattle's pass rush was on full display in Super Bowl XLVIII. Technically, Pete Carroll's team sacked Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning just once. But anyone who watched defensive end Cliff Avril in that contest knows that he could have been the game's MVP.

    Last season, fellow defensive end Michael Bennett (8.5 sacks) and Avril (eight) combined for more than one-third of the team's 44 sacks. Of course, 10 more of those sacks came via defensive tackle Clinton McDonald (5.5 sacks) and defensive end Chris Clemons (4.5 sacks), both no longer with the team.

    Still, throw in explosive outside linebacker Bruce Irvin and the continued strong player of Bennett and Avril, and the Seahawks shouldn't have any issues in this department going forward.

8. Denver Broncos: DE DeMarcus Ware and OLB Von Miller

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    Ed Andrieski/Associated Press

    For different reasons, neither defensive end DeMarcus Ware nor outside linebacker Von Miller played a complete season in 2013.

    For Ware, it was injuries. For Miller, it was a little bit of everything. Now, the prolific pair of pass-rushers will team up in the Mile High City to help the Denver Broncos get back to the Super Bowl.

    In nine seasons with the Dallas Cowboys, Ware totaled 117 sacks and was named to seven Pro Bowls. In three seasons with the Broncos, Miller has totaled 35 sacks in 40 regular-season games.

    Ware comes off the first season of his career in which he missed any games (three in 2013). Miller has something to prove after a troubling year in 2013. It's going to be extremely interesting to see this duo unleashed in 2014.

7. Miami Dolphins: DE Cameron Wake and DE Olivier Vernon

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    Bill Wippert/Associated Press

    Perhaps the Miami Dolphins pass rush in 2013 gained a lot of confidence on a weekly basis last season practicing against the team's troubled offensive line.

    All kidding aside, the club that gave up a league-high 58 sacks this past season also saw its defensive counterparts get to the other team's quarterback often.

    While defensive end Cameron Wake is a three-time Pro Bowler with 51.5 sacks in 77 games (8.5 sacks in 2013), it was bookend teammate Olivier Vernon who led the team with 11.5 sacks this past season. This duo, along with defensive tackles Jared Odrick and Randy Starks, makes for an imposing front four when it comes to bringing the heat.

    And if Vernon makes another big leap like he did this past season (the third-round draft choice in 2012 had 3.5 sacks as a rookie), the Dolphins could improve on those 44 sacks in 2013.

6. New Orleans Saints: DE Cameron Jordan and OLB Junior Galette

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    Could there be bigger and better things ahead for this pair of New Orleans Saints' defenders?

    Defensive end Cameron Jordan was a first-round pick in 2011 while outside linebacker Junior Galette was an undrafted rookie signed by the team in 2010.

    This past season, the duo hit their stride in Rob Ryan's defense. Jordan led the team with a career-best 12.5 sacks, followed closely by Galette with a dozen sacks. The tandem accounted for exactly half of the Saints' 49 sacks in 2013.

    Not a bad comeback for a team that the previous season had allowed the most total yards in a season in league history.

    Surrounded by defensive end Akiem Hicks (4.5 sacks) and outside linebacker Parys Haralson (3.5 sacks), who combined for eight sacks in 2013, you get the feeling that Jordan and Galette may be just hitting their stride as the Saints defense gets ready for a second year under Ryan.

5. Buffalo Bills: DE Mario Williams and DT Kyle Williams

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    Yes, still no playoffs for the Buffalo Bills since 1999.

    However, the team did something very right in 2013. And that was putting heat on the passer.

    Only the Carolina Panthers (60) totaled more sacks than Doug Marrone's team in 2013. The Bills amassed 57 sacks, 21 more than they managed the previous season (36).

    What separated this team from the others was the fact that Buffalo had three players, Mario Williams (13), Kyle Williams (10.5) and Jerry Hughes (10) with double-digit sack totals this past season. Both Mario and Kyle wound up in the Pro Bowl.

    What can we expect in 2014? There's new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, and that could add up to a very long year for the rest of the AFC East signal-callers as well as the other quarterbacks on the Bills' schedule as well.

4. Kansas City Chiefs: OLB Justin Houston and OLB Tamba Hali

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    Opponents have a problem when it comes to blocking Justin Houston and Tamba Hali, the bookend outside linebackers of the Kansas City Chiefs.

    Since becoming teammates in 2011, the pair has totaled 58.5 sacks in three seasons. This past year, Houston and Hali tied for the club lead with 11 sacks apiece.

    Hali has only missed three games in eight seasons and has totaled 73.5 sacks along the way. Houston, a third-round pick from the University of Georgia in 2011, has 26.5 career sacks. Hali, the 20th overall pick in the 2006 draft, has been named to the last three Pro Bowls, with Houston joining him each of the last two years.

    Can the star defenders help a defense that slumped late in 2013 get back on track this season? It will have to if the team wants to get back to the playoffs for a second straight year.

3. Carolina Panthers: DE Greg Hardy and DE Charles Johnson

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    Some may think part of the unit that led the NFL with 60 sacks this past season would be No. 1 on this list.

    Perhaps the only thing preventing the Carolina Panthers from being at the top spot is time.

    Defensive ends Greg Hardy (15) and Charles Johnson (11) combined for 26 sacks in 2013. The previous year, the duo combined for 23.5 sacks, 12.5 of those by Johnson.

    Hardy, designated the team's franchise player this offseason and has since signed his tender, has progressed quite nicely since entering the league as a sixth-round pick in 2010. In his first two NFL campaigns, he totaled seven sacks. In his final two outings of 2013, he totaled seven sacks, finishing the year third in the league with the aforementioned 15 sacks.

    Are Johnson and Hardy each ready to total double-digit sack numbers for a third consecutive season? Don't bet against it.

2. San Francisco 49ers: OLB Aldon Smith and OLB Ahmad Brooks

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    We don't know what kind of a season San Francisco 49ers outside linebacker Aldon Smith will have in 2014.

    We don't know if there will be a season at all for the talented but troubled defender, which is probably a bit of an overstatement.

    Here's what we do know. Opponents have gotten tired of seeing both Smith and teammate Ahmad Brooks in their backfields the last three seasons. The former has totaled 42 sacks in 43 career regular-season contests. Brooks has added 22 sacks over that span, and in 2013, the duo tied for the team lead with 8.5 sacks each.

    The tandem gets plenty of help from a great supporting cast that includes defensive tackle Justin Smith and inside linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman.

    With Smith and Brooks on the field for all 16 games, it figures to be another long year for any offense that lines up against head coach Jim Harbaugh's club.

1. St. Louis Rams: DE Robert Quinn and DE Chris Long

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    Well, the "Fearsome Foursome" and the "Fantastic Four" are already taken (the latter would be a "stretch")

    Still, when you think of the Rams and the franchise's history, fearsome comes to mind. But it's the modern-day bookends that are the topic here.

    Since being united in 2011, St. Louis Rams defensive ends Chris Long (33) and Robert Quinn (34.5) have combined for a healthy 67.5 sacks. This past season, Quinn finished second in the league with 19 sacks. It was quite an improvement for the team's first-round pick in 2011, who totaled five sacks as a rookie and 10.5 sacks in his second season.

    Long was the second overall pick in the 2008 draft and has amassed 50.5 sacks in six NFL seasons. It's worth mentioning that 17.5 of those sacks came prior to Quinn's arrival, so you can do the math.

    And with the support of fellow first-round picks inside in Michael Brockers and rookie Aaron Donald, you may need a calculator to add up the quarterback pelts.

     

    Some statistical support for this piece was provided by Pro-Football-Reference, NFL.com, and ESPN.com. Depth charts are provided by Ourlads.

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