QBs and Pressure: Why Jimmy Garoppolo is in Limbo
NFL Offseason - In his eight-year NFL career, Jimmy Garoppolo has averaged 8.4 yards per pass attempt. That's a better rate than Patrick Mahomes, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, or any other quarterback who started a game in 2021. So why is Garoppolo so unwanted, both in San Francisco and anywhere else? One reason (of several): his performance on the field has consistently nosedived when opposing pass-rushers have gotten pressure on him.
It's time for another look at 2021 data from Football Outsiders Almanac 2022 (now available!). Today we're going to look at quarterbacks and pressure—who faced pressure most often, who succeeded or failed from a clean pocket, and who played best and worst under pressure.
Let's take Garoppolo, for example. He was pressured on 23.4% of his dropbacks, the eighth-lowest rate among 34 qualifying quarterbacks in 2021. So he was passing from a clean pocket about three-quarters of the time, and on those plays he was fantastic—his 64.7% DVOA was third best behind Aaron Rodgers and Kirk Cousins. When pressure did arrive, however, Garoppolo's DVOA fell all the way to -95.4%, well below the league average of -74.0%. That's a drop of 160.1% in DVOA between pressured and non-pressured plays. Only Rodgers was more impacted by pressure, and considering his unpressured DVOA was a bewildering 81.1%, he could better afford that decline. (Note that these are team offense DVOAs, not individual passing DVOAs, and they include not only pass plays but also quarterback scrambles.)
Usually these numbers are pretty volatile, but Garoppolo has seen his numbers plummet consistently when pressure has gotten home. In 2019, his only other healthy season, he ranked eighth in DVOA without pressure (63.6%), but sixth worst in DVOA with pressure (-81.3%); that difference of 144.9% was fourth largest that year. In 2018, his drop-off from non-pressure DVOA to pressured DVOA was even higher at 162.8%, though that was in barely 100 dropbacks.
How, specifically, does pressure affect Garoppolo? From a clean pocket, he was in the middle of the pack in completion rate, touchdown rate, and interception rate, but he was second behind Joe Burrow in yards per pass, and he averaged a league-best 12.8 yards per completion (and yes, that is highly YAC-related). Under pressure, however, he became a completely different player—specifically, a high-risk, high-reward, high-variance performer who put up a lot of highlights for the 49ers but even more for their opponents. He was actually in the top three in completion rate, yards per pass, and touchdown rate under pressure—no full-time starter saw his touchdown rate go up under pressure as much as Garoppolo did. However, only Tua Tagovailoa had a higher interception rate under pressure than Garoppolo, and the San Francisco quarterback had little escapability, with one of the 10 highest sack rates when under duress.
Perhaps you're a visual learner. Here are a few examples of the kind of throws Garoppolo can make when he has space to breathe:
— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) October 31, 2021
DEEBO. DEEBO. #FTTB
— NFL (@NFL) November 16, 2021
A little Kittle action on this Sunday 🙌 #FTTB
— NFL (@NFL) December 5, 2021
Under pressure, on the other hand, Garoppolo was capable of throws like this:
— NFL Unlimited (@NFLUnlimited) September 12, 2021
Making plays like a boss.
The #49ers first drive results in a Ross Dwelley TD!
— San Francisco 49ers (@49ers) October 3, 2021
But also this:
Jalen Ramsey gets the huge pick for Los Angeles!
— EdjSports (@edjsports) January 9, 2022
And of course this:
A SUPER INTERCEPTION !
Aaron Donald pressures Jimmy Garoppolo into throwing an INT to David Long, clinching a win for #RamsHouse !
— Coolbet Canada 🇨🇦 (@CoolbetCanada) January 31, 2022
That last play will probably be Garoppolo's last for the 49ers. Kyle Shanahan has publicly confirmed that his team has "moved on to Trey [Lance]." Offseason shoulder surgery (among other things) has turfed Garoppolo's trade market, and he will probably be released at some point soon. The Seahawks look like the only team that might have an opening, but if they thought Garoppolo would be an upgrade over Drew Lock and Geno Smith, they surely would have traded for him by now. Garoppolo may have no choice but to sit out the 2022 season and return in 2023. Flawed as he is, that unpressured DVOA should look awfully attractive to a contending team that needs a quarterback—especially since performance from a clean pocket has historically been more consistent than performance under pressure.
Garoppolo is not the only passer whose numbers dipped significantly under pressure. Let's look at the rest of the bottom five, as measured by drop-off in DVOA:
Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers
Rodgers' MVP campaign was fueled by a god-tier performance from a clean pocket: 77.2% completion rate, 7.52% touchdown rate, 0.23% interception rate, all the best in the league. But he only completed 30.3% of his passes for 3.12 yards per throw when under pressure, ranking next to last in both categories, ahead of Zach Wilson and Tyler Huntley, respectively.
Joe Burrow, Cincinnati Bengals
As referenced earlier, Burrow led the NFL with 9.59 yards per throw from a clean pocket. But under pressure, he ranked among the bottom five qualifiers in both interception rate and sack rate.
Ryan Tannehill, Tennessee Titans
Tannehill's unpressured numbers were close to league average across the board, but when he was harassed by defenders, he ranked in the bottom 10 in interception rate, sack rate, and yards per completion. That last number is more important than you might think, because the best quarterbacks under pressure were usually those who could escape the pass rush and hit receivers downfield for big gains. Patrick Mahomes, for example, led the NFL with a mind-blowing 17.3 yards per completion when under pressure.
Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns
Mayfield was sacked 43 times in only 115 pressured dropbacks. That's a sack rate of 37.4% when under pressure, and that was the worst in the league. Now he's going from a great offensive line in Cleveland to Carolina, where Sam Darnold had one of the highest pressure rates in the league. This may go poorly.
Josh Allen: Pass Rush-Proof
Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen spent most of the 2021 season living—and thriving—under pressure. He had 214 pressure plays, 22 more than anyone else, and he led the NFL with 165 passes, 913 yards, and 13 touchdown throws (five more than anyone else) when under duress. Oh, and he was only sacked 26 times—that's an under-pressure sack rate of 13.6%, lowest of any qualifying quarterback all year. That mobility did more than get Allen out of trouble—he gained a league-best 444 yards on scrambles, and his 74% success rate on scrambles was higher than anyone else in the top 10. Combine his sacks and scrambles and we find that even when pass-rushers tackled Allen, he still managed an average gain of 4.0 yards. (And that's not even counting what he did on designed runs.) The worst quarterback from a clean pocket is still better than the best quarterback under pressure, but no quarterback was less bad under pressure than Allen.
Other quarterbacks who ranked higher under pressure than from a clean pocket include:
Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys
Prescott only threw one interception under pressure all season, and had the lowest under-pressure interception rate of any full-time starter. (Baltimore's Tyler Huntley had zero interceptions in 34 under-pressure throws.)
Lamar Jackson, Baltimore Ravens
As we saw with Allen, quality scrambling is sometimes the best way to beat pressure. Jackson wasn't quite as dangerous a scrambler as Allen in 2021, but he was still awfully effective, ranking second in carries and fourth in yards despite missing five games. He was also an explosive passer under pressure, ranking in the top 10 in both yards per pass and yards per completion.
Jacoby Brissett, Miami Dolphins
Brissett is the anti-Rodgers—he only looks good under pressure, relatively speaking, because he was dirt-terrible from a clean pocket, where his 6.0 yards per pass and 8.5 yards per completion were both worst in the league. Enjoy, Browns fans!
Jalen Hurts, Philadelphia Eagles
Another scrambler, and the most prolific of them all. Hurts led the NFL with 50 scrambles and was second behind Allen with 416 yards … and when you consider that Allen threw over 200 more passes, Hurts would blow him away in scramble rate if that was something we felt like compiling. Hurts also excelled when under harassment at avoiding sacks (fifth-lowest sack rate) and producing big plays (sixth-best yards per completion).
The Final Totals
The following table shows pressure numbers for all quarterbacks with at least 200 pass plays in 2021. Quarterbacks are ranked from lowest pressure rate (Tom Brady, 15.7%) to highest (Justin Fields, 34.7%).
|Quarterbacks and Pressure, 2021|
|Yds Dif.||DVOA Dif.|
Pressures are charted for us by our friends at Sports Info Solutions. We mark pressure when there's a hurry or a sack that isn't a coverage sack or "failed scramble." QB hits after the pass do not count as pressures here if the quarterback wasn't hurried before the throw.