Under Pressure: Seattle's Sackfest

Under Pressure: Seattle's Sackfest
Under Pressure: Seattle's Sackfest
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by J.J. Cooper

It was lost in the outcry over the final play, but at halftime of Monday night’s Seahawks-Packers game, the biggest shock was the Seahawks' eight first-half sacks of Aaron Rodgers, just four off the all-time NFL single-game record. At the rate Rodgers was being sacked, Chris Clemons (four first-half sacks) also seemed to have Derrick Thomas’ NFL record seven-sack day in his sights as well.

The Packers did manage to keep Rodgers upright during the second half, but eight sacks -- in a half or a game -- is still an awful performance. But in re-watching all eight sacks, it’s clear that the offensive line wasn’t nearly as culpable as one might believe.

Of those eight sacks, only three came in less than three seconds. And one of those came when Rodgers simply fell to the ground when he tried to plant his feet to throw -- that one’s completely on Rodgers.

Let’s take a look at all eight sacks.

Sack No. 1: Rookie defensive end Bruce Irvin is an impressive pass rusher. On this play, he clearly got the better of Bryan Bulaga. Irvin has a quick first step, but what he also showed was his ability to use his hands to generate leverage. He won the battle of hand position against Bulaga, giving a nice upward shove to Bulaga’s chest, which got Bulaga light on his feet. Then, with Bulaga’s weight shifted onto his heels, Irvin cut inside of him to wrap up Rodgers 2.5 seconds after the snap. Blame the offensive line, and Bulaga in particular, for this one.

Sack No. 2: This is the Rodgers fall. Rodgers dropped back and tried to set his feet, but he stumbled and fell to the ground. Brandon Mebane won the race among Seahawks’ defensive linemen for the easy sack. Rodgers hit the ground 2.6 seconds after the snap. Blame this one on Rodgers.

Sack No. 3: This one is somewhat of a repeat of the first sack. Irvin got Bulaga back on his heels, then cut back inside. But this time, Rodgers had 3.7 seconds to throw before he was hit. This sack had more to do with the Seahawks’ excellent coverage downfield than Irvin’s pass rush. On this sack, blame goes to the Green Bay wide receivers for their inability to get open.

Sack No. 4: Rodgers has plenty of mobility and the Packers try to take advantage of that with rollouts. When you roll a quarterback out, you often gain a little extra time to throw, but you also limit yourself to throwing to roughly half of the field . Throwing back across your body is extremely risky.

Rodgers rolled out to his right and found himself with plenty of time, even though defensive end Clemons was left unblocked at the snap. Fullback John Kuhn flowed across the formation with Rodgers on the bootleg and managed to cut Clemons to slow him down. Rodgers had plenty of time to throw, but with nowhere to go, defensive tackle Alan Branch eventually shed his block and forced Rodgers to scramble. That gave Clemons enough time to get off the ground and run Rodgers down 3.5 seconds after the snap. Once again, the offensive line is relatively blameless on this sack.

Sack No. 5: The Seahawks were able to generate pressure without blitzing in the first half, which helped allow Seattle to be aggressive in re-routing Green Bay receivers while keeping safeties over the top. Of the eight first-half sacks, only once did Seattle rush more than four players. A lot of the credit for that goes to Clemons and Irvin. On this sack, Clemons lined up on the outside like usual, but looped inside at the snap. Center Jeff Saturday recognized Clemons coming his way and gave him a punch, but Clemons’ speed meant that instead of Saturday’s shove stopping him in his tracks, it came as Clemons was already a step past him. In fact, the shove actually pushed Clemons further into the pocket, forcing Rodgers to scramble. At the same time, Irvin was driving Bulaga back into Rodgers. Because Rodgers didn’t have much of a chance to step up to throw, Clemons was able to run him down. The sack came a lengthy 3.9 seconds after the snap, but in this case you can say that the offensive line was partly responsible for the sack.

Sack No. 6: Much like Sack No. 4, Rodgers rolled out. In this case he had plenty of time, but couldn’t find anywhere he wanted to throw the ball. After 5.2 seconds, Mebane eventually ran Rodgers down. But in this case, Rodgers had more time to throw than he could reasonably expect. The blame for this one goes to Rodgers and the wide receivers.

Sack No. 7: Clemons’ speed earned him a sack here. With left tackle Marshall Newhouse worried about getting beat to the corner, he over-committed to Clemons firing off the line. Clemons then took a quick step with his right foot, planted, and cut back to the inside. Newhouse’s race to the corner left a big opening to his inside and Clemons’ took advantage to sack Rodgers 2.4 seconds after the snap. This one is all on Newhouse.

[ad placeholder 3]

Sack No. 8: Clemons picked up his fourth sack of the first half just 30 seconds after his third sack, but the circumstances were completely different. In this case, Rodgers held the ball for 4.7 seconds before Clemons ran him down.

Clemons actually beat Newhouse to the outside at the snap, but Rodgers was able to step up and roll to his left to buy him some time. He had plenty of time to throw, but, once again, he couldn’t find anyone to throw to. Clemons gets credit for a great motor, as he was driven past Rodgers but stayed with the play and made a second chance to hit the quarterback. Again, the blame here seems to be more on an inability to find anyone open rather than poor pass protection.


In recent years, many teams have adopted the 11-angry men approach in obvious passing situations. Rex Ryan, Dick LeBeau, and other defensive minds have gotten their linemen and linebackers out of three-point stances, going with one or two down linemen and plenty of other potential rushers milling around the line of scrimmage. At the snap, the offensive line has to sort out which of the stand-up rushers are coming and which ones are dropping into coverage.

The Rams adopted the exact opposite approach on a second-and-15 against the Bears on Sunday. St. Louis went with a somewhat old school 5-1-5, with five defensive linemen with their hands on the ground, joined by one linebacker, James Laurinaitis, milling around behind them.

At the snap, all six potential rushers fired off. With five defensive linemen, the Bears’ offensive linemen didn’t have to figure out who to block -- the five offensive linemen blocked the five defensive linemen while the tailback picked up Laurinaitis.

But that didn’t help the Bears block effectively. Chris Long, lined up to the outside of the tight end, had an excellent angle to cut the corner. The Rams generated good pressure up the middle while Long helped drive right tackle Gabe Carimi into the backfield to pick up the sack.


Robert Griffin is fast enough to force defensive linemen to work hard to track him down. But on Sunday, Griffin made it easy for the Bengals when he ran into running back Alfred Morris, forcing a fumble that he recovered. If, like me, you count the fumble as the start of the sack, Griffins sack came only 1.5 seconds after the snap. Defensive end Michael Johnson picked up one of the easiest sacks he’ll ever get by touching Griffin down.


When are these rookies going to learn? Just a week after Andrew Luck learned that it never pays to turn your back to the line of scrimmage when running from a pass rusher, Seahawks’ quarterback Russell Wilson learned the same lesson.

Wilson completely reversed field while trying to run away from Packers’ linebacker Nick Perry. All it did was add to his yards lost. The final tally: 19 yards lost on a 5.7-second sack. The 19-yard loss is the second-longest of the season on a sack, trailing only Luck’s similar scramble.


12 comments, Last at 02 Oct 2012, 11:44pm

1 Re: Under Pressure: Seattle's Sackfest

Where is the Green Bay play calling at fault for not giving Rodgers any quick options to pass to? I blame the o-line for more of those sacks than you do...especially because they were holding like craaazy in the second half to stop Clemons and Irvin.

I say dump pass dropper Jones and pay someone more $$ to help the o-line. This was similar problem to the year they lost to the Cards in the wild card round and has been consistent through 3 games now.

2 Re: Under Pressure: Seattle's Sackfest

"He won the battle of hand position against Bulaga, giving a nice upward shove to Bulaga’s chest, which got Bulaga light on his feet."

By chest, you mean chin, right?


4 Re: Under Pressure: Seattle's Sackfest

I am, in the words of Colonel Jessop, just spitballing here, as I didn't see the game, but it seems to me that if an until-recently-unstoppable passing offense gives up a bunch of coverage sacks, we ought to consider two possible explanations.

1. The opposing secondary is otherworldly.

I think Seattle's secondary is very good, with more than respectable starting CBs and the best safety pair in the NFL. I do not believe it is historically great.

2. The replacement refs weren't enforcing defensive holding and pass interference to the usual standard, the DBs on every team in the league knew it, and the spread teams with quick, undersized receivers had no answer to the sudden turning back of the strategic balance clock. Most underperforming teams in the league to date: GB, NO, NE - the three most pass-offense-first teams in the NFL. Most overperforming teams: Arizona and Seattle. Lousy passing games, but excellent defense. Draw your own conclusions.

5 Re: Under Pressure: Seattle's Sackfest

I don't think this is an either/or proposition. I don't think they are mutually exclusive options.

The Packers in particular have played 3 defenses that were expected to be good to great, with good to great passing defenses. The 3 big underperformers also have other things to point at. NO lost their coach and play caller, and all that other distraction, and it's their defense that has really fallen apart. NE decided that their best receiver last year, Welker, didn't need to play anymore and sat him down to give Edleman more snaps. Green Bay's best receiver, Jennings, has been injured, and even when he wasn't they also decided that he no longer needed to take most of his snaps split wide like in all his previous seasons, but instead he should take the majority of his snaps from the slot and let Nelson and Jones play outside. GB also doesn't have quick undersized receivers. Finely (TE) is 6-5 247. Nelson is 6-3 217. Jones is 6-1 208. Those are all pretty NFL average. Now Jennings is undersized at 5-11 198 but he has the least snaps of those 4.

I don't think it makes sense to pin it all on one thing. I think the way the refs called the came impacted things, I think opponents skill (at least in one case) affected things. I think normal regression to the mean is some of it, and I think schematic changes and other influences affected it. Which had the greatest effect? Well give us three more games of data and we can see. For GB after playing the #16, #3, and #4 defenses so far this year will face the #27, #22, and #1 defense that's and easier slate on average, going from an average of -17.2 VOA to an average of -2.6 VOA should be noticeable. If the refs had an effect we will likely see a league wide effect that can be somewhat measured. We'd be able to tell if the NE, GB, and NO change schemes it won't be quite as easy to tell if they don't change and simply adjust to the changes better quite as easily.

We'll see. But I think there is a combination of factors and trying to suss out which had the most influence isn't simple, though it should be somewhat doable.

7 Re: Under Pressure: Seattle's Sackfest

Yeah Cobb is small for an NFL player at any position really (5-10 192). But he is also only on the field about 30% of the time. Thanks to the lovely new snap count data provide by the NFL and the lovely tools provide here on FO to look at them you can see. I've also included catch rates from here even though I'm not really commenting on them at this point. Rodgers has a 67.8% completion rate this year.

Packers 212 offensive snaps.
Nelson - 185 (87%) | 68% catch rate
Finley - 175 (80%) | 71% catch rate
Jones - 163 (77%) | 65% catch rate
Jennings - 115 (54%) | 58% catch rate
Cobb - 63 (30%) | 85% catch rate

So he isn't a huge part of the game plan (same reason I didn't list Driver ), he's not insignificant (anyone about 25% is likely to see a few plays per drive, and that's enough to require a bit of defensive game planning). But he doesn't carry as much significance. Jennings of course has missed time to injury or he would likely be second in snap count (Nelson has gotten more snaps in both games where Jennings was healthy) and Jones would be closer to Jennings numbers.

So just way to much detail on why I didn't mention Cobb initially. :)

I'm very interested in tracking the next 3 weeks and trying to see if we can figure out the "Replacement Ref Effect" because I do think it's real. We may never get enough data though, or be able to isolate the variables well enough though.

8 Re: Under Pressure: Seattle's Sackfest

Interesting. Yeah, possibly size is a bit of a red herring. It may simply be - as Jimmy Graham claimed in an interview the other day - that these offenses are more dependent than others on precise timing.

I think we're basically in agreement about this: the replacement refs definitely had an effect, but we may well never be able to determine exactly what or how much. My hunch is that spread teams whose strength was pass offense were penalized, and defense-first teams rewarded, even if they were bad at passing.

9 Re: Under Pressure: Seattle's Sackfest

Anecdotal, I know, but during the SF game, the Packer receivers were getting bumped well past the ten yards. I think it had a very big effect on the the Packers offense (not complaining about the outcome as it appeared to me the better team won that night).

12 Re: Under Pressure: Seattle's Sackfest

Based on last week's game, we have some reason to believe both. Saints and Packers both looked pretty good offensively. Now, each was facing a relatively weak defense. But one could also suspect that games being called differently made a difference.

11 Re: Under Pressure: Seattle's Sackfest

That it took until halftime for Green Bay to discover that you are allowed to run the ball is ridiculous

I know MIke McCarthy has a fair amount of success as a coach, but he is stubborn it boggles the mind.

he hates running the ball, wants to score quickly and you saw all of his worst traits on display on Monday.

It's been FOUR straight games of the same BS and McCarthy refuses to accept that good defenses have punched his team in the mouth and succeeded.