by J.J. Cooper
When it comes to sacks, quarterbacks often get a free pass. Unless you're Ben Roethlisberger, few quarterbacks ever get blamed for their tendency to hold the ball too long -- the offensive line takes the heat.
Just ask Jay Cutler. Admittedly the Bears' quarterback has had plenty of problems with a leaky offensive line, but he also has created many of his own problems by holding the ball too long. In the past two years, more than half of Cutler's 82 sacks came when he held the ball for more than three seconds. His percentage of "long sacks" is sixth-worst in the league among quarterbacks with 200 or more attempts. It's not just offensive coordinator Mike Martz's protection concepts and poor offensive tackles that have given the Bears pass protection problems.
Roethlisberger, Michael Vick, Colt McCoy and Joe Flacco join Cutler in picking up plenty of sacks that really shouldn't be blamed on the offensive line. Every week during the season, Under Pressure will take a look at sacks around the NFL. Since 2009, I've been timing each and every regular-season sack in the NFL from the time of the snap to the time of initial contact on the sack. By doing that, we can find which quarterbacks are getting sacked before they get a chance to make their reads, and which ones are holding on to the ball too long.
So how do we determine a quick sack versus a long sack? Over that two-year-stretch, the average time of all sacks is three seconds, but a more accurate representation may be the median time, which currently stands at 2.8 seconds. After all, a couple of extremely lengthy sacks can adjust the average time up, but there is a pretty fixed limit on the lower end of how quickly a sack can happen -- there are 64 sacks over the two years that took six or more seconds. There are only two sacks that were recorded in less than one second.
The median sack time has hovered between 2.7 and 2.8 seconds throughout the two years of the tracking.
Unless a quarterback falls down or drops the ball, a sack of 1.7 seconds or less generally involves a rusher coming completely free. On the other end of the spectrum, once a quarterback holds the ball for three seconds or longer, he’s had time to make his drop, survey the field, and work through his progressions. If it takes longer than that, either the play has broken down or the quarterback is trying to buy time because the play has not developed as he had expected it to.
There are limitations involved with just timing the sacks. Ideally it would be better to time each and every pass attempt for every quarterback, but the amount of turn-around time makes that impossible to do on a weekly basis. Doing this would give a better sense of the benefits or downsides of quarterbacks holding onto the ball. And it would give a better sense of how much holding the ball longer affects a quarterback’s sack rate.
While it has not been possible to log each and every pass attempt around the league, over the past offseason it was possible to log the time of pass for all of Steelers pass attempts in 2010. Since Roethlisberger is considered to be prime example of a quarterback who creates big plays by holding the ball and escaping sacks, his statistics are useful.
What was found was that in Roethlisberger’s case, his sack percentage (the percentage of pass plays that results in sacks) goes up significantly the longer he holds the ball. Roethlisberger’s sack percentage doubled when he held the ball for longer than three seconds -- seven percent for passes of 2.1 to 3.0 seconds, 14 percent for passes that took between 3.1 and 4.0 seconds. Interestingly, his quarterback rating, yards per attempt and first down percentage all dipped when he held the ball for more than three seconds, so it’s difficult to say that holding the ball longer really pays off for Roethlisberger.
On the other end of the spectrum, when the Colts lost Peyton Manning to a neck injury, they not only lost one of the best quarterbacks in the league, but they also lost a quarterback who could make their offensive line's potential weaknesses seem to disappear. Over the past two years, Manning has been sacked only 26 times. When you look at sacks that are created by a quarterback holding the ball too long, however, Manning is even more exceptional. No other quarterback can top Manning’s four sacks of three-plus seconds in 1,250 pass attempts (0.32 percent of attempts).
|Percentage Pass Attempts Resulting in Sacks of Three or More Seconds, 2009-2010|
|Quarterback||Pass Att||Pct||Quarterback||Pass Att||Pct||Quarterback||Pass Att||Pct|
|Josh Johnson||150||6.00%||Donovan McNabb||944||3.07%||Matthew Stafford||482||1.87%|
|Michael Vick||393||5.34%||Seneca Wallace||228||3.07%||Chad Henne||958||1.77%|
|JaMarcus Russell||259||5.02%||Kevin Kolb||294||3.06%||Matt Ryan||1040||1.73%|
|Ben Roethlisberger||941||4.89%||Brett Favre||917||3.05%||Jake Delhomme||478||1.67%|
|Daunte Culpepper||165||4.85%||Mark Sanchez||898||3.01%||Keith Null||121||1.65%|
|Colt McCoy||233||4.72%||Kyle Orton||1070||2.90%||Marc Bulger||251||1.59%|
|Joe Flacco||1032||4.26%||Drew Stanton||175||2.86%||Carson Palmer||1069||1.59%|
|Jay Cutler||1030||4.17%||Josh Freeman||786||2.80%||Matt Hasselback||947||1.58%|
|Bruce Gradkowski||320||4.06%||Derek Anderson||523||2.68%||Tom Brady||1074||1.58%|
|Troy Smith||151||3.97%||Ryan Fitzpatrick||686||2.62%||Jon Kitna||323||1.55%|
|Charlie Whitehurst||103||3.88%||Alex Smith||732||2.46%||Kurt Warner||520||1.35%|
|Kyle Boller||187||3.74%||Matt Moore||288||2.43%||Drew Brees||1187||1.26%|
|Trent Edwards||241||3.73%||Philip Rivers||1052||2.38%||Eli Manning||1061||1.23%|
|Jason Campbell||868||3.69%||Sam Bradford||604||2.32%||Shaun Hill||578||1.21%|
|Vince Young||430||3.49%||Brady Quinn||262||2.29%||Byron Leftwich||115||0.87%|
|Aaron Rodgers||1051||3.33%||Jimmy Clausen||306||2.29%||Kerry Collins||498||0.80%|
|Chris Redman||123||3.25%||Rex Grossman||136||2.21%||John Skelton||127||0.79%|
|David Garrard||911||3.18%||Matt Schaub||1183||2.20%||Peyton Manning||1254||0.32%|
|Matt Cassel||973||3.08%||Tony Romo||780||2.18%||League Average||34912||2.61%||Minimum 100 Pass Attempts (passes + sacks)|
But if there is any good news for Colts’ fans, it’s that Indianapolis has replaced Manning with another quarterback who also knows how to get rid of the ball. Of quarterbacks with 200 or more attempts in the past two years, Kerry Collins is second in the NFL in sacks that took three or more seconds (0.80 percent of attempts). Collins may not have Manning’s passing ability, but he should be able to stay out of needless sacks.
With the background information out of the way, on to the first week of the 2011 season.
WORST SACK OF THE WEEK
No matter what Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan does, there will always be some Falcons fans who blame him for not being Vick. Ryan didn’t help himself on Sunday with a reminder that, as we all know, he doesn’t have Vick’s athleticism.
Vick is one of the best in the league at spinning away from pressure. Sensing backside pressure, he'll dip a shoulder, spin around and slip under a charging defensive end.
Matt Ryan cannot effectively execute the spin move. On a third down late in the third quarter of the Falcons’ loss to the Bears, Ryan tried to do the same thing. But with Julius Peppers bearing down on him from the blind side, Ryan’s attempt to spin away turned into a disaster. He stumbled in the middle of his spin, then used his right hand (the one holding the football) to try to steady himself. He did manage to stay upright, but he left the football on the ground. The Bears scooped it up for an easy touchdown that ended the slim hopes that Atlanta had of a comeback.
QUICKEST SACK OF THE WEEK
Eagles' defensive ends Jason Babin and Trent Cole gave the Rams tackles trouble all day, but when Babin sacked Sam Bradford early in the second quarter, one has to hope that right tackle Jason Smith either forgot or couldn't hear the snap count. That's the only charitable explanation as Babin was across the line of scrimmage and had a step on Smith before Smith even came out of his crouch. Smith never laid a hand on Babin although he did feebly try to chase after him. In his defense, he was in perfect position to help Bradford back up once the play was over.
Babin picked up the sack in only 1.7 seconds. Only one of the 90 other sacks this week was timed at less than two seconds.
LONGEST SACK OF THE WEEK
There were four sacks which took six seconds or longer. Not surprisingly, three of them came on bootlegs. Nothing buys a quarterback more time, but also limits a quarterbacks options like a bootleg. And nothing gives the quarterback a visual reminder of the clock ticking in his head like a bootleg -- when he reaches the sideline, he's either throwing the ball, cutting upfield to run, or stepping out of bounds. Ryan's 6.2-second sack was the longest of the weekend, but Tony Romo's 6.0-second sack is the one that may be most remembered: it came on the play where he attempted to dive for the end zone from the Jets 3-yard line. He lost the ball before he landed, didn't make it to the end zone and gave the Jets a second chance.
HOLDING THE BALL
No one could find much to complain about in Cam Newton's pro debut, but if the Panthers' quarterback had any weakness in the opener against the Cardinals, it was his tendency to hold the ball. All of Newton's four sacks came when he held the ball for three or more seconds. Romo doesn't have youth as an excuse, but three of his sacks also came when he held the ball for more than three seconds.