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21 Oct 2011

Under Pressure: Individual Sacks

by J.J. Cooper

Some sacks are more worthy of praise than others.

Like any stat, sacks are sometimes a great barometer of who is getting to the quarterback and at other times just a sign of who is great at finishing off the havoc someone else created.

As impressive as Cowboys’ outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware’s seven sacks are, the fact that five of them are "quick sacks" may be more impressive. Ware has one garbage sack where he took advantage of the pressure generated by Anthony Spencer (and Tom Brady’s decision to hold the ball for 3.8 seconds). But five of his other six came when he was wrapping up the quarterback before he had gotten much of a chance to get rid of the ball.

Ware has a very quick first step, but more than that, he also has the veteran ability to time the snap count. Three of his quick sacks (defined as sacks of under 2.5 seconds) came when he timed the snap well enough that he picked up a significant advantage on the lineman asked to block him. It doesn’t hurt to have a little luck as well, as one of Ware’s quick sacks came when the 49ers were unwise enough to run a play action bootleg his way. Ware wasn’t fooled and quickly took down Alex Smith.

When Under Pressure looked at quick sack leaders over the 2009-2010 seasons, it was notable that every one on the list would generally be considered among the better pass rushers in the league.

Quick Sack Leaders, 2011
Player Team Quick Sacks
DeMarcus Ware DAL 5
Jason Babin PHI 4
Antonio Smith HOU 3
Jared Allen MIN 3
Von Miller DEN 3
Ahmad Brooks SF 2
Brett Keisel PIT 2
Brian Robison MIN 2
Cullen Jenkins PHI 2
Desmond Bishop GB 2
Dwight Freeney IND 2
Everson Griffen MIN 2
James Farrior PIT 2
John Chick JAC 2
Jonathan Casillas NO 2
Jonathan Wilhite DEN 2
Mario Williams HOU 2
Ray Edwards ATL 2

In looking at the quick sack leaders for the first six weeks of the 2011 season, there are a few names you would expect: Ware and Jared Allen. Jason Babin was among the quick sack leaders in ‘09-’10, so it’s not that shocking to see him second in the league with four. Babin can thank 49ers right tackle Anthony Davis in part, as the slow-footed tackle was responsible for two of those four quick sacks. Among the new quick sackers, Broncos rookie Von Miller’s name stands out as offering some confirmation to what many are already figuring out -- he’s a pretty special pass rusher.

If quick sacks is a sign of a pass rusher who is getting there quite quickly, it’s also worth looking to see which pass rushers’ sack stats are built up on long sacks (defined as sacks that take 3.0 seconds or longer).

Long Sack Leaders, 2011
Player Team Long Sacks
Jason Pierre-Paul NYG 5
Julius Peppers CHI 4
Aldon Smith SF 3.5
Terrell Suggs BAL 3
Jason Babin PHI 3
Jared Allen MIN 3
Calvin Pace NYJ 3
Mark Anderson NE 2.5
Justin Smith SF 2.5

Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul has had a breakout season, but it’s notable that four of his sacks have taken longer than four seconds (and a fifth took 3.1 seconds). It’s proof that Pierre-Paul doesn’t give up on plays, but it also means that he’s not necessarily a player who teams have to gameplan around. Yet.

Julius Peppers’ five sacks don’t seem as impressive when you consider that four of them have taken longer than 3.5 seconds (three of them have taken 4.2 seconds or longer). Of Peppers’ five sacks, two came on bootlegs to his side where he ran down a quarterback. Another came when Matt Ryan left the ball on the ground without being touched. A fourth came when Aaron Rodgers held the ball for 3.5 seconds.

Now here’s a look at the notes for this week’s sacks.


Every defensive coordinator’s dream is to call plays where a rusher comes unblocked, but 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio couldn’t have expected to get that result with a relatively straightforward four-man rush.

Defending a third-and-2 early in the second quarter against the Lions, the 49ers went to their nickel package for a 2-4-5 formation. At the snap, both defensive linemen rushed, as did left outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks and inside linebacker Navorro Bowman. Bowman made sure to attack right tackle Gosder Cherilus’ outside shoulder, which meant Cherilus picked him up, the two guards and center all ended up blocking Ray McDonald, left tackle Jeff Backus picked up Justin Smith, and Brooks came off a short edge completely unblocked.

Jahvid Best did flare out of the backfield as quarterback Matthew Stafford’s safety valve, but Stafford never had a chance to throw it to him, as Brooks wrapped him up only 1.7 seconds after the snap.

Steelers linebacker James Farrior also managed to come unblocked for a 1.7-second sack of Jaguars quarterback Blaine Gabbert.


Dolphins quarterback Matt Moore didn’t do his offensive line any favors on Monday night. When a screen play blew up, Moore just kept rolling out toward the sideline and held the ball for 5.5 seconds until Calvin Pace eventually ran him down on a sack that took the Dolphins out of field goal range.

Moore also had the third longest sack of the week, and none of his four sacks came in any sooner than 3.5 seconds.


It’s hard to say which is more surprising: Ryan Fitzpatrick’s excellent start to 2011, or the fact that the Bills have developed a very competent offensive line (the Bills are first in the league in adjusted sack rate). But Fitzpatrick’s desire to make a big play proved quite costly on Sunday.

Facing a third-and-16 at the Giants 28 midway through the second quarter, Fitzpatrick held the ball for 4.7 seconds against a three-man rush. Eventually Jason Pierre-Paul got free and wrapped him up for a six-yard sack, knocking the Bills out of field goal range. Considering the Bills ended up losing 27-24, that "long sack" proved to be crucial.

Posted by: J.J. Cooper on 21 Oct 2011

30 comments, Last at 24 Oct 2011, 8:30pm by chemical burn


by BaronFoobarstein :: Fri, 10/21/2011 - 1:42pm

Another strong article. One concern I have with the data is that the quick sack numbers are so small that noise is a big factor. I suppose as the season goes on the picture will clarify. It does pass the eyeball test, though, and it's pleasant to think of Brett Keisel as a top pass rusher, since DEs don't usually get many sacks.

by Yuri (not verified) :: Fri, 10/21/2011 - 1:48pm

I assume "3-4 DEs don't usually get many sacks" is what was meant.

by BaronFoobarstein :: Sat, 10/22/2011 - 1:41am

Oops. Yeah, forgot the important 3-4 part.

by Eddo :: Fri, 10/21/2011 - 1:58pm

Good article.

Though I'm not sure I'm fully on board with the "quick sacks are impressive, long sacks aren't" line of thought. I would imagine that many quick sacks, like the Ahmad Brooks one that was broken down, are a result of other pass rushers occupying blockers. It just so happens that the guy getting the sack was the one the offense let run free.

The most impressive sacks, in my opinion, are when a player truly beats his blocker, whether by speed (which would be a quick sack, I would think) or by physically destroying him (which would skew more towards a long sack).

by chemical burn :: Fri, 10/21/2011 - 2:35pm

Yeah, at least one of Babin's quick sacks was the result of a completely botched protection scheme that left him 100% unblocked with absolutely no one assigned to him. I would imagine that many quick sacks occur as some variation on this, with a totally blown protection scheme allowing a speedy path directly to the QB.

by JasonG (not verified) :: Fri, 10/21/2011 - 2:04pm

Peppers has a rep as a great end, but watching him, I'm dubious. As the data here supports and as the game tape shows as well, Peppers is not really wreaking havoc or dominating. (This was true before the knee strain and even last year as well.)

Here's my question: He is not dominating as a pass rusher because a) lack of effort (a common gripe against him for years), b) declining skills or c) he doesn't sell out for the sack on every play like Freeney?

On the one hand, it's been very frustrating to watch him because you want (and expect) him to just abuse his guy and terrorize the QB and that's clearly not happening. On the other hand, maybe he's doing all the non-highlight things that help win games and he actual deserves credit instead of scorn.

It's actually been difficult for me to know how to feel about Peppers. He's obviously a top talent and the Bears are better with him on the field, but I want and expect terrorizing and I don't think that's unreasonable to expect from such a player. At the same time, I also appreciate if he's sacrificing stats for the betterment of the defense as a whole. I just don't if he is in fact doing his all-around job or if he's just not that good (or trying) anymore.

I'm curious other people's impressions of what is going on with him.

by Eddo :: Fri, 10/21/2011 - 2:16pm

I think it's d) he draws a lot of attention from the offense, freeing up other guys on the defensive line.

Peppers was about as dominant as an end can be last year, in my opinion.

by JasonG (not verified) :: Fri, 10/21/2011 - 2:40pm

He made some plays last year for sure, and even a few this year, but I see plenty of him just standing up playing patty-cake with his blocker, content, barely even trying to go anywhere, just looking at the QB from a distance. And that's against one guy, not a double-team. Now, if he had edge run responsibility on the play and he's just holding his ground, cool. If he's being nonchalant, very not cool.

by Julian Simington (not verified) :: Fri, 10/21/2011 - 3:15pm

As a panthers fan, I feel where you are coming from, though I felt peppers was just plain dominant last year. He's so freakish on paper that you wonder why he can't make his man look silly every time. His effort has been called into question at times over the course of his career, but having lots of "long sacks" has to be a point against that. If he's not exerting consistent effort, then you would certainly not expect him to work hard enough to record sacks on long lasting plays-- unless he literally can beat his man whenever he feels like it and for some reason chooses to do so after x # of seconds. that's farfetched and severely underestimates his opponents. and yeah we don't know anything about scheme and how often guys are asked to contain versus truly sell out on the rush in many cases

Also tend to agree that it seems iffy to attribute short sack credit to the sacker always. In the case of someone like ware i'm not going to second guess it, but w/some of the other guys, eh? Certainly agree that short sacks have greater value, but how many of them are truly the result of a rusher beating his man as opposed to well designed pressure that forces the quick protection breakdowns, or possibly even botched protections (esp for teams like the steelers who use exotic pressure schemes)?

Would be interesting to see these #'s for last year. Would also be interesting to see these along with some double team #'s. Wouldn't be shocked if higher profile players recorded fewer short sacks over long samples due to extra attention

by tuluse :: Fri, 10/21/2011 - 2:53pm

"This was true before the knee strain and even last year as well."

Disagree strongly. Peppers was the best defender on the team last year.

The Bear's leading sacker in 2009 had 6.5 sacks, last year both Peppers and Idonije got 8 sacks. You could probably credit the majority of both players sacks to Peppers. This year the Bears have finally found some complimentary pass rushers (Melton, Okoye, maybe Paea), and sacks are way up for all the defensive linemen.

The Bear's sack rate the last 3 years has gone from 29th to 20th to 17th this year (and I expect that to improve as the safety situation gets dealt with).

He's also one of the best ends against the run. He was near the top of all the defeat charts last year.

So, I think you are expect some kind of super human effort where Peppers is just a really good human.

by battlered90 (not verified) :: Fri, 10/21/2011 - 2:36pm

Noted that Mario Williams and Antonio Smith were both on the list for quick sacks. I would imagine if Mario had played the last two weeks his numbers might be higher. Good things for Texans pass rush if they can manage to win enough to keep the current regime in place.

by Danish Denver-Fan :: Fri, 10/21/2011 - 3:45pm

Maybe sacks of medium lenght corrolates better with "being good". I mean if it takes you 2.5 seconds to get a sack it (most likely) means you are probably first guy at the scene, but it also means that there at least was a blocker assigned to you.

by The Powers That Be :: Fri, 10/21/2011 - 4:27pm

Well, Ware is always blocked by at least one guy - his sacks are so fast because he's just that good. If you want to eliminate sacks where the guy came free, I think you have to actually look at the tape.

by Marko :: Fri, 10/21/2011 - 5:16pm

"Of Peppers’ five sacks, two came on bootlegs to his side where he ran down a quarterback. Another came when Matt Ryan left the ball on the ground without being touched."

Although that play where Ryan left the ball on the ground originally was credited as a sack by Peppers, it subequently was changed to a team sack. So Peppers didn't get credit for it and actually has only four sacks.

I'll echo what someone else said about quick sacks: Some of them are not that impressive because they are the result of blown assignments that leave the sacker completely unblocked. For example, there was a play in the Bears-Packers game where a rusher (don't remembere who) sacked Cutler within about half a second becaause no one bothered to touch him (maybe we can call this "hole in offensive line").

by Jimmy :: Sat, 10/22/2011 - 3:29pm

Which of course presents the question, 'What is worse, a hole in offensive line or Frank Omiyale?'

by Joseph :: Fri, 10/21/2011 - 5:03pm

I think what you have to do wrt "quick sacks" is take them with a grain of salt. For my money, I doubt more than one of DeMarcus Ware's quick sacks is because they didn't try to block him. It's because he simply beats the LT assigned to him.
However, I agree with the general sentiment here that any non-DL/OLB-who-usually-rushes-on-passing-downs who has a quick sack is because of defensive scheme. For example, WLB Casillas of the Saints.

by JonFrum :: Fri, 10/21/2011 - 5:42pm

If I understand this correctly, the better 'quick' sackers are supposed to be superior (more worthy of praise) to the 'long' sackers. If that is true, and DeMarcus Ware's position at the top of the 'quick sack' list represents his superiority at sacking the QB, they why doesn't he show up on the 'long' sack list as well? If long sacks come easier than quick sacks, then Ware's superiority should show up there as well.

Wouldn't it be more accurate to say that they require two different skill sets? Apparently, when Ware gets held up in the initial 'quick' rush period, his superiority wears off. Someone explain to me why Mark Anderson is credited with more 'long sacks' than Ware.

by Thok :: Sat, 10/22/2011 - 4:42am

On a long sack, the pass rusher who flushes the QB out of the pocket and applies the initial pressure doesn't have to be the same person who actually registers the sack, while a quick sack almost has to be a solo effort. (Also, the coverage generally provides a lot of help on a long sack, and is mostly irrelevant on a short sack.) Basically, the long sacks are more of a team effort that will be more evenly distributed among the pass rushers.

by Eddo :: Sat, 10/22/2011 - 10:01am

I'd be careful saying that quick sacks are more on the individual. In the 49ers example that J.J. uses, Brooks pretty clearly gets the sack not because of great play by him, but by the fact that the Lions were focused on blocking all his teammates.

by Alaska Jack :: Sat, 10/22/2011 - 2:26am

Hey I have a really basic question.

Why aren't tackles of a running back or receiver behind the line of scrimmage counted the same as sacks? I mean, it's as basic as that. They seem pretty obviously the same. What am I missing? - aj

by Eddo :: Sat, 10/22/2011 - 10:03am

It's just a terminology thing. A "sack" is defined as when a quarterback goes back to pass, but is tackled for a loss (or no gain) before throwing the ball.

When a similar thing happens to a running back, receiver, or quarterback on a designed run play, the defender will be credited with a "tackle for a loss". It's just not a "sack".

by nat :: Sat, 10/22/2011 - 11:37am

There's also a difference between attacking run blocking and attacking pass protection. So in theory sacks and tackles for a loss might (I say might) represent different skills.

by Kibbles :: Sat, 10/22/2011 - 11:39am

I think he understands that tackles for a loss are counted differently than sacks. He's asking *WHY* tackles for a loss are counted differently than sacks. If a team faces 1st-and-10, and the QB drops back, and a defender brings him down 3 yards behind the line of scrimmage, then the play will be scored differently if the scorer thinks the QB was running (tackle for a loss) or trying to pass (sack). The question is whether or not this is a meaningful distinction. Both situations result in 2nd-and-13 for the offense. Both situations result in the QB getting tackled by the same defender. It'd be like if you called all sacks by defensive linemen "sacks" and all sacks by linebackers "pillages"- are the two plays different enough to render the distinction meaningful? In the latter case, I'm sure most everyone agree that they were not. Personally, I feel that the former case doesn't warrant the distinction, either. I think all tackles behind the line of scrimmage should be scored the same. Currently, they are not. Nobody pays much attention to the TFL stats. I'm sure a lot of people could name the current sack leaders, but how many people could name the tackle-for-a-loss leaders? I just don't see how sacks are inherently more valuable (or enough more valuable to warrant the extra focus). Even if you think it's more valuable to tackle the QB behind the line than the RB because you "rattle" him more, there's already a stat for that- it's called QB hits.

by tuluse :: Sat, 10/22/2011 - 3:25pm

There is one reason I can think of why sacks are more valuable. Not getting a sack usually leads to a completion, not getting a tackle for a loss usually leads to a short run.

by Marko :: Sat, 10/22/2011 - 3:35pm

I think that sacks are significantly more valuable than mere tackles for loss for a few reasons. First, the average sack undoubtedly causes more lost yardage for the offense than does the average TFL. Lots of tackles for loss cause a loss of just 1 or 2 yards and aren't really drive killers. Sacks are far more likely to cause a loss of significant yardage and kill a drive. Tackles for loss usually cause significant lost yardage only when the play was an end around or a reverse. It is rare for a handoff to a running back to result in significant lost yardage unless the running back is named Reggie Bush.

Also, sacks are far more likely to result in a forced fumble. A blindside hit on a QB is more likely to result in a fumble than is a mere TFL. And of course a strip sack by definition forces a fumble.

by LionInAZ (not verified) :: Sat, 10/22/2011 - 6:31pm

I guess the real question here is: Are tackles for losses actually counted differently than sacks? When I look at stat sheets, both are counted. Sure, the hot breath media focus a lot on sacks, but do real football people value TFLs less than sacks these days?

by Jerry :: Sat, 10/22/2011 - 6:54pm

I think sacks are their own category to fill a hole in offensive bookkeeping. Running plays and thrown passes are simple enough. Sometimes they gain yardage and sometimes they lose yardage. When the QB is tackled while attempting to pass, it's not a run, and counting it as a pass attempt distorts throwing statistics. So it makes some sense to split out sacks. (To be complete, I think college statistics treat sacks as runs, and extended NFL box scores include net passing yardage which subtracts sacks.)

by elian manning (not verified) :: Sat, 10/22/2011 - 4:42pm

do you guys think JPP will ever reach the 3.8 career sacks that SackSeeker projected for him?

by chemical burn :: Mon, 10/24/2011 - 8:30pm

Dude, give it a rest. Everybody knows Sackseer botched JPP. Unless you have something funny or interesting to say about it, just let it go. (Or mention it in Sackseer articles.)

by jbrown (not verified) :: Mon, 10/24/2011 - 6:46pm

I imagine scheme plays a role here, as well as blown assignments as others have mentioned. We don't normally expect 3-4 DE's to get many sacks but watching the Texans this year it makes sense that Antonio Smith is so high up there. It's all or nothing many times with him (and JJ Watt who I believe notched another quick sack this weekend) because they either beat their man instantly/don't get blocked, or there is no sack. A 3-4 DE is generally playing more inside than a 4-3 DE or 3-4 OLB so it makes sense that if they are going to get a sack it's likely to be a quick one.