by Scott Spratt
Rule changes in recent seasons have turned a lot of sacks into roughing-the-passer penalties and automatic first downs. But exceptional pass-rushers like Khalil Mack still command multiple first-rounders in trades and upward of $100 million in guaranteed money because pressure has a marked effect on offensive success even if that pressure does not end with a hand on the quarterback. Across the NFL, quarterbacks produced twice as many yards per play (7.8 vs. 3.9) and enjoyed a near-100% jump in DVOA when they worked in a clean pocket versus when they dealt with pressure. And only the best pressure-facing quarterback – Patrick Mahomes – performed better under pressure than the worst quarterback – Josh Rosen – fared without it.
|Qualifying Quarterbacks with and without Pass Pressure, 2018|
Two seasons don't necessarily make a trend, but Deshaun Watson has taken a couple of steps down the path Russell Wilson has followed his entire career. Wilson has been one of the five most pressured quarterbacks all seven of his NFL seasons, and he has finished in the top 10 in DVOA with pressure in six of them.
|Russell Wilson vs. Deshaun Watson Under Pressure|
|Russell Wilson||Deshaun Watson|
|1||27.5% (3)||-48.7% (2)||71.4% (2)||41.9% (1)||-36.0% (10)||99.3% (1)|
|2||36.6% (2)||-27.6% (4)||67.3% (6)||41.1% (1)||-27.4% (5)||56.2% (14)|
|3||39.1% (1)||-44.5% (5)||75.3% (3)|
|4||31.7% (4)||-32.4% (4)||86.4% (1)|
|5||34.9% (3)||-51.6% (14)||49.1% (13)|
|6||39.8% (2)||-21.0% (4)||64.6% (8)|
|7||36.7% (4)||-33.8% (7)||73.8% (3)|
The salary cap limits teams' resources and effectively requires them to sacrifice the quality of some position groups. That's especially true when teams sign a quarterback after his rookie deal. As much as it violates conventional wisdom, Wilson's and Watson's specific strengths and weaknesses make their offensive lines natural choices for their teams to neglect in favor of skill-position and defensive talent. Watson's freshman and sophomore seasons suggest the Texans are following that blueprint. They'll just have to hope that Watson also shares Wilson's preternatural ability to avoid hits and major injuries. Watson has endured a handful of injuries in his college and pro careers to date, but the bulk of his missed time has stemmed from a pair of non-contact ACL tears suffered in practices that don't necessarily portend future injuries.
The rookies Josh Allen and Josh Rosen handled their frequent pressure very differently. Allen acquitted himself well with a top-10 finish in DVOA with pressure, ahead of a handful of cool-headed veterans including Matt Ryan (13th), Drew Brees (14th), Aaron Rodgers (17th), and Tom Brady (22nd). In contrast, Rosen had the worst DVOA with pressure in football. But both Allen and Rosen were in the bottom three in DVOA without pressure, and multi-year trends suggest that this is a more consistent identifier of successful and unsuccessful quarterbacks than performance with pressure.
At first glance, Rosen can offer a few additional reasons for optimism. His limited mobility makes him more sensitive to the quality of his pass-blocking, and his trade rescues him from a Cardinals team with coaching instability and a bad offensive line. However, the Dolphins were one of just six teams with a higher adjusted sack rate than the Cardinals in 2018, and they lost who may have been their best offensive lineman, Ja'Wuan James, to a $51-million free-agent deal with the Broncos.
Regression may be all the Dolphins' pass-blocking needs to outperform that of the 2018 Cardinals, but the statistical evidence doesn't support a narrative that poor blocking sped up the game for Rosen with or without pressure. The correlation between pressure rate and DVOA without pressure is weak, while the moderate positive correlation between pressure rate and DVOA with pressure runs counter to expectation and suggests that the more pressure that quarterbacks see, the better they perform under pressure.
|Pressure Rate Correlations, 2010-18|
|Pressure Rate to DVOA w/Pressure||+0.27|
|Pressure Rate to DVOA no Pressure||+0.06|
I think that trend illustrates that quarterbacks share responsibility for their pressure rates with their blocking. Mobile quarterbacks like Watson and Wilson own a disproportionate share of the heaviest pressure seasons from the past decade, and the other end of the list is full of all-time great pocket passers. Peyton Manning owns the three best pressure-rate seasons since 2010, and he accomplished that across two different teams.
As dark a picture as the numbers paint for Rosen, he can still point to Jared Goff as the example of a player who defied the trends. Goff wasn't just bad as a rookie. He was standard deviations worse than the who's who of quarterback busts – Blaine Gabbert, Christian Ponder, and Jimmy Clausen, to name a few – on their plays without pressure.
|Best DVOA w/o Pressure, Rookies, 2010-18|
|2012||Robert Griffin III||WAS||473||66.7%|
It is an incredible story that Goff turned that around. But Sean McVay makes Goff's pressure splits the most fascinating part of this analysis. With McVay, Goff went from worst to nearly first in DVOA without pressure, but he has made only modest improvements to his DVOA with pressure. It's hard not to read those splits as evidence of McVay's brilliance rather than Goff's. McVay famously communicates his pre-snap reads to help simplify Goff's responsibilities, and when the Patriots switched defenses after communications cut off with fewer than 15 seconds on every play clock in the Super Bowl, Goff struggled. After throwing to the same receiver running the same route on the previous play, Goff put the final nail in the Rams' coffin when he panicked in reaction to the Patriots' fourth-quarter blitz and threw an easy pass for Stephon Gilmore to intercept. That decision punctuated a season full of similar mistakes.
Clearly, Goff's poor play under pressure is not a dealbreaker or the Rams would not have been in the Super Bowl in the first place. McVay has done an excellent job in limiting the amount of pressure Goff sees, cutting the team's pressure rate from a league-leading 40.4 percent the year prior to his arrival to 30.7 and 25.5 percent the last two seasons, both bottom-10 in football. And the offseason should provide McVay the time to create strategies like a hurry-up offense to counter the blueprint that Bill Belichick's play-switching provided for other teams.
Meanwhile, Goff has a more realistic role model for his potential improvement than Rosen does in Goff. Kirk Cousins was a bottom-third performer under pressure in each of his first two seasons as a starter and has climbed all the way to the top 10 as of 2018. One could argue that Goff is even ahead of that pace given that Cousins spent the first two years of his career on the bench.
|Kirk Cousins vs. Jared Goff Under Pressure|
|Kirk Cousins||Jared Goff|
|1||40.4% (1)||-126.5% (34)||-45.2% (34)|
|2||30.7% (22)||-56.8% (21)||83.4% (2)|
|3||17.6% (35)||-75.2% (20)||35.6% (25)||25.5% (30)||-67.9% (24)||69.1% (5)|
|4||20.5% (33)||-110.1% (35)||69.0% (4)|
|5||24.9% (22)||-54.5% (15)||65.5% (4)|
|6||35.6% (9)||-55.8% (18)||60.0% (13)|
|7||34.5% (5)||-34.3% (8)||39.2% (25)|
It has somehow taken me 12 paragraphs to mention that Patrick Mahomes finished first in DVOA both with and without pressure. But you didn't need an analysis of his pressure splits to know he's really good. As has been a running theme of this article, the latter accomplishment is more impressive than the former. Even restricted to full-year starters, the DVOA-with-pressure leaderboard from the last decade includes a couple of odd names in Case Keenum and Josh Freeman.
|Best Single-Season DVOA w/ Pressure, 2010-18|
|Minimum 500 Total Plays|
In contrast, the list of the best DVOA-without-pressure seasons exclusively features exceptional quarterbacks with a possible caveat depending on your opinion of Goff.
|Best Single-Season DVOA w/o Pressure, 2010-18|
|Minimum 500 Total Plays|
Mahomes was the silver medalist of the decade in both DVOA with pressure and without pressure, somehow finishing second in each to Tom Brady from two different seasons. But Brady never finished first in both in the same season. And no one else besides Mahomes has either.
The 2018 leaders in DVOA without pressure are about as unassailable as the full decade's list.
|Best DVOA without Pressure, 2018|
Then-35-year-old Ryan Fitzpatrick's sixth-place finish was undoubtedly an outlier. He owns just one other season this decade outside of the bottom 10. But 23-year-old Nick Mullens' eighth-place finish deserves greater consideration. The earlier leaderboard shows that Mullens' performance without pressure was of similar quality to Watson, Wilson, Dak Prescott, and Robert Griffin III in their rookie seasons. But Mullens' (non-) draft status isn't his only differentiator. Crucially, Mullens tallied his impressive total over just 201 plays without pressure (292 total plays). Most of the other solid rookie performers – such as Colt McCoy (262 plays), Cody Kessler (223), and 49ers teammate C.J. Beathard (256) – who failed to sustain that success did so over a limited sample in their freshmen seasons. Sample size is really important.
|Worst DVOA w/o Pressure, 2018|
Most of the DVOA-without-pressure trailers in 2018 were young players who will have a chance to improve as they gain experience. But Jaguars fans have to be concerned that the team replaced one veteran with consistently poor DVOA-without-pressure totals for another. Foles led all quarterbacks with a 94.8% DVOA without pressure in his breakout 2013 season, but he has finished 26th (34.8%), 35th (11.5%), and 31st (24.4%) in his three qualifying seasons since. Like Bortles, Foles has typically performed better by rank when under pressure than without it, and one could argue that is a positive trait for the quarterback of a run-and-defense-focused team that will want to minimize its major mistakes. That argument is just more palatable for a player who is earning less than $50 million in guaranteed money.