Under Pressure: Play Call Sacks

Under Pressure: Play Call Sacks

by J.J. Cooper

Sometimes, the best ideas for what to write about come from your comments. This week we'll explore a question that DisplacedPackersFan asked in last week's comments section:

How many coverage/play call sacks do the Packers have? Heck, I think that would just be a good feature to run for the league here in the next couple of weeks, with 39.5 percent of all sacks being categorized that way, would be interesting to see where teams rank on that.

The answer, DPF, is a good bit.

On 2.9 percent of Packers pass plays, Aaron Rodgers has been put down by a sack that can not be directly attributed to a missed block by a Green Bay lineman, back, or tight end. Rodgers is a quarterback who likes to hold the ball, looking for a big play when coverages start to break down. It’s hard to argue with the results -- he’s one of the best big play quarterbacks in the league -- but it does also mean that he takes more than his share of coverage sacks. In my charting project, a sack is blamed on the coverage when a quarterback has plenty of time to throw, but holds the ball beyond the length of time that his blockers can reasonably be expected to protect him.

Unfortunately, there has to be some subjectivity in deciding whether a sack is a coverage sack or not, but there are some general rules. No coverage sack this year has taken place in less than 3.1 seconds, and the vast majority (214 of the 219 coverage sacks) have taken 3.3 seconds or longer. The median time of a coverage sack is 4.1 seconds, so we’re talking about sacks where the quarterback had time to check his primary receiver, look at his secondary, eye the back looking for an outlet pass, and then see the rush bearing down on him.

Rodgers has plenty of these coverage sacks. 10, to be exact, for 2.2 percent of all of his pass plays. All of those 10 sacks came on plays where Rodgers held the ball for 3.5 seconds or longer.

Rodgers isn’t the king of the coverage sack though: The 49ers take that crown. Alex Smith had 10 coverage sacks in 251 pass plays (4.0 percent), while new 49ers starter Colin Kaepernick has picked up five coverage sacks in only 115 pass plays (4.3 percent). The 49ers also had four sacks that could be blamed on the quarterback or the play call. One involved Smith falling down with no one around him. Another was a flea flicker that took way too long to develop, giving the Lions time to nab Smith before he was ready throw a full 3.5 seconds after the snap. There was a pass where Smith decided to run before he was really pressured, and it wasn’t a great idea as he got run down from behind. The fourth quarterback/play call sack was a halfback pass where the halfback decided not to pass.

The 49ers wind up with coverage sacks on 4.4 percent of pass plays, worst in the league. San Francisco has had coverage or quarterback/play call sacks on 5.6 percent of dropbacks, also the worst percentage in the league.

On the other end of the spectrum, Peyton Manning is back to being Peyton Manning. Manning has only two coverage sacks all season (0.4 percent of pass plays), best in the league. He also has two quarterback/play call sacks, both on plays where unblocked pass rushers off the edge reached Manning in 2.2 seconds or less.

If you want to know how your team stacks up, here’s a look at all 32 teams. First we’ll look at coverage sacks.

Coverage Sacks (through Week 13)
Team Coverage Sacks Pct. Of Att. Rk. Team Coverage Sacks Pct. Of Att. Rk.
DEN 2 0.4% 1 BAL 6 1.3% 17
HOU 3 0.7% 2 DAL 7 1.3% 18
OAK 4 0.8% 3 TB 6 1.5% 19
BUF 3 0.8% 4 WAS 6 1.7% 20
NO 4 0.8% 5 MIN 7 1.7% 21
ATL 4 0.8% 6 PIT 8 1.7% 22
JAC 4 0.9% 7 SD 9 2.0% 23
IND 5 0.9% 8 CHI 8 2.1% 24
MIA 4 1.0% 9 PHI 10 2.1% 25
TEN 5 1.1% 10 GB 10 2.2% 26
CLE 5 1.1% 11 KC 9 2.2% 27
NYG 5 1.1% 12 DET 13 2.3% 28
STL 5 1.2% 13 SEA 9 2.5% 29
NYJ 5 1.2% 14 CIN 12 2.7% 30
NE 6 1.2% 15 CAR 13 3.3% 31
ARI 6.5 1.3% 16 SF 15 4.4% 32

And below is the table for quarterback/play call sacks.

Quarterback/Play Call Sacks (Through Week 13)
Team QB/PC Sacks Pct of Att. Rk. Team QB/PC Sacks Pct of Att. Rk.
DAL 1 0.2% 1 ATL 4 0.8% 17
NE 1 0.2% 2 SD 4 0.9% 18
PIT 1 0.2% 3 ARI 4.5 0.9% 19
BAL 1 0.2% 4 CLE 4 0.9% 20
NYG 1 0.2% 5 IND 5 0.9% 21
TB 1 0.2% 6 KC 4 1.0% 22
CAR 1 0.3% 7 TEN 5 1.1% 23
DEN 2 0.4% 8 SEA 4 1.1% 24
HOU 2 0.5% 9 OAK 6 1.1% 25
STL 2 0.5% 10 SF 5 1.5% 26
GB 3 0.7% 11 WAS 6 1.7% 27
DET 4 0.7% 12 MIN 7 1.7% 28
MIA 3 0.7% 13 JAC 8 1.8% 29
BUF 3 0.8% 14 CHI 7 1.8% 30
NO 4 0.8% 15 PHI 9 1.9% 31
CIN 3.5 0.8% 16 NYJ 10 2.4% 32


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Texans defensive end J.J. Watt has 16.5 sacks, good for second-most in the NFL, but he only had 15.5 until a scoring change was made on Wednesday.

In the fourth quarter of Sunday’s game, Watt had Titans quarterback Jake Locker squared up in his sights as Locker rolled out to his right. Locker saw Watt and quickly slammed on the brakes to try to reverse his field and let Watt fly by him. It was a desperation move, and one that was even less likely to work when you consider that Watt has the wingspan of a 747.

But when Locker tried to stop, his feet slipped out from under him. He tried to get back up and managed to get to his knees before Watt arrived. There was just one problem: he had tried to use his hand with the football to steady himself, and he left said football on the ground. Watt hit him just a tenth of a second or so after he lost the football, but since Locker fumbled without being touched (even if it was Watt’s presence that caused him to fumble), official scorers initially registered it as a team sack, not a sack for Watt. The Texans, cognizant of Watt’s battle for the sack lead, asked the league to take another look. The NFL did, and decided that Watt deserved to be credited with another sack, his second of the game.

If Watt ends up one sack ahead of Aldon Smith or Von Miller when the season ends, it’s worth remembering this play. He deserved the sack, but it was a close call as to whether he would get it or not.


If you’re looking for reasons why the Chargers are one of the NFL’s most disappointing teams, you can cite Philip Rivers' slide into mediocrity or Norv Turner, but it may be more fair to look at the problems the Chargers have had at offensive tackle.

San Diego’s problems really began when Marcus McNeill suffered a neck injury. After an excellent start to his career, McNeill was expected to be the Chargers’ left tackle for many years to come. But not long after signing a six-year contract extension, McNeil suffered a neck injury that cut his 2011 season short. He was forced to retire during the offseason.

The Chargers felt they had found a stopgap answer to replace McNeil when the Ravens waived Jared Gaither. Gaither went from the waiver wire to the Chargers’ starting lineup almost immediately in 2011, and was expected to handle the job again this year. But after missing time with back spasms, he was lost for the season to a groin injury. That forced Mike Harris, an undrafted rookie, to play most of the season as the team’s left tackle. He’s played pretty much as you would expect -- he has seven sacks allowed, which is among the most in the league.

Jeromey Clary, the team’s right tackle, is serviceable at best as a pass blocker. He’s given up seven sacks himself, and as we've documented, he especially has trouble against speed rushers like Von Miller.

Clary went down as well on Sunday, forcing the Chargers to turn to Kevin Haslam, who was plucked off the street after he was waived by the Raiders. Haslam is technically a third-year pro, but he had played less than 10 offensive snaps (back in 2010) before being thrown into the game on Sunday.

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It was Haslam who was beaten by Carlos Dunlap late in the game, forcing a fumble that helped drop San Diego to 4-8.

Things may get worse this week against the Steelers. Clary’s likely to remain out, while Harris is also expected to miss the game. That means the Chargers will likely start the inexperienced Haslam at right tackle and veteran Reggie Wells at left tackle. Wells does have plenty of experience -- he was a six-year starter for the Cardinals -- but the 32-year-old lost that starting job in 2009. He hasn’t started a game since 2010.


Sunday’s Jets-Cardinals game was about as bad a display of offense as the NFL has served up since the mid-1970s, before they started loosening the rules to encourage teams to throw the ball every now and then. Fittingly, the two sacks tied for the quickest sacks of the week were from that game.

Mark Sanchez didn’t really see Adrian Wilson coming on a safety blitz until it was too late. He did see him quickly enough to save his skin -- he stepped up and went to the ground to avoid a crushing blow, 1.9 seconds after the snap.

Later, Jets defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson blew past Rich Ohrnberger to nab Ryan Lindley in 1.9 seconds.


Joe Flacco had a long sack to remember this week. Long sacks usually have a pretty reliable template: a speedy quarterback will decide after a suitable time in the pocket to roll out toward the sideline with an eye on tucking and running, buy some more time, then get picked off by a linebacker or defensive back coming up from coverage before he can get past the line of scrimmage. Or, he’ll keep running backwards before finally getting run down for a big loss.

Flacco’s was the extremely rare 6.4 second sack where the quarterback just sat in the pocket the whole time. This is one time where the quarterback should be apologizing to the linemen when he got back to the huddle. Flacco held the ball, held it some more, and then held it a little longer, eventually letting defensive end Ziggy Hood get a sack that signified more about Hood’s persistence than his pass-rushing skills.


19 comments, Last at 09 Dec 2012, 11:34pm

1 Re: Under Pressure: Play Call Sacks

Ohrenberger is starting somewhere?

Is it me, or does there seem to be a handful of lineman that get cut by the patriots/don't make the team after their 2nd/3rd year, who end up starters every year?

Was it Larsen that TB was starting last year after they'd stolen him from the Pats PS? Or was that the year before?

7 Re: Under Pressure: Play Call Sacks

I think it may be more common with offensive linemen as a lot of the work is technical skill and coaching as much as talent. Breno Giacomini is a starting tackle in Seattle after being a turnstile in Green Bay. Joe Andruzzi wasn't much with the Packers before going to New England.

2 Re: Under Pressure: Play Call Sacks

Correction: Gaither started out with the Ravens, but the Chargers picked him up after he was waived by the Chiefs.

3 Re: Under Pressure: Play Call Sacks

Thanks for doing this piece. It's nice to see numbers that match my perception. It's fairly common knowledge that Rodgers can hold the ball too long, it was a major criticism leveled at him in his first year as a starter and some people weren't sure he could over come it. Clearly he still does hold on too long at times, and clearly he has been able to overcome that. It also seems to confirm that the team hasn't been able to call plays as well to get guys open or open enough (Rodger's will hit a tight window, but he isn't Favre, he won't force it too often).

I know Rodger's and McCarthy still love to push down field. But as I mentioned after the Minn game, defenses are doing well at stopping that and I really think they need both Nelson and Jennings healthy (hasn't really happened this year) to be able to break that without a middle of the field passing or running game. They started to show a middle field game against Minn, and had a bit of running game too. So even without Nelson, if Finley keeps holding onto the ball, and Jennings can keep working the slot well they should move the ball more and might get a few 1 high looks. With Nelson and Jennings they could still get someone open deep often enough even against a 2 or 3 deep shell and Rodger's holding the ball too long still got big strikes that they haven't had this year.

It's just sad that it seems to have taken me 10+ games this year to see how all that worked. Jennings + Cobb should be more effective than Nelson + Cobb because Nelson has never been great in the middle of the field. Jennings has, and so has Cobb, so they do the worry about mid and deep stuff on their own.

4 Re: Under Pressure: Play Call Sacks

Mr Cooper, I was wondering how many coverage sacks Anthony Davis has surrendered because I think he tends to set up for a short pass quite a lot and then gets beaten when the ball doesn't come out on time. In a perfect world it wouldn't matter and he'd be able to recover but I do think he gets unfairly criticised as a result of the niner qbs not getting the ball out.

5 Re: Under Pressure: Play Call Sacks

On the JJ Watt sack being awarded later, didn't he also have one taken away after a game? I seem to recall there being some chatter about it before the GB - Houston game because it took the league lead away from him and gave it Matthews.

6 Re: Under Pressure: Play Call Sacks

If you want to be precise, you should probably add intentional grounding calls to the totals? (or, I suppose review them and add them if they're late enough in the play. But IG's are probably generally late enough that they qualify).

And, having seen a few of NE's games, only one seems low. Brady is more willing than most to eat the ball late rather than throw up a prayer.

8 Re: Under Pressure: Play Call Sacks

Minor nitpick.
San Francisco has had coverage or quarterback/play call sacks on 5.6 percent of dropbacks, also the worst percentage in the league.
4.4% + 1.5% = 5.9%. Or are some sacks a combination of the two?

9 Re: Under Pressure: Play Call Sacks

I'm stunned, stunned to see the Broncos with the lowest rate of coverage /QB at fault sacks, wonder what that looked like a year ago?

10 Re: Under Pressure: Play Call Sacks

Anyone wanting ,more proof about how terrible Sanchez is, just needs to look at the bottom of the Quarterback/Play call sacks chart.

11 Re: Under Pressure: Play Call Sacks

Once again, it is really, really, bizarre that Peyton Freakin' Manning was a free agent, although to look at the numbers of the rookie that replaced him, to say something is bizarre is not a criticism of the decision that brought about the bizarre event.

12 Re: Under Pressure: Play Call Sacks

Also, I think Cutler has done well in Chicago last year and this year, given the context, but his numbers on these two charts are not impressive, especially the latter one. J.J., do you have an easy to forward breakdown of Chicago's 7 qb/playcall sacks?

13 Re: Under Pressure: Play Call Sacks


Its probably going to be next to impossible to do this, but...I think if we really want a better understanding of sacks/pressure, we also have to incorporate things like how many drops steps per sack attempt. Ie- for a team like ne who uses so many short routes, brady doesn't take as many deeper drops as say Big ben would, thus his offense is less prone to giving up sacks than Big ben would be. Its an important factor to control for, but probably too cumbersome a process to measure.

14 Re: Under Pressure: Play Call Sacks

How many of these coverage sacks are on 3rd down? If you are between the 40s you better wait for someone to get open and risk a sack than throw away.