Thursday, October 4, 2012

"Sack" is a Four-Letter Word

Back in August, I presented the “Water Cooler Briefing” series, where I presented the primary story lines of each team in the NFL.  In four of those posts, I discussed concerns about a team’s offensive line—and its need to improve at protecting its quarterback. 
It appears more teams needed to focus on that issue:  through the first four weeks of the NFL season, 75% of the starting quarterbacks in the league have been sacked an average of twice a game.  Today, we’re going to examine the sack numbers through the first quarter of the season, and consider why those numbers are so high.


The Sack Story So Far

Defenses have not been kind to quarterbacks up to this point in the 2012 campaign.  Already eleven QBs are in double digits in sacks.  Aaron Rodgers (Green Bay) leads the pack with sixteen; this includes the eight he suffered when he and The Pack played the Seattle Seahawks on September 24th (above).  Sam Bradford (St. Louis) is close behind with fourteen.  At this rate, Rodgers could be looking at a 2012 total of 64 sacks; Bradford 56. 


What about the teams I mentioned in the Water Cooler Briefings:  New England Patriots, St. Louis Rams, Arizona Cardinals, Atlanta Falcons and Minnesota Vikings?  The Patriots’ Tom Brady and the Vikings’ Christian Ponder both have been sacked eight times.  I’ve already noted the woes of the St. Louis Rams in protecting Sam Bradford.  Arizona’s Kevin Kolb has been sacked thirteen times.  Falcons QB Matt Ryan has suffered eleven sacks so far, including seven at the hands of the Carolina Panthers on September 30th.  Here are some more numbers:

·  Along with Kolb, Matt Cassel (Kansas City) and Jay Cutler (Chicago) have suffered thirteen sacks;

·  Another three have suffered twelve and three more have fallen victim to eleven sacks;

·  Seven QBs have been sacked 9 times; and

·  Six have been sacked 8 times


Are these high numbers?  For comparison, I looked at the sack total for the last ten seasons.  The 2011 season was much kinder and gentler on QBs and their backsides:  the most victimized was Alex Smith of the 49ers with 44 total for the season, or fewer than three per game. 
Jay Cutler (left) claimed the most sacks in 2010 with 52, but Joe Flacco was well below that total, in second place with 40 sacks, and the numbers dropped steadily from there.  In short, 2010 seemed to represent the trend of at least the last ten years:  the top one or two sack victims held a total around the 50 mark with the trailers well below that.*


How Did We Get Here?

Before we look at the reasons for the rise in sack numbers, let’s take a look at the definition of a quarterback sack.  A “sack” happens when the defense tackles the quarterback behind the line of scrimmage before the can throw a pass.  If the quarterback is clearly a “runner,” meaning that his intent is to keep the ball and run with it instead of attempting a pass, it is not considered a sack even if he is tackled behind the line of scrimmage.  If the quarterback’s intent in unclear, it is considered a sack if he is still in the “pocket” (i.e., the area between the offensive tackles) and tackled behind the line of scrimmage.


OK, so why the rise in sacks?  There are many factors you can point to, including the fairly liberal definition of a sack and the fact that defenses have become faster and more athletic over time.  However, two fairly recent changes to the game should get primary credit:  the dominance of passing over rushing; and the rise of the more mobile quarterback.


The Dominance of Passing.  The NFL used to be a run-heavy league, with the prevailing strategic philosophy being that you can open up the passing game if and only if you establish a strong running game first.  Times have changed.  Now, many teams take a pass-first approach, and this is visible in the numbers.  So far this season, the team with the highest rushing attempts (i.e., rushing plays) per game is the Houston Texans, with 37.0; they average 31.0 passing plays per game (so, slightly more rushing plays).  The team with the highest passing attempts is New Orleans with 47.8; they average a paltry 18.8 running plays per game.


Why does this matter?  When a quarterback hands the ball off to a running back, or a receiver on an end-around or reverse play, he only holds the ball for only about one second, maybe two.  That leaves no opportunity for a defensive player to penetrate the line of scrimmage far enough to touch, much less tackle, the quarterback.  In contrast, when the quarterback drops back several steps to give his receivers time to run their routes, he provides the defenders with at least two more seconds to reach him; if he has to buy his receivers time to get open with a scramble or pump fake, there’s even more time.


Let’s take a look at our top sack victims, and their teams’ rush and pass attempts per game:

·  Aaron Rodgers (16 sacks):  22.0 rush attempts per game; pass attempts per game, 39.2

·  Sam Bradford (14):  24.2 rushes; 31.5 passes

·  Matt Cassel (13): 31.0 rushes; 40.2 passes

·  Jay Cutler (13): 29.5 rushes; 29.2 passes

·  Kevin Kolb (13): 25.2 rushes; 33.8 passes

·  Alex Smith (12): 30.8 rushes; 28.5 passes

·  Blaine Gabbert (12): 24.5 rushes; 28.8 passes

·  Andy Dalton (12): 28.8 rushes; 31.8 passes

·  Michael Vick (11): 32.0 rushes; 38.8 passes

·  Matt Ryan (11): 24.0 rushes; 36.8 passes

·  Robert Griffin III (11): 34.5 rushes; 31.0 passes

With two exceptions, Alex Smith in San Francisco and Robert Griffin III in Washington, every one of these quarterbacks plays for a team that attempts more passes than rushes; Jay Cutler and the Chicago Bears have the most even division, with only 0.3 more rush attempts per game.


The More Mobile Quarterback.  It started with Michael Vick, and continues with RG3:  the evolution of a more athletic, mobile quarterback who opens up the playbook for his offensive coordinator and keeps quarterbacks honest.  While these dynamic players have opened up offenses and dazzle us with their talent, they’ve also made themselves vulnerable to sacks. 
For one thing, when a quarterback leaves the pocket to scramble and give their receivers time to get open, they substantially increase the period of time the defense has to break through the offensive line.  For another thing, because he is trying to keep the play alive longer, the quarterback is also at risk of fumbling the ball.  So?  Well, if the quarterback fumbles and the defense recovers the fumble at or behind the line of scrimmage, that fumble counts as a sack. 

Who knew that a simple tackle could be filled with significance and intrigue?  You do!  How much time will quarterbacks spend on the ground this week? 
One interesting matchup to watch:  Seattle plays Carolina at 4:05 on Sunday.  Seattle was the team that put Aaron Rodgers on the ground seven times and Carolina gave Matt Ryan the same treatment.  Will rookie QB Russell Wilson and sophomore Cam Newton manage to stay upright? 


*I should note, however that there were a few anomalies, embodied by two quarterbacks: in 2006, Jon Kitna (Detroit) was sacked 63 times; and in 2005 and 2002, David Carr (Houston) suffered a spirit-crushing 68 and 76 sacks, respectively.

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