by Scott Kacsmar
The 2017 NFL season saw another Super Bowl largely decided by pressure on a quarterback. Brandon Graham's strip-sack on Tom Brady late in the fourth quarter swung the game for Philadelphia in a 41-33 win that otherwise did not feature much defense. The Eagles happened to get one big stop at the best possible moment, which is sometimes all a defense needs.
Pressure is like any other stat in that it is not always created equally. Just as a 45-yard reception on third-and-18 is treated differently than a 3-yard grab on second-and-15, we can use DVOA as a tool to see how pressure affected a quarterback and his passing game. Where pressure differs from most stats is that its presence is subjective to charters, and there will be disagreements from time to time. Our data for pressure comes primarily from Sports Information Solutions, further informed by the data we also collect from ESPN Stats & Info.
The average pressure rate in 2017 was 31.6 percent, which was the highest since 2010. Do keep that in mind if you want to compare this to past seasons, such as 2016 when the pressure rate was 27.1 percent. It was just a tad over 23 percent in our data for the 2010 and 2011 seasons.
It is important to note that the DVOA numbers listed below are not the individual quarterback's passing DVOA, as seen here. Instead, it is team offensive DVOA with this quarterback either passing (including sacks) or scrambling. Each quarterback listed had at least 200 pass plays, and they are listed in order by ascending pressure rate.
|Qualifying Quarterbacks with and without Pass Pressure, 2017|
2017 was such a weird season that we actually had two quarterbacks with positive DVOA under pressure: Tom Brady (7.7%) and Case Keenum (6.8%). That's already weird enough given Brady's 40-year-old status and Keenum's journeyman career, but consider that from 2010 to 2016, only one quarterback ever had a positive DVOA under pressure—that was Josh McCown (8.0%) for the 2013 Bears in a season where he had to fill in for Jay Cutler. I thought Brady and Keenum had a shot at it after I did this article on how they handled pressure for FiveThirtyEight in January. Both quarterbacks faltered under pressure against the Eagles in the postseason, but that's just the nature of pressure. It randomizes the game even more than normal. Denver fans should be a bit skeptical of Keenum keeping this up in 2018. In both of the two previous seasons where he qualified for our tables (2013 and 2016), he finished 33rd in DVOA with pressure.
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There's one other link between Brady, Keenum, and McCown. Thanks to the way they handled pressure last season, Keenum (-52.2%) and Brady (-54.3%) had the lowest drop in DVOA when pressure was added. On the other hand, while McCown had one of his best overall seasons with the Jets, his drop in DVOA was the steepest in the league, falling from 56.6% without pressure to -95.0% with pressure. Let the Sam Darnold era begin in New York.
I feel like a kid on Christmas morning when this data gets finalized each offseason and I open the file for the first time. One of the most useful stats to analyze a quarterback is his DVOA without pressure. If a quarterback can't take advantage of a clean pocket, then he's probably not franchise-caliber. That's why I often focus on the quarterbacks at the bottom, because those are usually the players about to be replaced.
Sure enough, last season saw seven quarterbacks dip below 30.0% DVOA without pressure, and only two of those players (Eli Manning and Joe Flacco) are expected to be Week 1 starters for their teams in 2018. They also happen to be the two with Super Bowl MVP awards, but at least the Ravens drafted Lamar Jackson in the first round in April. The Giants are still going with a 37-year-old Manning, but that shouldn't be the case much longer if he continues to struggle like this.
Denver ditched Trevor Siemian, who had the worst DVOA under pressure (-112.4%), for Keenum, who we just said had the second-highest. The Colts will hope to see Andrew Luck return instead of more play from Jacoby Brissett, who was a sack-taking machine in his place. Jay Cutler retired again, but probably for good this time. Since 2010, Cutler always ranked in the top 18 in DVOA with pressure, but never higher than 20th without pressure. Brian Hoyer was just a stop-gap for the 49ers before Jimmy Garoppolo took over. By the way, Garoppolo's DVOA with pressure was 12.8%, which would have been the highest in our database if he qualified. His DVOA without pressure was 81.4%, which would have ranked third in 2017. Let the excitement build even more there. Finally, DeShone Kizer had the worst DVOA without pressure (10.7%) for Cleveland, which explains why the rookie was traded to Green Bay in March.
Speaking of rookies, we were spooked by Jared Goff in this study a year ago after what he did for the Rams in 2016 as the No. 1 overall pick. His DVOA without pressure was -45.2%, easily the worst of any qualified passer since 2010. Quarterbacks under 10.0% rarely ever recover, but what would Goff do from this far down? Enter rookie head coach Sean McVay, some new wideouts, and some new offensive line starters, and Goff shot all the way up to 83.4% DVOA without pressure, ranked No. 2 in the league and the seventh-highest season since 2010. Needless to say, we've never observed a year-to-year improvement like that one before. Goff still wasn't too hot when pressured (21st in DVOA), but when kept clean in that YAC-heavy scheme, he had a field day in 2017.
Another young quarterback who entertained us last season was Deshaun Watson in Houston. His rookie season was sadly cut short by a torn ACL, but Watson's 99.3% DVOA without pressure is the highest season by any quarterback since 2010. His pressure rate (41.9 percent) was also the highest in our database, so if the Texans can protect him better so that he plays a full season in 2018, then the potential is sky-high. Watson is likely a quarterback who will hold the ball longer to make big plays and wrack up some pressure on his own, but with that kind of DVOA when he was kept clean, this should be one of the most anticipated sophomore seasons in NFL history.
Alex Smith (No. 6) and Aaron Rodgers (No. 14) were the only quarterbacks in 2017 to have the same ranking in DVOA with and without pressure. For Smith, that's the first time he has ever ranked higher than No. 7 in either category in what was his best season yet. Rodgers has had an interesting run of things since 2010. His ranking in DVOA with pressure has perfectly alternated between great and not great: third, 12th, third, 35th, ninth, 16th, first, and 14th. You might expect him to be beyond reproach when kept clean, but that hasn't been the case. Since 2010, Rodgers has just as many seasons where he ranked 10th to 14th in DVOA without pressure as he's had seasons ranked in the top six. He was No. 1 without pressure in 2014, his last MVP season, but hasn't been higher than 10th in the last three years, which are also the seasons where he's had his highest pressure rates. The Packers have to do a better job of protecting him (especially his collarbone).
One could argue that Rodgers could get rid of the ball faster and rely less on the sandlot plays as he is getting older. Ben Roethlisberger has shown this transformation in Pittsburgh. His ranks in pressure rate from 2010 to 2013 were 45th, 42nd, 28th, and 14th. In 2014 he ranked third, and he has ranked second in each of the last three seasons. Todd Haley became the offensive coordinator in 2012, but the development of superior offensive line talent under Mike Munchak and the emergence of Le'Veon Bell as a great receiving option in 2014 also have had an impact on Roethlisberger's eagerness to live for the next play and season. In each of the last eight seasons, Roethlisberger has ranked in the top 16 in DVOA with and without pressure. The only other quarterback to even come close to that feat is Russell Wilson, who has ranked 14th or better in each of his first six seasons. Wilson also suffered 139 knockdowns last season, the most of any quarterback since 2012. He's another star quarterback who has to learn to get rid of the ball better, as well as get more help from his team up front.
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The Saints' move to an offense that threw very short passes and targeted running backs 34 percent of the time -- highest rate in the NFL's last decade -- led to Drew Brees having the lowest pressure rate (21.5 percent) in the league. It's actually the first time he's had the lowest rate in the whole league, but he was also fourth in 2016.
Earlier we mentioned how Cutler always ranked higher in DVOA with pressure as opposed to being kept clean, which is rare. The same was true for all three of Tyrod Taylor's seasons as Buffalo's starting quarterback. Cutler (19), Taylor (18), Dak Prescott (15), and Marcus Mariota (15) were the four quarterbacks last year to rank at least 15 spots higher in DVOA with pressure compared to without. Taylor will have to hold off No. 1 overall pick Baker Mayfield in Cleveland. Prescott and Mariota disappointed last year, but that script couldn't have been any different for Mariota, who struggled under pressure his first two years but excelled without it. We'll see just how much a new coaching staff can help him. Prescott is still stuck with Jason Garrett, but no more Dez Bryant or Jason Witten to throw to.
While our data has been for the regular season, we'll leave you with quite the tidbit from ESPN Stats & Info on the playoffs. Since 2009, Nick Foles has the highest QBR under pressure (86.8) in the postseason. He led all quarterbacks in the playoffs last year with an 82.8 QBR under pressure on his way to leading the Eagles to their first Super Bowl win. He didn't play that way before the playoffs, though -- Foles' DVOA with pressure in the 2017 regular season was -92.8%, which would have ranked 32nd.
Next week, we will look at the success of pressure by defenses in 2017. Were the Eagles the best in that area too?