After three NFL seasons of kicking off from the 35-yard line, what has been the impact on touchbacks, returns, field position, scoring and injuries? Also, is this rule responsible for a record number of big comebacks?
13 Sep 2013
by J.J. Cooper
We’re back for another year of Under Pressure, the weekly feature that looks at sacks and the timing of sacks around the league. This is year five of the project but since this is the first Under Pressure of the season, it’s worth explaining the methodologies again.
For every sack, I time from the snap to the initial contact where a rusher starts to bring the quarterback down. I then replay the same play several times to ensure that I’m timing the sack accurately.
For each sack, I also log who was beaten on the play. That’s not always easy. On some sacks, it’s obvious to anyone. For example, Robert Quinn lines up across from Cardinals left tackle Levi Brown. At the snap, Quinn takes off on a speed rush around the edge. Brown is too slow-footed to get a good punch, Quinn sails by him and sacks quarterback Carson Palmer. Who’s to blame? It’s Brown with no question.
But there are plenty of sacks that are less obvious. Bills safety Da’Norris Searcy came on a safety blitz where he flew through the Patriots’ offensive line untouched. Both the tackle and the guard were locked up blocking defensive linemen when Searcy came on his blitz and the Patriots didn’t have any back stay in to block. On a sack like that, I log it as a quarterback/play call sack and no blocker is given responsibility.
In other cases, some inferences can be made. This week, the Titans ran a line twist against the Steelers with defensive tackle Jurrell Casey looping outside while a defensive end twisted inside. Steelers left guard Ramon Foster picked up the twist and handed off Casey while picking up the defensive end. That’s generally how lineman are taught to handle these kinds of twists. But left tackle Mike Adams didn’t let go of the defensive end. That took him out of position while giving Casey a free run to Ben Roethlisberger for a sack. In that case, I charged the sack to Adams. Is it possible that the Steelers had a bizarre line call set where Adams was supposed to stay with his initial man? Yes. Is it highly more likely that he is the one that made the mistake? Yes. Those kind of inferences have to be made every week, so do understand that it’s possible that a sack here or there is wrongly charged to a player who was not culpable. Until teams release their own sacks allowed stats (which will likely never happen) that’s the best we can do.
So how long does the average sack take? Because sacks can take as long as a quarterback can dodge pass rushers, and because there is a lower bound of .1 seconds that can’t be beat, we don’t look at average time but median time. Over the past four years the median time of all the sacks in the NFL has hovered around 2.7 to 2.8 seconds. It currently sits at 2.8 seconds. Situations are different depending on the pass rush, the play call, and other factors, but generally if a quarterback’s brain isn’t telling him to get rid of the ball before 2.8 seconds, his internal clock needs a reset.
Looking at how the sacks break down also allows us to make some further generalizations. In looking back at the four years of data we have, we’ve tweaked some definitions for 2013. For our measures, a quick sack is any sack that took less than 2.6 seconds. That’s a increase of a 1/10th of a second from past years, but in analyzing the sacks of the past four seasons, roughly 33.8 percent of all sacks have taken less than 2.6 seconds. Any sack between 2.6 and 3.1 seconds is considered a normal sack. Since 2009, 32.7 percent of all sacks have fit in that category. Another 33.5 percent have been logged as long sacks -- sacks that took more than 3.2 seconds. So by tweaking the splits, we’ve managed to divide sacks into three roughly equal buckets of slow, normal and long sacks.
There’s a lot of other data that is logged for each sack including the number of rushers, the type of mistake that led to the sack (was it confusion, coverage or simply a player being physically beaten) and whether the sacker was left unblocked.
A defensive coordinator’s dream is to get an unblocked rusher a free run at the quarterback. It happens, but it’s pretty rare. In 2011 and 2012 it happened on only 12 percent of all sacks. This past week was an especially good week for defensive coordinators -- or a bad week for offensive linemen still learning to work together -- 18 of the 81 sacks (22 percent) came because a rusher was left unblocked.
OK, enough with the introductions, on to the sacks.
Dolphins defensive end Cameron Wake has made many offensive linemen looks bad over the past few years. He can add Cleveland right tackle Mitchell Schwartz to his list of victims after Wake recorded 2.5 sacks and six quarterback hurries in the 2013 opener.
Wake picked up all his sacks lining up at left defensive end, often flanking out extremely wide in a nine technique as the Browns were forced into passing situations.
Schwartz just didn’t have a whole lot of answers for Wake’s combination of speed and excellent handwork, especially as the game wound on. But there were two sacks that were especially interesting.
On Wake’s final sack of the game, the Dolphins ran a play that an NBA coach could recognize. They lined up with Wake wide on the Dolphins left. But the Dolphins showed an overload blitz coming from their right. Understandably the Browns slanted their line to pick up the overload blitz, which meant Schwartz blocked down. But that left Browns fullback Chris Ogbonnaya with the job of trying to slow down Wake. With a full head of speed, Wake turned Ogbonnaya into a minor speed bump on his way to quarterback Brandon Weeden.
The last of the Dolphins six sacks also demonstrated just what Wake’s dominance did to the Browns. Wake didn’t get the sack, but he did occupy four blockers and still managed to get free to try to chase down Weeden.
After losing left tackle Levi Brown to a season-ending torn tricep before the 2012 season began, the Cardinals tried to piece together an offensive line. It was a disaster, and the Cardinals finished with a league-worst 58 sacks allowed.
Brown was back for the season opener, but he offered a reminder that getting him back isn’t all that much help. Brown consistently ranked as one of the worst pass-blocking tackles in the league in 2009, 2010 and 2011. He’s back, but he’s still one of the slower-footed left tackles in the league. On Sunday he was frequently a step behind Rams’ defensive end Robert Quinn. Brown gave up three sacks, the worst Week 1 performance for any offensive lineman.
As this .gif shows, Brown’s problem isn’t one of being confused as to who to block. He just has real trouble beating speedy defensive ends to the corner. The other two sacks were carbon copies of this one -- Quinn simply turned on the jets and beat Brown with a speed rush.
Chiefs nose tackle Dontari Poe’s rookie season didn’t really live up to the expectations that come with being the 11th pick in the 2012 draft. Coming out of the draft, Poe was considered raw but his rare athleticism gave him a chance to develop into the rare three-down nose tackle who could stuff the run and rush the quarterback.
Poe didn’t show much pass-rushing ability as a rookie, but in his 2013 debut, he showed that he’s taken some steps forward in year two.
Poe finished with 1.5 sacks against the Jaguars. On one of his sacks, Poe manhandled Jaguars center Brad Meester into the backfield on his way to the quarterback. Poe’s half-sack came on a play where he cleaned up a sack that Derrick Johnson instigated by flushing Blaine Gabbert and herding him into Poe’s general vicinity. Poe got credit for half the sack, but it was Johnson’s pressure that forced it.
But Poe also didn’t get credit for another sack where he showed excellent pressure. He would have sacked Gabbert on a second-and-5 late in the third quarter, but Justin Houston just beat him to the quarterback.
Poe’s aggressiveness, agility, and athleticism stood out last Sunday. It will be worth watching if these are the signs of a player on his way to a breakout year.
The quickest sack of the week recorded this week is not technically considered a sack. But if it had been a sack, it would have ranked as one of the fastest of all time.
Steelers safety Troy Polamalu timed a safety blitz so well that it was hard to tell when viewing it live whether he jumped offside. But Polamalu crossed the line of scrimmage just after the snap and hit Titans quarterback Jake Locker roughly .15 second after the snap. I have to qualify it as roughly because the hit is so quick that it’s hard to hit the stopwatch quick enough to accurately record it.
But the statisticians ruled that Locker wasn’t dropping back to pass, so it was a tackle for loss instead. Short of asking the Titans what the play call was, there’s no way to know for sure what the play was going to be -- Locker had no time to do anything. This had the chance to be the fastest sack I’ll ever record. Instead Ronde Barber’s record is safe. Barber sacked Jay Cutler .3 seconds after the snap back in 2011. It’s the fastest of the roughly 4,000 sacks I have timed over the past four-plus seasons.
Polamalu has the second-fastest sack since 2009 when he similarly timed a safety blitz to sack Andy Dalton last year. That sack took 0.7 seconds from snap to hit.
The fastest sack that did count this week was also made by a safety. The Bills’ Searcy timed his safety blitz nearly perfectly, but just as importantly, with no backs staying in to block the Patriots made Searcy’s job easy. Searcy split the B-gap to nab Tom Brady in 1.7 seconds.
49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick took apart the Packers’ defense with his arm. He also did a pretty good Fran Tarkenton impression on one play as he scrambled around before eventually being forced out of bounds 8.6 seconds after the snap.
Kaepernick’s sack was one of four that took six seconds or longer this past week. All four came when the quarterback rolled out and eventually was run down/out at the sideline near the line of scrimmage.
The next time Jaguars quarterback Blaine Gabbert goes out to eat with his offensive linemen, the big guys should pick up the check. Gabbert and Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer each were sacked four times on quick sacks (sacks that took less than 2.6 seconds) in their season openers. No other quarterback had more than two quick sacks.
On the other hand, Jets quarterback Geno Smith didn't make his offensive line look good in the opener. Smith was sacked four times on long sacks (sacks that took more than 3.1 seconds). Colts quarterback Andrew Luck and Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden each had three long sacks.
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