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?
04 Jan 2013
by J.J. Cooper
In the year of the rookie quarterback, Ryan Tannehill hasn’t come close to matching the holy trinity of Robert Griffin, Andrew Luck, and Russell Wilson. But Tannehill’s season wasn’t all that bad for a rookie; he finished with more DYAR than Jay Cutler, for example.
But New England gave Tannehill a very difficult season finale. The Patriots sacked Tannehill seven times after he had been sacked only 28 times in his first 15 games this season.
Before watching the film, my assumption was that Bill Belichick’s defensive schemes simply baffled a rookie quarterback, or that the Patriots figured out ways to get blitzers free runs at the quarterback. Instead, what it showed is how thin the Dolphins wide receiver corps is, and offered hints that a frustrated Tannehill was sometimes more comfortable taking off after a quick initial glimpse.
By my count, five of the seven Patriots sacks of Tannehill were coverage sacks. Every one of those seven sacks took longer than three seconds, and the Patriots didn’t do anything complicated. In looking at the All-22, the Patriots generally lined up in man coverage with a safety or two safeties over the top in Cover-1 or Cover-2. They didn’t even bother to disguise these coverages pre-snap; usually it was an easy pre-snap read for Tannehill.
But with Davone Bess inactive, the Dolphins fielded a receiver corps of Brian Hartline, Rishard Matthews, Marlon Moore, and Armon Binns. Besides Hartline, the other three had combined for 17 catches through Week 16, and they added just six more in this game. On most of the sacks, Dolphins receivers had trouble getting open. They sometimes had trouble staying upright -- on two of the sacks receivers fell down running their routes.
There were multiple sacks where Tannehill went through his progressions and didn’t find anywhere to throw the ball. By my count, four of the sacks came on plays where no receiver had generated any separation by the time Tannehill had hit his back step and gone through his first couple of progressions.
But Tannehill does share some of the blame. He often looked at only one side of the field before tucking the ball and taking off. That may be by design -- rookie quarterbacks are sometimes told to read half the field to reduce the complexity -- but it did mean that there were plays where Tannehill had a receiver open, but never saw him before taking off and getting sacked.
To spread the blame a little wider, right tackle Nate Garner gave up too much ground in general. And, amazingly, rookie left tackle Jonathan Martin recognized a blitz by safety Derrick Martin, slid out to pick him up, and still got beat. Yes, Derrick Martin, giving up 100-plus pounds, drove Jonathan Martin backwards before shedding him for a sack. (In Jonathan's defense, Derrick Martin is the best player in the league right now if you are one of those people who believes players should only be judged by their ability to win Super Bowl rings.)
Now that the regular season is over, the final sacks allowed stats can be totaled up. As you would expect, it’s not pretty for the Cardinals.
The numbers could still be tweaked slightly as Week 17's stats receive some final corrections from the NFL, but a list of the 10 worst offensive linemen in the league in sack percentage (as determined by sacks divided by total offensive snaps) has all three regular Arizona offensive tackles.
But it was Chargers tackle Mike Harris who posted the worst overall stats. That’s not all that surprising, as it’s not all that often that a team has tried to get by with an undrafted rookie at an offensive tackle spot.
As noted regularly here in Under Pressure, all sack stats are determined by watching each and every sack of the season multiple times. Sacks are not blamed on a lineman if the quarterback holds the ball for an extended period of time or leaves the pocket without being pressured. On most sacks, it's pretty clear who missed a block, but without knowing the actual protection schemes, some are difficult to determine. If it can’t be determined clearly, the sack is registered as a QB/Play Call sack.
On the other end of the spectrum, there were 12 linemen with 500 or more snaps played who did not give up a sack (by my count) during the season. With the exception of Giants tackle Sean Locklear, the rest of the group was all centers and guards.
If you’re wondering who were the top tackles as far as avoiding sacks, you will find a couple of Broncos on the list. That's not surprising considering their new quarterback.
On the final two snaps the Steelers defense played in a very meaningless finale against the Browns, defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau didn’t have to go deep into the playbook.
On a third-and-1, LeBeau sent inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons on a blitz through the B-gap as part of a five-man rush. Guard Ryan Miller looked inside before looking back outside, which was enough of a delay to let Timmons run right by him, unblocked, for a massive hit on quarterback Thaddeus Lewis.
The hit knocked Lewis out of the game and left the Browns facing a fourth-and-9. LeBeau dialed up the same blitz. Miller did the same step to his inside before turning his eyes and body back out to the outside. By then, Timmons had once again run right by him, blowing up fourth-string quarterback Josh Johnson for an easy sack. These two sacks were among the four fastest sacks of the week.
It was the very end of a meaningless game, but for the sake of Cleveland's quarterbacks, hopefully the new coaching staff will figure out a way to make adjustments and avoid giving up unblocked sacks on the same blitz on back-to-back plays.
Getting Miller out of the lineup might help. The rookie guard played only 11 snaps for the Browns all season, so his two sacks allowed gave him the second-worst sack percentage (18 percent of all snaps) in the league. Only Bears guard Chris Williams’ two sacks in six snaps (33 percent) was worse.
Cleveland's pass-protection problems weren’t limited to the final plays of the game. Alex Mack and John Greco appeared to botch the protection scheme on a third quarter first-and-15. Mack left nose tackle Steve McLendon almost completely unblocked for a very easy sack. Cameron Heyward, looping inside to follow the gap that McLendon had just stepped through, arrived shortly thereafter on a sack that took only 1.5 seconds from snap to contact.
The longest sack of this week was one that wasn’t really a case of the quarterback holding the ball too long. Ravens linebacker Dannell Ellerbe came free on an X-blitz to hit Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton just 1.6 seconds after the snap. But he wasn’t able to bring Dalton down. Instead, Dalton stayed up and took off for the sideline. He made it back to the line of scrimmage, where Paul Kruger ran him out of bounds 6.1 seconds after the snap.
If you’re looking for a more conventional long sack, Robert Griffin had 5.7 seconds in the pocket before Anthony Spencer came free for a sack that said more about Spencer’s never-quit attitude than anything about his pass-rushing skills.
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