Under Pressure: Long and Short Sacks

Under Pressure: Long and Short Sacks

by J.J. Cooper

Now that five weeks of the season are in the books, we have enough data to start making some conclusions. Jay Cutler, you might owe your linemen some apologies.

Cutler has been seen yelling at his offensive linemen on the sidelines after poor pass protection, but in logging every sack of the season, Cutler is the only starter in the league who has yet to have taken a quick sack. (A quick sack is defined as a sack of 2.4 seconds or less.)

On the other hand, as has been apparent to anyone who has watched the Cardinals play, the Cardinals linemen should be picking up the check whenever they go out to dinner with Kevin Kolb or John Skelton. Among quarterbacks with 25 or more pass plays this year, Skelton and Kolb rank second-to-last and last in short-sack percentage. Kolb’s 6.1 percent short-sack percentage is nearly double that of any non-Cardinals quarterback.

There’s a pretty clear logic that short sacks are largely, although not entirely, the result of the offensive line. A missed hot read on a defensive-back blitz can mean a short sack is the result of a quarterback or wide receiver’s mistake, but more often, it’s the result of a lineman blowing his block before the quarterback has time to get rid of the ball.

On the other hand long sacks (those that take three or more seconds) are generally the result of either good defensive coverage, a poor play call, or a quarterback who decides to hold the ball too long. It’s hard to blame the line for a long sack.

Looking at the long sacks adds further evidence to the idea that the Cardinals front five is playing with tissue-paper consistency. Kolb is right around the league average in long sacks. The problem isn’t Kolb holding the ball: it’s the line failing to make their blocks.

Cutler, on the other hand, doesn’t escape from blame. He is 29th in the NFL this season in long sack percentage. But Bengals’ offensive lineman will look enviously at Cutler’s 4.1 long sack percentage. Andy Dalton needs to work on getting rid of the ball quicker -- his 6.5 long sack percentage is the league’s worst.

Quarterback Team Attempts Long Sacks Long Pct. Rk Short Sacks Short Pct. Rk
Jake Locker TEN 109 0 0.0% 1 1 0.9% 7
Matt Hasselback TEN 84 0 0.0% 1 2 2.4% 26
Tony Romo DAL 159 0 0.0% 1 4 2.5% 28
John Skelton ARI 29 0 0.0% 1 1 3.4% 33
Ryan Tannehill MIA 178 1 0.6% 5 4 2.2% 25
Matt Schaub HOU 155 1 0.6% 6 1 0.6% 5
Drew Brees NO 248 2 0.8% 7 7 2.8% 30
Eli Manning NYG 201 2 1.0% 8 1 0.5% 2
Andrew Luck IND 186 2 1.1% 9 2 1.1% 11
Carson Palmer OAK 169 2 1.2% 10 3 1.8% 17
Peyton Manning DEN 207 3 1.4% 11 4 1.9% 24
Brandon Weeden CLE 211 4 1.9% 12 3 1.4% 14
Quarterback Team Attempts Long Sacks Long Pct. Rk Short Sacks Short Pct. Rk
Matt Ryan ATL 211 4 1.9% 13 4 1.9% 21
Ryan Fitzpatrick BUF 156 3 1.9% 14 3 1.9% 23
Blaine Gabbert JAC 161 4 2.5% 15 3 1.9% 19
Joe Flacco BAL 196 5 2.6% 16 2 1.0% 9
Matt Stafford DET 182 5 2.7% 17 3 1.6% 16
Average quarterback       2.7% AVG   1.8% AVG
Kevin Kolb ARI 179 5 2.8% 18 11 6.1% 34
Mark Sanchez NYJ 168 5 3.0% 19 2 1.2% 12
Ben Roethlisberger PIT 167 5 3.0% 20 3 1.8% 18
Josh Freeman TB 126 4 3.2% 21 2 1.6% 15
Tom Brady NE 197 7 3.6% 22 2 1.0% 8
Matt Cassel KC 189 7 3.7% 23 2 1.1% 10
Quarterback Team Attempts Long Sacks Long Pct. Rk Short Sacks Short Pct. Rk
Russell Wilson SEA 135 5 3.7% 24 4 3.0% 31
Sam Bradford STL 161 6 3.7% 25 3 1.9% 20
Phillip Rivers SD 182 7 3.8% 26 5 2.7% 29
Robert Griffin WAS 150 6 4.0% 27 5 3.3% 32
Michael Vick PHI 199 8 4.0% 28 5 2.5% 27
Jay Cutler CHI 170 7 4.1% 29 0 0.0% 1
Christian Ponder MIN 167 7 4.2% 30 1 0.6% 4
Alex Smith SF 149 7 4.7% 31 2 1.3% 13
Aaron Rodgers GB 209 11 5.3% 32 4 1.9% 22
Cam Newton CAR 149 9 6.0% 33 1 0.7% 6
Andy Dalton CIN 184 12 6.5% 34 1 0.5% 3


Right now, the NFL's sack leader isn’t much of a surprise. With a quick first step, an array of pass-rush moves, and speed to burn, Packers outside linebacker Clay Matthews has been one of the NFL’s best pass rushers ever since he arrived from USC.

But No. 2 on the list is one of the most impressive breakout stars of the 2012 season, and one of the most surprising. Texans 3-4 defensive end J.J. Watt has 7.5 sacks. Rarely do 3-4 defensive ends pile up sacks -- as you probably know, in a 3-4 defense, the outside linebackers are supposed to get most of the sacks.

But Watt has upended conventional wisdom by proving to be an interior pass-rushing force. When you think pass-rushing defensive end, you generally picture a Mario Williams type with the quickness to have offensive tackles bailing into their kick step to try to beat him to the corner. Watt doesn’t have the speed to do that.

But he does have some of the longest arms seen on anyone not employed as an NBA center. He also has great agility for his size and a knack for never taking a play off. Add it up, and Watt is now absorbing a lot of the double teams that Williams used to see in Houston.

To get a better idea of how Watt is creating havoc, Under Pressure logged each and every pass play of the season for the Texans’ defense. Watt has been on the field for 161 of the 187 pass plays. Of those 161 pass plays, he’s picked up 7.5 sacks, deflected 10 passes (three of which have been picked off), pressured the quarterback 13 times, and has drawn two penalties. In other words: on more than 20 percent of the pass plays where he’s been on the field, Watt has caused problems for the offense.

How does he do it? By using his hands extremely well and reading quarterbacks like a ball-hawking free safety.

Watt presents a paradox to offenses. Watt is a good enough pass rusher that offenses have to account for him wherever he goes, and he lines up everywhere along the line -- he’s played left and right defensive end and left and right defensive tackle. But Watt is just as dangerous when he doesn’t really try to sack the quarterback. Every now and then when he’s lined up at defensive tackle, Watt will fire off the line at the snap, then use his long arms to generate separation from the man blocking him. At that point, he just reads the quarterback’s eyes and uses his 6-foot-10 wingspan to deflect passes.

But it is best to think of him as a defensive tackle when it comes to rushing the quarterback. Watt slides inside to defensive tackle in passing situations. He’s actually lined up at defensive tackle on 88 pass plays compared to 73 snaps at defensive end. Even when he lines up at defensive end, Watt is really an interior rusher. After all, the Texans line up a pass-rushing outside linebacker on his outside shoulder. Of Watt’s 7.5 sacks, only his shared sack came when he was lined up at defensive end and beat a tackle to the outside. None of his 13 quarterback pressures have come by simply blowing past a tackle to the outside.

That’s not a knock against Watt’s first-step quickness. It’s just not how the Texans need to use him. Connor Barwin and Brooks Reed are the speed rushers off the edge. Watt is the guy creating havoc inside. Even when he’s playing defensive end, Watt is more likely to line up in a three or four technique, playing to face a guard rather than a tackle.

All that means is that if you’re an NFL offensive guard, you don’t want to face the Texans.

Watt’s best pass-rushing moves occur when he’s on the move. The Texans do a great job of using twists and loops to generate pressure. Watt has shown this year that he’ll even hesitate when running a twist to allow a hole to open up. It’s tough to ask a defensive lineman to slow down his rush, but Watt has shown the understanding that sometimes an extra tenth of a second or a stutter step will allow you to get to the quarterback quicker, because it means the offensive lineman assigned to block him will peel off to help out someone else.

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Watt also has shown the understanding that the bullseye that offenses are now putting on him can create opportunities for others. Against the Jets, Watt was triple-teamed on one pass play. It kept Watt well away from the quarterback, but it also mean that Barwin came free for a sack and a forced fumble. He’s also helped open up room for a Barwin pressure, a Barwin pass deflection and an Antonio Smith pressure.


The Rams were able to cause all kind of problems for Cardinals’ quarterback Kevin Kolb by simply relying on their front four. But on a key fourth-and-1, the Rams dialed up the perfect blitz to further ruin Kolb’s night. Rams cornerback Cortland Finnegan timed a cornerback blitz perfectly, meaning that he was on Kolb before the hot route was even ready. Finnegan’s blitz did leave a wide receiver open, but since he was hitting Kolb at 1.5 seconds, it didn’t matter.


You’ve probably seen this sack on replay about 50 times this week. When Robert Griffin III rolled out and decided to run for a first down on a third-and-3 last Sunday, Sean Weatherspoon ended his day early with a legal hit that gave Griffin a concussion. The hit came 6.4 seconds after the snap.

If another of his sacks would have been two-tenths of a second longer, Kolb would have pulled off a rare double. Kolb had the fastest sack of the week, but he also had a 6.3-second sack when he took off and tried to run for yardage on a first-and-10. The slow-footed Kolb was caught at the line of scrimmage.


16 comments, Last at 13 Oct 2012, 10:13pm

1 Re: Under Pressure: Long and Short Sacks

We here in the comments discussed, a couple of weeks ago, a very quick sack of Kevin Kolb that was very much on Kolb for failing to identify the blitzers or throw hot in an empty set. So that makes me wonder:

1. How many of these sacks came from empty backfield sets?
2. More generally, how many blockers were involved in each short sack?
3. Is there any way we can use available data to test how much of the pressure is on the offensive line for -failing- to block people as opposed to the QB (and center, on some teams) for failing to assign blockers to people?

2 Re: Under Pressure: Long and Short Sacks

Great article, I think there's a typo in the 6th paragraph:
Watt is a good enough pass rusher that defenses have to account...

Probably should be offenses?

4 Re: Under Pressure: Long and Short Sacks

What exactly is Kolb doing in that picture? It looks like he's either throwing a temper tantrum or about to have a seizure.

-I'm not Billy Bad-Ass.

5 Re: Under Pressure: Long and Short Sacks

All the high-mobility QB's are in the bottom on long sacks, which makes sense since they can escape from the initial pressure that would normally increase their short sacks. Definitely a useful measure for the other QB's though.

I'm thinking that high-mobility QB's (all in bottom except for Dalton, Rivers, and Bradford) in general depress both sack rates, especially short-sacks since a portion of them get turned into long-sacks as well as no-sacks.

Is there any info on how long a QB has before he's forced to take atypical action (i.e. something more than a shift in the pocket) by pressure?

13 Re: Under Pressure: Long and Short Sacks

Is it just me, or does anyone else find it eerie how many different stat tables list Luck and P Manning close together? This one, QBR, etc. Not something I actually expected. I suppose that at the end of the season, the differences between a seasoned HOFer and a rookie will widen. Right? But the greatest gap will probably have to do with rushing yards, 1st downs, and TDs. In, ahem, Luck's favor. If those runs don't get him killed, that is.
And if it's possible, his OL sucks worse than Peyton's ever did. At least 18 started out with Glenn and Meadows at T and McKinney at C/G. Luck has a 1st rounder at LT, plus a bunch of burly guys most accurately described as "a bunch of burly guys" along with him.

15 Re: Under Pressure: Long and Short Sacks

2010 P Manning's o line had tackles Diem(waaay past his better days) and charlie johnson(who never had any good days to begin with). The interior was made up of perpetually awful kyle devan and jamie richard. And even then, this pathetic unit wasn't stable as it had to sub in even worse players like mike pollack and jeff linkenbach. So while I find the current colts o line pretty crappy all around, that 2010 one really took the cake for me.

AS for their similarities, having watched all of luck's games, he doesn't really remind me of P Manning at all. His voice, his throws, the movement of his feet, none of them remind me at all of Peyton. The crowd still hushes in silence when the colts offense runs snaps, but it really doesn't have to because Luck isn't audibling like Manning either.

As far as currently- I still feel like P Manning is close to the best qb in the nfl, I honestly feel like only drew Brees and maybe eli have played slightly better than Peyton thus far.

7 Re: Under Pressure: Long and Short Sacks

"Cutler has been seen yelling at his offensive linemen on the sidelines after poor pass protection, but in logging every sack of the season, Cutler is the only starter in the league who has yet to have taken a quick sack. (A quick sack is defined as a sack of 2.4 seconds or less.)"

Just because a play doesn't result in a quick sack doesn't mean that the offensive linemen did a good job. A QB might avoid a quick sack by getting rid of the ball before he wants to (often resulting in incomplete passes or interceptions) or by running for his life. Of course, there could be other reasons for the QB being Under Pressure (the name of this column) immediately, such as a faulty blocking scheme, an overload blitz, a missed block by a running back or tight end, etc. All of these things happened in the Bears game in Green Bay.

None of this justifies immature or bratty behavior by a QB. I'm just pointing out that "no quick sacks" does not equal "not poor pass protection."

8 Re: Under Pressure: Long and Short Sacks

I am so looking forward to this week's battle between the sieve-like Cardinal offensive line and the blockable Bills defense.

16 Re: Under Pressure: Long and Short Sacks

Minor nit: if you are going to rank QBs by long sack rate, you need to divide by attempts - short sacks - medium sacks. There's no value to avoiding long sacks by getting sacked quicker.

For most QBs this does not change their rate much. Kolb drops a few places in long sack rank, though.