Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

Most Recent FO Features


» 2018 Free Agency Cost-Benefit Analysis

Is Kirk Cousins the best free-agent quarterback in recent memory? Should Trumaine Johnson or Malcolm Butler have gotten the larger contract? And what makes a free-agent contract good or bad, anyway?

09 Nov 2012

Under Pressure: Unblocked Sackers

by J.J. Cooper

There is nothing more enjoyable for a pass rusher than the play where everything gets screwed up.

Confusion is a pass rusher's best friend. And when confusion means that a pass rusher is left unblocked, there is nothing better than the easy sack that usually results.

Of course, it can also be argued that a lot of times, the unblocked sack is more a result of a good defensive play call or a poor job of pass protection than any great skill on the past of the pass rusher.

So who has gotten the most "freebie" sacks this year? Say hello to the Rams’ Jo-Lonn Dunbar. Dunbar is the only pass rusher in the league with three unblocked sacks this year.

What’s equally amazing is that Dunbar only has three sacks this year. So all of them have come when he came through untouched.

In tabulating unblocked sacks, it’s also notable how rare they are: As the table below shows, only seven players have more than one unblocked sack this season.

Unblocked Sack Leaders, 2012 (through Week 9)
Player Team Unblocked Sacks
Jo-Lonn Dunbar STL 3
Anthony Spencer DAL 2
Jason Worilds PIT 2
Chandler Jones NE 2
Jason Pierre-Paul NYG 1.5
Chris Harris DEN 1.5
Wesley Woodyard DEN 1.5


Just last week, we mentioned that Michael Vick has been struggling to recognize blitzes. It got even worse on Monday night, as Vick was sacked seven times. In watching all seven sacks, it’s apparent that both Vick and the Eagles' offensive line are to blame. Yes, Vick is terrible at recognizing blitzes, including some that seem quite obvious in the pre-snap phase, but he’s also playing behind a line that is doing a terrible job in pass protection.

Throughout his career, Vick has been a quarterback who picks up plenty of sacks. He appears to struggle to recognize where pressure is coming from, and his tendency to try to outrun pass rushers instead of getting rid of the ball leads to some big plays and some sacks.

Nowadays, Vick isn’t outrunning those pass rushers as often as he did when he was younger. But, just as importantly, the offensive line appears to be giving him more poorly blocked pass rushers to worry about. Against the Saints, the Eagles couldn’t seem to figure out how to block rather straightforward blitzes.

At their worst, the Eagles watched Vick get sacked three times in three plays -- they actually got a first down on the first sack because of a roughing the quarterback penalty. On the first sack, guard Dennis Kelly almost completely missed his punch to engage Martez Wilson. Wilson sidestepped Kelly leaving Vick with nowhere to go on a quick 2.2-second sack.

On the next play, Vick was sacked in a much more conventional Vick way. The Saints sent a cornerback off the edge. While the cornerback was picked up, he did cut off any escape route to the inside. That became important when defensive end Will Smith beat tackle King Dunlap to the inside. Dunlap stayed with his man, and was able to ride Smith past Vick, but with Smith coming up the middle and a cornerback bringing pressure from the outside, Vick quickly (perhaps too quickly) tucked and took off. After dodging one potential tackler and running into one of his own linemen, Brodrick Bunkley wrapped him up before he he got back to the line of scrimmage, 4.0 seconds after the snap.

So there’s two sacks in two plays, one of which can be blamed partly on poor blocking and partly on Vick’s tendency to tuck and run. The third sack was just a complete breakdown.

On second-and-13, the Saints lined up with a pair of linebackers standing in the A-gaps. Before the snap, a safety also walked up to the line, and the other linebacker was also up at the line. With the Eagles in a two-tight end, two-wideout formation, the Saints had eight men at the line of scrimmage, with one safety in a deep Cover-1 look and both corners up for bump-and-run man coverage.

It was obvious that the Saints could pressure both A-gaps, and Vick did turn around pre-snap to say something to tailback Bryce Brown. Instead of telling him to pick up one of the linebackers -- as one of them was undoubtedly going to come free -- he apparently told Brown to swing out for an outlet route. The Eagles knew there was the possibility of pressure through both A-gaps, but they left one of the linebackers unblocked. Vick wasn’t going to have time to dump the ball off unless he could simply avoid the rush by himself.

There are very few quarterbacks who could think of getting away from an unblocked linebacker in the A-gap. Vick is one who can at least consider it. And at the snap, Jonathan Vilma came through the A-gap unblocked as center Dallas Reynolds picked up Curtis Lofton hitting the other A-gap. Vick tried to run away from Vilma, and he may have gotten away with it if not for defensive end Cameron Jordan coming off the edge. Just 1.5 second after the snap, Vick ran full speed into Jordan without ever seeing him, and the ball popped out for a fumble that rolled backwards. The Eagles recovered, but it led to a third-and-35.

After seeing Vick get lit up on three straight plays, the Eagles cried uncle, running the ball on third-and-35.

In the third quarter, the Eagles once again blew it on their protection scheme. On a second-and-8 from the Saints 8, New Orleans again lined up in an aggressive blitz look. This time a pair of defensive tackles were lined up in the A-gaps flanking the center, while the defensive ends were both in the wide-nine technique the Eagles like to run so much. A pair of linebackers were up at the line in the B-gaps.

The Eagles went empty backfield with five wideouts, so the Saints could send one more rusher than the Eagles could block. The Saints ended up only rushing five, but that still left defensive end Smith unblocked because Dunlap had to pick up the linebacker lined up on his inside shoulder. With Smith coming from the wide-nine split, Vick should have been aware that he might be coming unblocked, but at the snap, he focused on routes to his right and didn’t seem to sense Smith until the defensive end was a step away from him. An 11-yard loss later, the Eagles were suddenly facing a third-and-19.

Two more sacks followed. Dunlap was driven back into the backfield for the first one, and Demetress Bell was beaten to the inside on the second. With the way the Eagles are pass protecting, it’s hard to see that ugly 3-5 record getting a whole lot better.


Robert Griffin has been a revelation this season. The rookie quarterback has lived up to every pre-draft expectation as he’s been both an accurate passer and one of the most dangerous running threats in the game when he decides to tuck and run.

But this week, Griffin did have some trouble holding on to the ball and trying to make something happen. Griffin came into the week with seven long sacks (sacks that took three or more seconds) in eight games. Against the Panthers, Griffin had four long sacks in 43 dropbacks.


Jordan’s 1.5 sack of Vick was the fastest sack of the week. Two of Vick’s sacks this week came in less than two seconds. However, there were two other sub-2.0-second sacks this week. One was Atlanta's baffling decision to leave DeMarcus Ware unblocked, which gave Ware a very easy 1.6-second sack. The Falcons are just lucky that it didn’t leave Matt Ryan sitting on the injury report for weeks to come.


Most of the longest sacks have the same description: a quarterback drops back, finds no one open, and rolls out to one side. When he does that, it effectively cuts the field in half, making it harder to find an open receiver. So at some point, he takes off to run, and usually, he gets run down before he gets to the line of scrimmage.

That’s exactly the description of what happened for Matthew Stafford on a second-and-6 on Sunday. Stafford rolled out, eventually decided to run and was nabbed by George Selvie at the line of scrimmage, 6.8 seconds after the snap.

The same thing happened to Bears quarterback Jay Cutler on a first-and-10 against the Titans. On a play-action rollout, he found no one open and was run down at the line of scrimmage 5.8 seconds after the snap.

It’s worth noting that in addition to two sub-2.0 second sacks for Vick, he also had two sacks where he held the ball for 3.7 seconds or longer.

Posted by: J.J. Cooper on 09 Nov 2012

16 comments, Last at 13 Nov 2012, 4:52pm by Dean


by Kevin Wilson (not verified) :: Fri, 11/09/2012 - 1:09pm

Casey Matthews is on the Eagles, so if Eagles center Dallas Reynolds had to pick him up in the A-gap on a Saints' blitz, the Eagles have bigger issues than even I thought.

by Joseph :: Fri, 11/09/2012 - 1:24pm

Yeah--even as a Saints' fan, Casey Matthews sounded like somebody on another team. I'm going to guess it was either Scott Shanle (54) or Jonathan Casillas (52).

by Sophandros :: Fri, 11/09/2012 - 2:35pm

the real question, though, is this: Is Casey Matthews an upgrade for us? I don't think so.

Sports talk radio and sports message boards are the killing fields of intellectual discourse.

by Sophandros :: Fri, 11/09/2012 - 2:35pm

the real question, though, is this: Is Casey Matthews an upgrade for us? I don't think so.

Sports talk radio and sports message boards are the killing fields of intellectual discourse.

by Rivers McCown :: Sat, 11/10/2012 - 12:44pm

Curtis Lofton, is the word from Mr. Cooper. Fixed it.

by Dean :: Fri, 11/09/2012 - 1:21pm

This analysis meshes fairly well with what I observed on Sunday. I counted 2 where the qb had no chance and 4 where the qb was to blame and one where it was both. Of the 4 where the qb was to blame, on two, he seemed to have time and didn't get rid of the ball, on one, he rolled into the pass rush, and the third was the blitz where he didn't change the protection.

This doesn't discuss the plays where he wasn't sacked. On those, you can see just how atrocious Philadelphia's line really is. It's a toss up between Philly, St. Louis, and Arizona as to who has the worst OL in the league and I wouldn't be at all surprised if some of them were historically bad. Not worst of all time, but even by "bad" standards, these lines are REALLY BAD.

by Joseph :: Fri, 11/09/2012 - 1:26pm

Hey Dean--if you observed this on Sunday, why didn't you bet everything you had on the Saints on Monday? :p

by BigCheese :: Fri, 11/09/2012 - 4:03pm

The Chicago Line on the phone for you, Dean.

- Alvaro

Phil Simms is to analysts what Ryan Leaf is to NFL QBs

by Dean :: Fri, 11/09/2012 - 4:59pm

They're bad. So is Pittsburgh. But nowhere near as bad as Philly, St. Louis, and Arizona.

by theslothook :: Fri, 11/09/2012 - 4:24pm

I really felt bad for Vick. For all the times I've blamed him for the sacks- and yes they are his fault sometimes, Not even Peyton Manning in his prime would be able to avoid these kinds of plays. That o line performance from a pass blocking perspective really reminded me of that 05 playoff loss to the steelers where the o line was simply clueless on what the hell they were doing.

Its still pretty amazing that the saints got 6 sacks and still managed to give up 400 yards of offense.

by horn :: Fri, 11/09/2012 - 5:09pm

This current O-Line in PHL is worse than the one that gave up 104 sacks, mostly to Cunningham. Yes, you read that right. An offense that gave up 6.5 sacks per game with one of the most elusive QBs in history taking the majority of the snaps.

by Dean :: Mon, 11/12/2012 - 1:42pm

Randall Cunningham wasn't elusive? Hyperbole much?

by tuluse :: Mon, 11/12/2012 - 1:50pm

I think you misread his comment.

by Dean :: Tue, 11/13/2012 - 4:40pm

Just read it again, and I must have misunderstood a second time. Either he's implying that the current QB isn't elusive, or he's saying Cunningham isn't elusive. Neither of which makes any sense.

by tuluse :: Tue, 11/13/2012 - 4:50pm

He said the current line is worse than the one that gave up 6.5 sacks per game with one of the most elusive QBs in history.

by Dean :: Tue, 11/13/2012 - 4:52pm

Thanks. So the "hyperbole much" reaction is still justified.