The NFL sure has changed over the course of the past 30 years or so. New Pittsburgh Steelers defensive line coach Karl Dunbar can attest to that. He was actually drafted by the team in the eighth round of the 1990s NFL Draft out of LSU (where he was coached by John Mitchell), though he did not make the roster (he later played a couple years elsewhere).
The game was far more run-oriented then, in part because of the talent that was available and in part because of the rules that were in place at the time. The sort of passing numbers that are routine today were rare then, even unthinkable in some cases.
“When I played, everybody had a 1000-yard rusher and a quarterback who threw maybe 2000-2500 yards”, Dunbar told Missi Matthews in a recent sit-down interview with the team’s website. “Now you’ve got quarterbacks throwing for 4500 yards and you’ve got a committee of running backs where you might have one guy go for 800, another guy go for 700”.
Back in 1990, the year Dunbar was drafted, only one quarterback threw for over 4000 yards, that being Warren Moon. A total of five quarterbacks—Moon, Jim Everett, Joe Montana, Dan Marino, and John Elway—threw for at least 3500. Only Moon and Randall Cunningham threw at least 30 touchdown passes, Moon the league leader with 33.
Eight running backs rushed for at least 1000 yards, with Barry Sanders and Thurman Thomas leading the way. And that is actually a fairly down year. In 1992, for example, there were 13 running backs who hit the 1000-yard mark, 11 in 1993, and 10 in 1994, with 16 backs hitting the mark in 1995.
The point of all this is that defensive linemen have a lot more responsibilities beyond playing the run in this era of the game. “I think today with the new rules, where you can’t jam the wide receiver, you can’t hit [the quarterback] high, you can’t hit him low, you have a pass-happy league and you have to be able to have big guys who can stop the run and at the same time rush the passer”, Dunbar said.
Let’s just take a look at how things compare decades later. Nine running backs rushed for at least 1000 yards in 2017, so it’s actually not much different in terms of yardage. The touchdowns are also comparable to the 1990 season as well.
The passing numbers? Well…
Eight different quarterbacks threw for at least 4000 yards this past season—Tom Brady, Philip Rivers, Matthew Stafford, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Ryan, Kirk Cousins, and Alex Smith. In a down year in passing touchdowns, three still topped 30. Just the previous season, however, five players did it, with one hitting 40. 11 threw 30 or more touchdowns in 2015.
The defensive line clearly plays as big a role as ever as pass rushers in 3-4 defenses today, which is why the production they got from that group last season—Cameron Heyward leading the way with 12 sacks—was so vital to their regular season success.