Smarter Stats: Sacks don't tell the whole story of NFL's best pass rushers
Sacks are overrated. There, we said it.
Last season, Minnesota's Brian Robison had nine quarterback sacks in 989 total defensive snaps. A decent number, to be sure, but some may have wondered why the Vikings rewarded a player who had never hit double-digit sacks in any of his seven NFL seasons with a five-year, $32.4 million contract extension in 2013. Through seven games of the 2014 campaign, Robison has 0.5 sacks, which would seem to mark a relative failure. But here's the thing: Robison affects opposing quarterbacks in other ways, and he does so as well as any other defender in the league. In 2013, he led all defensive players in quarterback hurries, according to Pro Football Focus, with 63. And this season, only Cincinnati's Wallace Gilberry has more hurries (20) than Robison's 19.
It makes a difference. Hurries affect the timing of pass plays, even if those plays aren't shut down as they are with sacks. For example, Drew Brees has seven interceptions in 2014, and five of them have come while under pressure. His completion percentage drops from 67.7 percent to 52.4 when he's pressured, and he's tied with Houston's Ryan Fitzpatrick with six plays in which he's hit as he's throwing the ball. If you affect the quarterback's timing, no matter how good he is, the effectiveness of the offense you're facing will be altered.
Everybody knows that J.J. Watt was the NFL's most dominant defensive player in 2013, and he's on pace to be even more amazing in 2014. But Watt's effectiveness is about more than sacks, batted passes, obvious run stops and other splash plays. Last season, Watt led the league with an amazing 36 quarterback hits in 998 snaps. He had 10.5 sacks, which was seen as a downturn in overall pressure from the 20.5 sacks Watt put up in 2012. But when you factor in those 36 hits and his 38 hurries, Watt's pressure percentage of 8.4 was actually better than the 7.9 he had the year before, when he finished with 20.5 takedowns, 25 hits and 30 hurries. This season, however... well, he's playing at an entirely different level, with a 9.8 pressure percentage (five sacks, 22 hits and 19 hurries on 470 snaps). Watt's perceived value is insane because he can get pressure from any gap and in the face of double-teams, but when you add in the fact that he's providing some sort of pressure on nearly one in 10 offensive plays -- well, that's not really even human. His five sacks tell so little of the story.
Just because a player doesn't get all the way to the quarterback doesn't mean that he isn't doing his job as a pass-rusher. Conversely, just because he is picking up big sack numbers doesn't mean that he's maxing out his defensive efficiency. And things can change from season to season. Consider the case of defensive end Willie Young, who moved from Detroit to Chicago this past offseason when the Bears signed him to a three-year, $9 million contract. It was a major bargain when you consider Young's numbers in 2013 -- yes, he had just three sacks, but he put up eight hits and 48 hurries. This season, only Denver's Von Miller has more sacks this season than Young's seven. However, Young's total pressures are way down -- just one hit and six hurries.
Pressure is relative in the NFL, and sacks don't even come close to telling the whole story. So, with that in mind, we've created two categories this week: The first includes those players with very few sacks and a large number of total pressures, and the second includes those players who aren't getting home when they're not getting sacks. (All numbers per Pro Football Focus).
The "Almost" Awards (High pressure, low sack total)
Chicago Bears DE Lamarr Houston (0 sacks, 10 hits, 15 hurries)
Dallas Cowboys DE Jeremy Mincey (0 sacks, 4 hits, 19 hurries)
Minnesota Vikings DE Brian Robison(0.5 sacks, 3 hits, 19 hurries)
Seattle Seahawks DEs Cliff Avril (1 sack, 2 hits, 17 hurries) and Michael Bennett (3 sacks 9 hits, 16 hurries)
St. Louis Rams DE William Hayes (0 sacks, 2 hits, 19 hurries)
New Orleans Saints DE Cameron Jordan (1 sack, 3 hits, 15 hurries)
San Francisco 49ers DE Ray McDonald (0 sacks, 1 hit 15 hurries)
Arizona Cardinals DE Tommy Kelly (0 sacks, 1 hit, 12 hurries)
Oakland Raiders OLB Khalil Mack (0 sacks, 4 hits, 12 hurries)
Tennessee Titans OLB Derrick Morgan (1 sack, 3 hits, 13 hurries)
The "Glad You Got There" Awards (Low pressure, high efficiency)
Chicago Bears DE Willie Young (7 sacks, 1 hit, 6 hurries)
Carolina Panthers DE Mario Addison (4 sacks, 2 hits, 2 hurries)
Detroit Lions DE George Johnson (4 sacks, 2 hits, 7 hurries)
Jacksonville Jaguars DE Chris Clemons (4 sacks, 3 hits, 4 hurries)
Philadelphia Eagles OLB Connor Barwin (6 sacks, 3 hits, 9 hurries)
So, who are the NFL's most efficient bringers of pressure? Watt leads the charge among 3-4 ends (and all defensive players by far) with 46 total pressures, but don't overlook Washington's Jason Hatcher, a great free-agent signing, who has 26 total pressures. And Tennessee's Jurrell Casey, who new defensive coordinator Ray Horton is using in some different ways this season (you don't often see a 300-pound standup pass-rusher) has 23 total pressures, which is right in line with his recent significant impact. While the rest of the Jets' defense looks like a disaster, their defensive front is certainly for real -- Sheldon Richardson (22 pressures) and Muhammad Wilkerson (21 pressures) are the best one-two punch of 3-4 ends in the NFL.
Miami's Cameron Wake leads all 4-3 defensive ends with 29 total pressures, and three players -- Seattle's Michael Bennett, Denver's DeMarcus Ware and Cincinnati's Wallace Gilberry -- are second with 27. This is where positional lines can get blurred, though -- Ware is playing as an outside linebacker from a gap perspective at times, while Bennett slips inside to five-tech tackle more than a lot of ends will.
When it comes to inside linebackers as pass rushers, there's Baltimore rookie C.J. Mosley and there's everybody else. Mosley has 12 pressures, and five players (Rolando McClain, Larry Foote, A.J. Hawk, Jerod Mayo and Dont'a Hightower) are second with seven. Mayo's season-ending knee injury was a major hit to the Patriots' front seven in this regard. We'll have more about Mosley's success on the field soon.
The competition at 4-3 outside linebacker really isn't one at all: Denver's Von Miller has racked up 35 pressures so far, and Minnesota rookie Anthony Barr ranks second with 10.
It's no surprise that two members of the Detroit defensive line (Ndamukong Suh with 24, Nick Fairley with 21) lead all defensive tackles in pressures, but Jacksonville's Sen'Derrick Marks deserves more attention than he's getting. Marks is tied with Fairley in overall pressures, and he had 39 last season on a Jaguars defense that is still finding its way.
The larger point? From the most casual fan to the dialed-in team executive, going beyond the simple sack statistic is key to understanding how defense really works.