There has been significant finger-pointing as to why the Denver Broncos have fallen into a slump this early in the season. Those fingers are being pointed at third-down inefficiency, play calling, game management, among many others.
However, the Broncos already have a group on the team that can secure wins. Unfortunately, they haven't gotten the job done consistently.
That group is the pass rushers. The pass rush is the key to NFL victories, but the Broncos are curiously lacking in the most important statistic in that category: sacks.
The football world knows that the NFL is a quarterback-driven league. A team that is blessed with a good field general at the most important position in all of sports has an advantage and is poison to an opposing defense. The antidote is a potent pass rush. In fact, sacks lead to victory and the numbers provide proof.
The reason why sacks are so important goes back to an old saying by the legendary Vince Lombardi: "Football is a game of inches.” One drive or even one play often makes the difference in a league with incredible parity.
Furthermore, it's hard to score points in the NFL. Sometimes it seems that teams can score at will, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth.
The greatest offense in the history of the NFL — the 2013 Broncos unit that scored a league record 606 points in a single season — did not score on every drive. In fact, that potent offense averaged 13 drives per game, but scored on only six, less than half.
One or two drives can make a difference in victory or defeat which is why sacks are the key to defining wins and losses. Getting the quarterback in the dirt ends drives and, if done enough, leads to winning games.
Pressure? No, Sacks!
Many NFL analysts discuss quarterback pressure as being more significant than sacks, but the issue with that analysis is there are several events that can take place because of pressure, some of which are positive. A quarterback under duress can throw an interception or an incompletion, but he can also complete a pass for a gain in yardage, complete a first down pass to move the chains, or throw a touchdown under pressure.
Even an incompletion under pressure results in only a loss of the down, not a loss in yardage. In fact, there are more positive outcomes in a quarterback pressure than there are negative outcomes. Quarterbacks who are good under duress excel at those positive outcomes.
With a sack there are only two outcomes. A loss of a down and yardage or a forced fumble. Both are negative events for the offense. Those negative outcomes significantly affect the offenses ability to score points.
How do we know? It starts with ending offensive drives. Sacks do just that.
The Penultimate Importance of Getting Sacks
Going back to an older analysis, when I analyzed nearly 65,000 drives and found that only 22,000 ended in points. 34% of drives end in either a touchdown or a field goal — not an incredibly efficient number, but when at least one sack occurs on the drive, a paltry 2,600 ended with points. That's only 4% ending in success. Sacks are drive killers.
Ending a drive or two can make a huge difference on the scoreboard. It makes even more sense when a drive is broken down further.
A quarterback sack leads to an average loss of 6.5 yards. That puts the offense in a significant hole and makes it difficult to convert on third down. As the yards-to-go increases, the ability for an offense to convert gets significantly harder.
On 3rd-&-1, offenses convert 66% of their attempts. 3rd-&-4 and that percentage drops to 46%. 3rd-&-7 abd it becomes 38%.
Obviously, a sack on third down will end the drive, but one on second down is also significant. If an offense gets a decent gain on first down and perhaps it's looking at a 2nd-&-5 to go. Hypothetically, a short pass could get them into a great position to convert on third down.
A sack would make that a 3rd-&-11 and offenses only convert 26% of those situations. That will get the defense off the field and give their offense another opportunity.
Now, that it's evident that getting to the quarterback stops offenses, is there evidence that it also leads to wins? Yes, there is ample evidence.
First, as explained before, stopping drives is significant. Second, scoring in the NFL is difficult and the fewer opportunities given to an opposing offense, the harder it becomes, obviously. However, there is a magic number of sacks on the day that lead to victory more often than not.
That magic number is three.
If an offense allows three or more sacks in a game, those teams have only won only 27% of the time. Compare that to allowing two sacks or less, and the team wins 73% of the time. That's a significant difference.
That one extra sack means a victory almost three quarters of the time. In only 16% of the games where a team won and the offense gave up three or more sacks, its defense failed to match the opposing defense's sack total.
Meaning, those teams lost the sack battle but still won. Winning in that situation is a rare occurrence. It's difficult to win in the NFL when a quarterback is being put on his back consistently.
The 'Bad Teams Pass More' Fallacy
Now, some may argue that sacks happen more when teams are losing because sub-.500 teams pass more. Therefore, the number of sacks are a product of other factors.
This is partially true, but one of those 'factors' is sacks ending drives earlier in the game, contributing to the building of a lead as the game progresses, which contributes symbiotically to more passes and sacks. That's a formula for winning.
Another, more analytical counter to the naysayer’s argument is sacks being a percent of passes tossed. Winning teams, on average, have a sack rate of 0.05 and losing teams 0.07. Teams with the higher rate of sacks per-pass-thrown won only 40% of the time.
Regardless of how many throws a quarterback makes during a game, if he's getting sacked at a higher rate vs. the opposing team, his team typically loses. In other words, a team can pass only 20 times, but if its sack rate is higher than the opposing team throwing 40 times, it losees more often.
Thus, sacks are a significant factor in winning and are not a product of other factors that occur during a game when a team wins.
This sack rate difference indicating a win stays true through nearly every second of the game. Furthermore, in the waning minutes of the game, the team that can get to the quarterback wins.
To add more data to this premise, we can look at the number of passes attempted compared to sacks accumulated through the game where the losing team is sacked much more per pass throughout the entire contest than the winner.
Based on this analysis and the players the Broncos have on defense, Denver should win more games than expected, but it hasn't reached it pass rushing potential.
The Broncos have played five games and in only two have they totaled at least three sacks. In Week 3 vs. the New York Jets, Denver got to Zach Wilson five times and it won in blow-out fashion.
The second game was against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 4. Indeed, the Broncos sacked Lamar Jackson the requisite number of times with three, but the first sack didn’t occur until 18 seconds left in the first half when the Ravens were already ahead 17-7.
The Broncos allowed five sacks — one on the opening drive and another in the second quarter when the score was 7-7. That particular sack set up the Ravens with good field position where they scored a touchdown. Bottom line, Baltimore's sacks came in key situations and Denver's did not.
What it Means
The Broncos must get their pass rush going. Before the season, many analysts looked at Von Miller, Bradley Chubb, Dre’Mont Jones, and Shelby Harris and predicted that the group could lead the league in sacks. That group isn’t getting it done on a consistent basis as predicted.
Granted, Chubb is missing due to injury but his replacement, Malik Reed, led the team in sacks last season with eight. Frankly, Miller has been the only consistent pass rusher on the team even though he 's been tasked to play defensive back once in a while.
If the Broncos coaches want to secure victories, they have to unleash this elite pass rushing group. Vic Fangio has to put Miller and company in position to do what they do best: get to the quarterback.
Follow Thomas on Twitter @ThomasHallNFL.
Subscribe to Mile High Huddle on YouTube for daily Broncos live-stream podcasts!