Under Pressure
Dum dum dum dugga-dum dum.

Under Pressure: By the Seconds

Under Pressure: By the Seconds
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by J.J. Cooper

For years we've heard announcers talk about a quarterback's internal clock: the thing that tells him when he should check down to another receiver, and when he has to get rid of the ball right now.

It is readily apparent that some quarterback's clocks are wound differently than others. Peyton Manning's clock ensures he generally gets rid of the ball very quickly. Ben Roethlisberger and Joe Flacco's clocks are much like the one in an old Chrysler -- it always seems to be just a little bit slow.

But determining just how much time a quarterback has is a big reason I started timing sacks in 2009. If you dig hard enough, you'll find stories that theorize that a quarterback generally has around three seconds to throw. Others say that alarm bells should be ringing around 2.7 seconds.

The point behind timing every sack is the idea that it helps us make generalities of how long a quarterback generally has to throw the ball -- obviously anytime a quarterback is sacked, he held the ball too long.

In past weeks, it has been mentioned here that the median sack time has sat at 2.7 seconds since the project began. The median time for 2011 sacks is also 2.7 seconds, and I have some more detail to explain that. As reader KK Probs requested in a comment last week, here is a look at the distribution of sacks by time in 2011.

Figure 1: Sack distribution, 2011

As you would expect, there's a pretty sharp climb from 1.5 to 2 seconds and a long tail. Long sacks can take up to 12 seconds, but the time limit on a short sack is generally between 1.5 and 2 seconds.

The numbers don't look very different if you take a look at the distribution from 2009 through this week.

Figure 2: Sack distribution, 2009-2011

If you add up the sacks from 2.0 to 3.0 seconds, you have 58 percent of all the sacks that have taken place since 2009. Nearly 39 percent of all sacks take place from 2.3 to 2.8 seconds.

In upcoming weeks, we'll take a look at the relationship between the number of pass rushers and the time of sacks.


The Patriots offensive line struggled to figure out the Jets blitz package once again on Sunday. Left tackle Matt Light seemed confused as to who to block on one sack, which left Jamaal Westerman free to pick up a relatively easy sack on Tom Brady. On another sack, right tackle Nate Solder couldn't figure out whether to block the blitzing defensive back coming to his outside or linebacker David Harris shooting the gap past his inside shoulder. He blocked neither and they wrapped up Brady for another sack.

But neither of them paid the price that rookie tackle Thomas Welch paid for his mistake. Welch was lined up at tight end, on the outside of Light, on a second-and-6 in the third quarter. At the snap he made the mistake of sliding too wide to his outside, leaving an easy lane to his inside for Westerman's second sack of the game. After the game, Welch was waived as penance for his screw-up.


The Vikings will happily trade Adrian Peterson's three touchdowns for a missed block on one pass play, but Peterson found he didn't have nearly enough time to get over to pick up a blitzing Daryl Washington on the final play of the first half.

Washington timed the snap nearly perfectly and came through the A gap untouched. Peterson tried to slide over from the other side of the formation but he barely grazed the Cardinals linebacker as he flew by for a 1.7 second sack, the quickest of the week.


There are some sacks that barely fit the name. Against the Raiders on Sunday, Matt Schaub dropped back, got plenty of protection, but found that no one was open. He decided to scramble to his right with Tommy Kelly chasing him. Schaub managed to get back to the line of scrimmage, but because he ran out of bounds less than a yard beyond the line of scrimmage, it still counts as a sack.

In Schaub's case, this was a bad stat for his offensive linemen, but nothing more, as he didn't lose yardage. In past years, Seneca Wallace has been the king of this kind of stupid sack -- he'd run out of bounds several yards behind the line of scrimmage rather than throw the ball away.

An honorable mention goes to Bucaneers' backup quarterback Josh Johnson, whose 6.9-second sack was a thing of beauty. After three seconds, Johnson left the pocket, and managed to do a full 360 that included a point where his back was to the line of scrimmage. He then cut upfield to try to run for some yardage, but was tripped up two yards behind the line by Aldon Smith.

For Smith, it was a nice day to take advantage of quarterbacks holding the ball. Smith had also sacked starter Josh Freeman after he held the ball for 3.4 seconds.


Because it was aired in prime time, the Lions incessant beating of Bears quarterback Jay Cutler got plenty of attention -- and may have finally ended Frank Omiyale's tenure as a Bears' tackle -- but if you were looking for ugly pass protection (and good pass rushers), Sunday's Giants-Seahawks game was just as fascinating. The Giants sacked the Seahawks' quarterbacks, Charlie Whitehurst and Tarvaris Jackson, six times. The Seahawks defense downed Eli Manning three times as well.

Put aside the sheer number of sacks though, because it was the speed of the sacks -- only two of those sacks took longer than 2.5 seconds -- that was really impressive. Defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul ducked inside of Seahawks' right tackle James Carpenter for a 1.9-second sack of Jackson. Safety Deon Grant blind-sided Whitehurst in two seconds. Seahawks defensive tackle Alan Branch ducked around guard Chris Snee for a 2.0-second sack, and Chris Clemons picked up 2.1- and 2.5-second sacks of Manning as well.

The Seahawks have spent plenty of high-round draft picks (Carpenter, Russell Okung, Max Unger and John Moffitt) on their offensive line in recent years, but right now their inexperience seems more notable than their talent.


26 comments, Last at 18 Oct 2011, 5:39pm

1 Re: Under Pressure: By the Seconds

This column is great. Nothing really to add except that I love the costly/quickest/longest/ugliest format a lot. For me at least, this is up there with DVOA in concept and the early FO work on starting line of scrimmage in terms of how much it has changed how I watch games.

Excellent work.

3 Re: Under Pressure: By the Seconds

"In upcoming weeks, we'll take a look at the relationship between the number of pass rushers and the time of sacks."

Most excellent. Defensive coordinators are perpetually trying to get a free rusher at the QB, which is probably where the quickest sacks are to be found. Determining if increasing the number of rushers leads to quicker sacks (or not) would be really useful.

4 Re: Under Pressure: By the Seconds

Love these articles.

I think Aldon Smith could collect quite a few long sacks, he hasn't got the quickest burst off the line that you'll see but he's very good at using his long arms to disengage from his blocker and he just loves to rush upfield and then club the tackle with his left arm to open a path to the qb.

It's also refreshing to see that the Pats line can make mental errors too, shows that Scarnecchia (spelling?) isn't quite perfect, just nearly.

5 Re: Under Pressure: By the Seconds

This is really interesting.

I would also like to see the same type of chart but with "ball release time" graphed in place of "sack time." I suspect that a "release time" graph would look very similar to the graphs above, maybe with the peak shifted a small amount.

6 Re: Under Pressure: By the Seconds

Another interesting graph - although I guess very tough without all-22 film... is to put each sack/throw on a 2D grid behind the LOS... so you can see that (for example) long sacks occur out of the pocket

8 Re: Under Pressure: By the Seconds

The tough part is having the time to look at every pass thrown in a given week. (Sacks, at least, are a manageable number.) If we had release time for thrown balls as well as sacks, there would a LOT of interesting things to look at.

9 Re: Under Pressure: By the Seconds

You hit the nail on the head. Logging sacks takes quite a while, but it is doable. I can comfortably say that no one person can log all the passes in a single week without making that the sole purpose of their life. Especially if you want to time each play three times or more to make sure you have an accurate time.

18 Re: Under Pressure: By the Seconds

Why not do a sample of plays instead of a whole season? Because your comparing sacks to other sacks doesn't really tell us anything. Yes, it's a pretty graph. But knowing that the median sack takes 2.7 seconds tells us what, exactly? Nothing without some context. Is 2.7 seconds a lifetime to throw the ball? Is it too soon to find an open receiver most of the time? What data would you need to collect to find out?

You've uncovered a factoid - a fact-like substance that doesn't mean much of anything. But if you could compare sack times to release times on completions (or DVOA-style successes) you'd have something.

20 Re: Under Pressure: By the Seconds

I second this. Chart a handful of games for different teams and come up with an approximate distribution for release times. Then, in addition to plotting the curves for pass and sack times next to each other, you could use the release time distribution curve to approximate what percentage of pass plays lasting a certain amount of time end in sacks.

This would alleviate the most obvious problem with the graph, which is that it appears that sacks get less frequent after about 3 seconds, when in reality the number of all pass plays lasting this long diminishes.

24 Re: Under Pressure: By the Seconds

The all-22 film has overhead shots right?
It would be a non-trivial but non-impossible task to pre-process the film data with image analysis software, converting this to Xs and Os with timing and X,Y coordinates.

It would be a manual task (I think.. not having seen the film) to assign player numbers to positions. Not sure how hard it is to automatically track the ball... but I bet that it could be done semi-automatically at least.

I bet at least one NFL team does this already - or something similar.

10 Re: Under Pressure: By the Seconds

"but because he ran out of bounds less than a yard beyond the line of scrimmage, it still counts as a sack."

How in the hell is a rush for gain a sack?

Does Deacon Jones need to give someone over at FO a head slap?

12 Re: Under Pressure: By the Seconds

The NFL doesn't do partial yards. If you don't gain a yard, you gained 0 yards. If a QB is tackled for a loss or no gain on a passing play that's a sack. If you think the NFL should consider partial yards, fine, but recognize that's a non trivial endeavor. If you think a 0 yard loss should not be a sack, that's fine too, but I see no reason to prefer one edge case over the other. Otherwise the rules are pretty straightforward and sensible.

15 Re: Under Pressure: By the Seconds

As the great John McClane, NYPD said to Deputy Police Chief Dwayne T. Robinson, LAPD:

Now, you listen to me, jerk-off, if you're not a part of the solution, you're a part of the problem. Quit being a part of the fucking problem and put the other guy back on!

I also believe he said something rather crude about a prominent failure on National TV.

22 Re: Under Pressure: By the Seconds

Do you know the mean and standard deviation? That should be fairly easy to come up with using spreadsheet functions. It looks like it's about 2.6 seconds with a standard deviation of a half-secondish, but that's a wild guess.

More importantly, thank you for mentioning me in a Football Outsiders article. I feel like I just recorded a sack in 1.1 seconds.

23 Re: Under Pressure: By the Seconds

This is incredible data. It's going into my simulated football game as soon as you post the time guys come, to time sack data if it's relevant and useful!

Sounds like it will be.