Editor’s note: Throughout the 2015 NFL season, The MMQB is publishing an advanced analytics column by Neil Hornsby, the president of football operations at Pro Football Focus.
About a week ago I was asked one of those typical football questions, “What’s been the biggest surprise of the season for you?” It made me think a little. It’s easy to go to the Panthers’ success, or the Ravens’ failures. But after some thought, I realized the most unexpected thing for me has been the Bills’ inability to get consistent pressure on the quarterback.
Going into the season I believed Buffalo’s defensive line had all the hallmarks of an all-time great unit: The players had a history of demonstrated ability, and new coach Rex Ryan is one of the smartest defensive minds in football. But things haven’t turned out that way.
At ProFootballFocus.com we take pass rushing very seriously. The days of simply counting sacks is hopefully in the rearview mirror. As most defensive coaches will tell you, the key to success is generating pressure, even if the quarterback isn’t always brought to the ground. Why? Because when a QB is under pressure, on average, his passer rating drops by about 30 points. That’s pretty much the equivalent of turning Tom Brady into Colin Kaepernick.
So pressure is incredibly important—but measuring its impact isn’t as simple as adding up sacks, hit and hurries and dividing by the number of passing plays.
Not all pressures are equal; there’s a huge difference between a quick hit forcing an errant throw after 1.9 seconds and a late hurry after 3.5 seconds. Nor is every opportunity to get pressure created equally. For example, you are less likely to get to Tom Brady than you are to Andrew Luck, because Brady gets rid of the ball on average more than a half-second quicker. Across the NFL, seven-step drops account for 26% of passing plays. Luck uses a seven-step drop on 43% of his passes, the league’s second-highest rate behind Teddy Bridgewater. That’s hard to pass protect for and hence easier for the defense to get after.
At PFF we take all this into account to generate our pass rush rankings. The top five:
Perhaps the most surprising team here is the Dolphins. Their front four, despite having real issues in run defense, always get consistent pass-rush pressure. Over the last four weeks, few have done better in that regard than right end Olivier Vernon, who has picked up three sacks, a ridiculous 14 hits and 11 hurries.
But this article is concentrating on the bottom of the rankings:
Buffalo is the only surprise here.
Most people outside San Diego (and a good number inside) would have difficulty naming a current Chargers pass rusher. In Indianapolis, Dwight Freeney is long gone, and Robert Mathis, who looks like a shadow of his former self, has rushed the passer only 216 times. Jacksonville lost its most likely star, Dante Fowler, to a torn ACL before a snap was taken. San Francisco is still rebuilding from all its offseason departures. There are valid reasons that explain why these four teams are struggling.
Buffalo, which ranked No. 9 last year, has no excuses. On paper the Bills have one of the best groups of defensive linemen in football. Only the Rams pay their linemen more than the $37.6M in cap expenditure Buffalo has spent this year—and that number jumps by $6 million next year, according to overthecap.com.
Here is a breakdown of how Buffalo’s players are performing—and how their combine output stacks up against J.J. Watts’ stats.
* An explanation of our grades can be found here.
Jerry Hughes is playing well, but not at the same level he was a year ago, Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams have been average, and Mario Williams has been poor. Everyone else has either been below average or poor.
Of Williams’s 30 total QB disruptions, 12 have been unblocked and five more have been of the “clean-up” variety, where a QB either drifts to him or is forced his way by another player. Over half his stats are “unearned.”
So how does Rex Ryan figure into all of this? Well, scheme is an interesting component.
Last year, defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz stuck with his usual policy of rushing four as often as possible. The Bills blitzed the third-least of any NFL team, on just 20.6% of passing plays (the NFL average was 29.4%). Yet they were still our ninth-ranked pass rushing unit.
This year this blitzing has become far more prevalent—on 33.5% of dropbacks—but the Bills are getting to the QB less often. Some believe this is because quarterbacks react to this by throwing more quickly, and while this may be true, our grades do account for this.
Ultimately, it still comes down to the individual battles. Is your rusher beating his blocker frequently enough? The answer in Buffalo is a definitive no.
The Bills have improved in so many areas: quarterback, tight end and offensive line—and as a result they have a chance of making the playoffs. How ironic would it be for their season to be derailed by a weakness that most people, myself included, thought would be the strength of this team in 2015.