The Best (and Worst) Quarterbacks Under Pressure

Bill Barnwell put up a recent Extra Point linking the chat I did over at to promote Football Outsiders Almanac 2010. Out of that link came a discussion about which quarterbacks put up the best DVOA under pressure last year. Donovan McNabb, who will be doing his thing behind a line that may not match the front five he had in Philadelphia. Adding Trent Williams and Jammal Brown will improve the tackle position, but the 2009 Redskins ranked 27th in Adjusted Sack Rate to Philly’s 20th. In addition, the Redskins led the league in allowed hurries according to our game charters – Washington quarterbacks were hurried on 22.9 percent (147) of their 610 passes and scrambles. The Eagles’ quarterbacks were hurried on 16.0 percent (109) of their 618 passes and scrambles.

Who had the best DVOA under pressure among starting quarterbacks last year? Among players with at least 20 plays under center or in shotgun, Aaron Rodgers was by far the best. Good news for him, since the combination of Rodgers’ “Waiting for Godot” impersonation in the pocket and the Packers’ injury-riddled offensive line had Rodgers under more pressures than any quarterback not named Jason Campbell and Jay Cutler – through both situations seemed to improve as the season went on.

The top 10 under pressure*:

Table 1: Top Ten Quarterbacks Under Pressure
Aaron Rodgers 131 6.5 61.8% 9.6 5.3
Donovan McNabb 86 7.7 41.0% 9.1 6.9
Ben Roethlisberger 93 7.2 40.6% 10.6 3.8
Matt Leinart 20 5.4 28.8% 9.0 3.8
Tony Romo 95 5.4 24.7% 7.2 5.2
Bruce Gradkowski 47 6.4 20.9% 10.1 6.9
Seneca Wallace 28 4.9 16.5% 8.4 4.4
Peyton Manning 78 6.8 16.2% 9.7 3.0
Jason Campbell 133 6.5 10.7% 8.6 8.8
Carson Palmer 96 5.2 10.7% 6.9 4.4

And the bottom 10:

Keith Null 24 2.7 -208.2% 7.1 4.4
Trent Edwards 32 1.7 -97.2% 5.6 2.1
Byron Leftwich 20 3.6 -81.8% 6.9 6.4
Kerry Collins 41 1.4 -78.9% 10.2 0.6
Derek Anderson 35 2.1 -74.6% 8.4 5.3
Kyle Boller 49 4.0 -65.1% 7.4 4.4
Mark Sanchez 77 3.9 -62.5% 7.5 6.2
Marc Bulger 39 3.9 -60.5% 8.1 3.9
Matt Hasselbeck 78 4.1 -45.9% 6.2 3.5
Daunte Culpepper 40 5.0 -43.0% 8.2 2.6
JaMarcus Russell 69 4.1 -41.2% 8.6 4.0

No surprise that Roethlisberger would be right up top as well; Leftwich’s third-worst ranking should raise a few red flags in the Steel City, acquired in Tampa Bay as it might have been. And with Arizona’s line still full of question marks from a pass-protection standpoint (the Cards’ new left side of Levi Brown and Alan Faneca had the most 2009 blown blocks of any 2010 tackle/guard combo), Leinart’s ability to do something under pressure might keep him ahead of Derek Anderson. The high rankings of Gradkowski and especially Wallace are more based on mobility than anything else – Wallace in particular was able to be somewhat efficient despite abysmal pass protection and former offensive coordinator Greg Knapp’s Fisher-Price version of Sprint Right Option.

Sanchez is the only one on the bottom 10 with a serious future consideration as a starting quarterback. The next five-lowest includes Cutler, with his -35.0% DVOA under pressure. Cutler had the most pressures on our list with 141, and it doesn’t seem that with Mike Martz as his new offensive coordinator, that’s going to improve anytime soon.

*(Does not include sacks, "coverage scramble," or "hole opens up." Does include defensive pass interference and intentional grounding. Total plays adjusted for charter, stats per play not adjusted.)


36 comments, Last at 10 Aug 2010, 6:29pm

1 Re: The Best (and Worst) Quarterbacks Under Pressure

Wow, Roethlisberger to Leftwich is an amazing drop - an interesting test case for how much surrounding talent affects these DVOA ratings... I am going to see the silver lining and assume a lot of Roethlisberger's succes is tied to a great TE and a veteran like Ward being able to make effective on the fly adjustments when the pocket breaks down...

9 Re: The Best (and Worst) Quarterbacks Under Pressure

Its also no shock to see three of the top 10 quarterbacks be romo, rodgers, and roethlisberger. They create the pressure and then get themselves out of it. Im not dogging any of them but for some of the quarterbacks they just naturally present themselves with pressure more often so its difficult to gauge who exactly is getting legitimate pressure. My guess is that leftwich will be fine and that talent of others didnt affect roethlisberger that much since he chose to hold onto the football longer than most quarterbacks might, given the situation.

2 Re: The Best (and Worst) Quarterbacks Under Pressure

Sample size might be an issue with some quarterbacks -- Leftwich is right on that 20-play with pressure listed margin -- but his catapult throwing style can't help much in the analysis. And a lot of Roethlisberger's success under pressure is due to his own ability to make plays with guys hanging all over him; he's kind of a one-off in that way. That he also puts himself in avoidable negative plays with that same style is another matter.

5 Re: The Best (and Worst) Quarterbacks Under Pressure

Dudes, no matter how many times I count, I get 11 quarterbacks in the bottom 10, and I can't figure out what sort of tie might have occurred to occasion that. I've never had that great a head for statistics though, and parts of this chart confuse me greatly, so I might be missing something obvious.

7 Re: The Best (and Worst) Quarterbacks Under Pressure

I actually asked about a metric for performance when hurried a month or two back, based on a remark one of you (maybe Aaron?) made about Rodgers and McNabb. Seemed to me that if it could be refined, it might change the way we evaluate QBs -- the rationale being that most NFL defensive coordinators focus on pressure rather than coverage as the way to achieve their goals. I'm not sure this is the right measurement, but it has always seemed to me that some QBs were just better at dealing with the rush than others. Of course as somebody pointed out, Big Ben believes that he can complete the pass with three defenders hanging from his elbow, and Aaron Rodgers will toss the ball at any receiver who's more than three inches from DB, and McNabb is always waiting for somebody to come open downfield so he doesn't have to risk tossing another embarrasing grounder at the RB.. but really, aren't these the guys you want playing QB for your team, assuming you can't have Peyton or Brees?

If I was a coach or GM, I'd be checking that list in the offseason.

8 Re: The Best (and Worst) Quarterbacks Under Pressure

Interesting that Brady and Brees aren't on the "top" list.

With Brees, it may have been that the Saints offense was so dynamic last year, much lik ethe 2007 Patriots, that teams didn't get pressure that often because they were up against a decent O-line and had to keep so many defensive backs back all the time to cover all those recievers running all those crazy routes.

But why not Brady, who has a reputation for excellence under pressure? Frankly, I can't imagine that the Pats' O-line was anywhere near good enough to keep Brady clean enough for him to not make the list because of number of plays. So...two other options: (1) Brady really wan't particularly impressive under pressure last year, (2) Brady was hesitant enough that anytime he got under pressure he took a sack, or (3) I'm wrong about the Pats O-line and they really were very good last year. Which is it?

19 Re: The Best (and Worst) Quarterbacks Under Pressure

Isn't the explanation just small sample size? How oftern does the pressure even get to Brees or Brady, even in a bad year? They're not like McNabb who generates pressure by holding onto the ball at least a few times every drive. And, you're right, Brees/Brady know to take a sack and not force things (and sack DVOA isn't included) when pressure does come. I think Brady and Brees probaly just sling it out under pressure to Welker or Bush, a low-risk 4 yard gain or something equally sensible. McNabb, Rodgers and Roethlisberger try to hit a home run every time they start dancing around back there, so if you take out negative sack DVOA, then their frequent long bombs probably look a lot better than Brees or Brady putting up a couple 6-yard passes.

20 Re: The Best (and Worst) Quarterbacks Under Pressure

No, the Pats o-line was not good last year.

The right side of the line - Kazcur and Neal - were down right terrible the second half of the year. Brady really got beat up, that's why he had a broken finger and damaged ribs.

Teams were getting constant pressure on Brady while only rushing three or four. Kazcur was continually getting owned by Peppers, Mario Williams, Mathis...and anyone the Ravens lined up against him in the playoffs.

he left side of the line, even when Volmer stepped in for Light, was the only bright spot.

Not to speak in hyperbole, but the only game in the second half of the year where the pats o-line really gave Brady time was the Jags game (shocker)

I just got the FO Almanac and the stats back it up, too.

12 Re: The Best (and Worst) Quarterbacks Under Pressure

The first two things that jumped out to me were that the 4 of the top 5 QB's (Leinart being the one excluded) are generally scramblers and have a reputation for holding on to the ball too long.

That's why guys like Brees, Brady, and Rivers aren't on the list, when they are under pressure it's usually because somebody got to the QB quickly so they don't have anywhere to throw. Whereas guys like Rodgers and Big Ben hold onto the ball so god damn long that they create their own pressure, although a lot of times guys eventually get open before the defender can get to the QB. They can also use their scrambling ability to elude pressure and give themselves more time to find open guys.

There's also an clear correlation between DVOA under pressure and regular passing DVOA (guys who are good at one tend to be good at the other), but the reasons for that should be obvious.

29 Re: The Best (and Worst) Quarterbacks Under Pressure

But the presence of Manning and Palmer on the list--two notable non-scramblers--and the above comments strafing Brady's OL seem to contradict that. i.e. Brady probably had plenty of chances and non-scramblers do appear on the list, so maybe Brady wasn't that good under pressure in 09. Or Rivers. Stuff happens.

Now for Brees, I consider him to be one of the mobile guys. He might not run much, but he was Purdue's 2nd leading rusher as a senior and third as Soph and Jr. with a high game of 88 yards rushing and another with 18 attempts! (very much unlike Manning, Brady, Rivers, Palmer, et al), so we know he could do it at some point. He had a rep as a mobile scrambler coming out of college and has not injured his wheels in the pros....

For Brees I'd buy that it's small sample size.

32 Re: The Best (and Worst) Quarterbacks Under Pressure

well, remember the offense he ran at Purdue was completely different ... it's a lot easier to scramble in a college spread offense against college-level defenders.

Since Tiller brought the spread to Purdue, there have been few years where they've really had depth at RB and also made a commitment to run the ball. It's always been a pass-heavy offense, and with some of the formations they run, scrambling will be something of an option for anyone more mobile than Curtis Painter.

I feel like it was the offensive scheme that gave Brees that mobile rep. Even there, though, he had limits ... at some point early in one of his final seasons, Tiller mentioned that he had wanted to add some option plays to the playbook but hadn't had the QB to do it, but he finally had one and was ready to try. I don't remember whether it was Painter, Joey Elliott, or someone else who supposedly had the wheels to run option plays - I do remember that Tiller's assessment was unquestionably wrong, and the option experiment only lasted a game or two. (I don't know yet whether Hope will try this again.) But I seem to recall the inference that Brees was one of the QBs whom Tiller felt wasn't up to running option plays.

13 Re: The Best (and Worst) Quarterbacks Under Pressure

To me the more interesting question is who has the biggest drop under pressure/not under pressure. I.e. whose performance changes the most under pressure... and whose performance changes the least under pressure.

21 Re: The Best (and Worst) Quarterbacks Under Pressure

I suspect Leinart and Seneca Wallace should be excluded due to insufficient number of plays (20 & 28), and to be fair, so should Leftwich and Keith Null (I'm pretending to know who he is).

But I think what this measure needs is some refining, to include something about the relative decrease in performance, hurried to unhurried, that a couple people here suggested.

And I wonder if there oughtn't to be a special category for the QBs who were under pressure pretty much all the time, like Cutler, Campbell, and Rodgers.

23 Re: The Best (and Worst) Quarterbacks Under Pressure

Also: a guy like Jason Campbell was hurried not only because of crappy blocking, but because of a well-documented tendency to hold the ball and then dump it off (this was discussed endlessly in the Washington media). He wasn't looking downfield.

25 Re: The Best (and Worst) Quarterbacks Under Pressure

Oh, Trent Edwards. Even with an offense predicated on "get the ball out" and the nickname "Captain Checkdown," still... argh.

Fortunately, in the offseason, the Buffalo offensive line became an impenetrable wall of talented men, a symphony of angry beef that sings a song in the key of pass protection the likes of which have never been seen.

Oh, wait, sarcasm doesn't work on the internet. Dammit.

28 Re: The Best (and Worst) Quarterbacks Under Pressure

I'm absolutely floored that Aaron Rodgers' DVOA he was hurried was 61.4. If I understand the DVOA concept properly, that means Rodgers passed successfully 6 out of 10 times he had rushers in his grill.

I know Rodger's high DVOA might be a sample size issue, but Tom Brady's DVOA in his mind blowing 2007 season was 56.9.

So if I'm interpeting this data properly, Rodgers under pressure last season passed better than a guy who completed 69% of his passes with a better than 6 to 1 td-to-int ratio?

Sample size or not, Rodger's performance was incredible.

Imagine what he could do if he gets semi-decent protection this season.

31 Re: The Best (and Worst) Quarterbacks Under Pressure

How can I easily see a comparison between DVOA under pressure / "global DVOA" ? While those tables indicates who are the best QBs under pressure, I'd like to know who QBs improve/decline when facing pressure.
Am I missing something ?

35 Re: The Best (and Worst) Quarterbacks Under Pressure

If I'm understanding the definition of "pressure" as it's being used here, throwing the ball out of bounds with a defender in your face will count as a negative, but standing there and taking a 10-yard sack will not. I don't know about anyone else, but that doesn't seem right to me.

This is particularly glaring in the case of someone like Roethlisberger, who is notorious for taking sacks. In my mind, the ability to avoid negative plays is a big part of what makes a QB good under pressure, and that ain't Big Ben.