Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
24 Jul 2013
by Danny Tuccitto
Can you believe it? With the Cowboys and Dolphins having reported for training camp duty this past weekend, the long NFL offseason -- and your resulting affective disorder -- is officially over. But before we give our undivided attention to the 2013 campaign, there's one final piece of 2012 charting data that we would like to detail for you: performance on passing plays with pressure. These stats (and thousands more) are currently available in Football Outsiders Almanac 2013, which is now on sale via both digits and dead trees. And if you're the type of person who likes venturing into the belly of an Excel beast yourself, don't forget that our 2012 charting data is also for sale.
With several players making spirited runs at Michael Strahan's single-season sack record and Arizona's offensive line trying harder than Brett Favre to make it happen, one result last season that may surprise some people was that the leaguewide sack rate actually fell from 6.4 percent to 6.2 percent. What's more, it seems to be part of a downward trend that started around 1997. Of course, for all the skill that goes into a sack (or lack thereof when it comes to quarterbacks and offensive linemen), it also requires a lot of quasi-random things going right (or wrong). Aldon Smith could have bull rushed Jonathan Martin all the way to Mexico City in Week 14, but if Ryan Tannehill's first read was open, we would have never gotten to see this GIF.
On the other hand, pressure, as measured by our game charting, captures more of the skill part of the pass-rushing equation. Though less glamorous (and less GIF-worthy), hurrying a throw, hitting a quarterback during his throwing motion, or forcing a scramble often produces as much defensive success as a sack -- and sometimes more. In a typical season, there's also nearly twice as many plays with hits, hurries, or forced scrambles as there are plays with sacks, so we get the benefit of inferring skill from a larger sample size. For instance, in 2012, there were 1,169 sacks; but there were 4,003 plays with pressure if we add in hits, hurries, and forced scrambles.
Below is a table showing defensive stats for plays with pressure last season. The first three columns tell you about the defenses ability to get pressure (i.e., sacks, hits, hurries, and forced scrambles). The next three columns tell you their performance on plays with pressure. (Remember, negative DVOA means above average efficiency.) The next three columns tell you their performance on plays without pressure, while the final three columns tell you how much that pass defense's performance depended on pressuring (or sacking) the quarterback.
|Rk||with Pass Pressure||without Pass Pressure||Difference|
|Rk||with Pass Pressure||without Pass Pressure||Difference|
Compared to 2011, last season produced a pressure drop of 3.0 percentage points leaguewide, which mimics the aforementioned dip in sack rate. However, defenses were actually slightly more efficient on both plays with pressure (-80.0% DVOA in 2011) and plays without it (30.9% DVOA).
In light of recent news about Von Miller potentially being suspended for four games, Denver's stats might be cause for concern. No one pressured opposing quarterbacks more often than did the Broncos, and they were one of the most dependent on pressure for their overall pass defense efficiency. As Andy Benoit detailed in Denver's FOA 2013 chapter, the 2012 Broncos featured the second-most efficient third down defense since 1991 (-47.8% DVOA). Against third down passes, their -66.8% DVOA was the best since 2001. Both of these stats suggest last year's fifth-ranked unit is due for some regression to the mean in 2013. No doubt much of last year's success on third down was due to Denver's pressure stats, so the possible loss of Miller and the actual loss of Elvis Dumervil may prove to be a handy explanation for whatever regression does occur. That duo combined for 117.5 sacks, hits, and hurries last season, which accounted for nearly 70 percent of the front seven's total.
Like the Broncos, the Bears had one of the best pass defenses in the NFL last year (No. 1 DVOA, in fact). Unlike Denver, however, Chicago's DVOA splits were highly consistent from down to down (they ranked in the top four across the board). One of the main reasons why: They were the best pass defense last year both with pressure and without pressure. It's as if Chicago -- say, against Arizona in Week 16 -- could have subbed in a defensive line from the Uncanny Valley and they still would have played above-average pass defense.
On the other end of the spectrum is a pass defense like Cleveland's. The 2012 Browns suffered from being heavily reliant on pressure, but not getting it anywhere near enough. We assume this is why they gave Paul Kruger $20 million in guaranteed money, and hired defensive coordinator Ray Horton, who coaxed pressure out of mediocre pass rushing talent in Arizona. Of course, both of Horton's seasons with the Cardinals saw his pass defense rank similarly regardless of pressure. (In 2011, they ranked 15th in DVOA with pressure and 19th without pressure.) Kruger's former team had a similar profile.
Speaking of the Ravens, we'll close by noting that 2012 saw a departure from the past couple of seasons insofar as the Super Bowl champion didn't rely as heavily on pressure to make their pass defense work. In 2010, Green Bay ranked seventh in DVOA with pressure. In 2011, the New York Giants ranked second in DVOA with pressure and fourth in DVOA difference.
That's all for now. Just as we did last year, part two of this series will take a look at how pressure affected performance from the quarterback's perspective.
11 comments, Last at 30 Jul 2013, 4:46pm by jchavlik