Under Pressure: Short and Long Sacks

Under Pressure: Short and Long Sacks
Under Pressure: Short and Long Sacks
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by J.J. Cooper

Cam Newton has been sacked 24 times this year, as the Panthers’ 7.7 percent Adjusted Sack Rate ranks 24th in the league. But please don’t point fingers at Jordan Gross and the rest of the Panthers’ offensive line -- it really hasn’t been their fault. Newton’s legs create plenty of big plays and buy lots of time, but in logging the time of every sack this year, it’s also apparent that his decision to hold the ball frequently is leading to a lot of sacks that aren't really the line’s fault.

It’s not a perfect measure, but quick sacks (those that occur in 2.4 seconds or less) are almost always a function of either a poor block or a mistake that left a blocker untouched. With the exception of blitzes that force a quarterback into a hot read, the quick sack is usually not the quarterback’s fault. Newton has only two quick sacks all season (0.7% of dropbacks), which ranks ninth-best in the league. Among regular starters, Newton’s short sack percentage is third-best in the league.

Short Sacks Through Week 10

TEAM QB Sacked Short Sacks Pct Rk TEAM QB Sacked Short Sacks Pct Rk
KC Brady Quinn 0 0.0% 1 DEN Peyton Manning 5 1.5% 22
PHI Nick Foles 0 0.0% 1 PIT Ben Roethlisberger 5 1.5% 23
MIA Matt Moore 0 0.0% 1 BUF Ryan Fitzpatrick 5 1.6% 24
WAS Kirk Cousins 0 0.0% 1 ATL Matt Ryan 6 1.6% 25
NYJ Tim Tebow 0 0.0% 1 GB Aaron Rodgers 6 1.7% 26
NYG David Carr 0 0.0% 1 HOU Matt Schaub 5 1.7% 27
NYG Eli Manning 1 0.3% 7 MIN Christian Ponder 6 1.8% 28
CIN Andy Dalton 2 0.6% 8 OAK Carson Palmer 7 1.8% 29
CAR Cam Newton 2 0.7% 9 SEA Russell Wilson 5 1.8% 30
DET Matt Stafford 3 0.7% 10 SD Philip Rivers 6 1.9% 31
TEN Jake Locker 1 0.8% 11 NO Drew Brees 8 2.1% 32
NE Tom Brady 3 0.8% 12 DAL Tony Romo 8 2.2% 33
SF Alex Smith 2 0.8% 13 STL Sam Bradford 7 2.2% 34
TB Josh Freeman 3 1.0% 14 WAS Robert Griffin III 7 2.5% 35
CHI Jay Cutler 3 1.1% 15 NYJ Mark Sanchez 8 2.5% 36
CLE Brandon Weeden 4 1.1% 16 ARI John Skelton 5 2.7% 37
BAL Joe Flacco 4 1.2% 17 MIA Ryan Tannehill 8 2.7% 38
TEN Matt Hasselbeck 3 1.3% 18 PHI Michael Vick 10 2.9% 39
IND Andrew Luck 5 1.3% 19 ARI Kevin Kolb 11 5.2% 40
JAC Blaine Gabbert 4 1.3% 20 JAC Chad Henne 3 7.1% 41
KC Matt Cassel 4 1.4% 21

But when you look at long sacks (those of three seconds or longer), there are few who pick up more sacks than Newton by holding the ball for a tick or two after the internal alarm clock in his head starts screaming "throw the ball now." In looking back at Newton’s long sacks, one trend pops out: tackle Byron Bell is competent enough to generally block his man for three seconds or so, but after that, all bets are off. By my count, Bell has allowed only one sack this season that can truly be called his fault, but there are three "long sacks" where his man eventually got free to sack Newton.

Newton isn’t the only young quarterback who has a dramatic discrepancy between his short sacks and long sacks. Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton generally has plenty of time to throw -- he has only two short sacks this year. But Dalton has taken 16 long sacks after having only 10 long sacks in his entire rookie season.

Long Sacks Through Week 10

TEAM QB Sacked Long Sacks Pct Rk TEAM QB Sacked Long Sacks Pct Rk
TEN Jake Locker 0 0.0% 1 PHI Nick Foles 1 2.9% 22
DEN Peyton Manning 3 0.9% 2 DET Matthew Stafford 12 3.0% 23
MIA Ryan Tannehill 3 1.0% 3 KC Matt Cassel 9 3.2% 24
OAK Carson Palmer 4 1.0% 4 MIN Christian Ponder 11 3.2% 25
NO Drew Brees 4 1.0% 5 JAC Blaine Gabbert 10 3.4% 26
HOU Matt Schaub 3 1.0% 6 SD Philip Rivers 11 3.4% 27
DAL Tony Romo 4 1.1% 7 STL Sam Bradford 11 3.5% 28
TEN Matt Hasselbeck 3 1.3% 8 WAS Robert Griffin III 10 3.5% 29
NYG Eli Manning 7 1.9% 9 SEA Russell Wilson 10 3.7% 30
ATL Matt Ryan 7 1.9% 10 PHI Michael Vick 13 3.8% 31
CLE Brandon Weeden 7 2.0% 11 ARI Kevin Kolb 8 3.8% 32
NE Tom Brady 8 2.1% 12 GB Aaron Rodgers 15 4.2% 33
KC Brady Quinn 1 2.2% 13 CAR Cam Newton 14 4.7% 34
BUF Ryan Fitzpatrick 7 2.3% 14 CIN Andy Dalton 16 4.7% 35
JAC Chad Henne 1 2.4% 15 MIA Matt Moore 1 4.8% 36
BAL Joe Flacco 8 2.4% 16 CHI Jay Cutler 16 5.7% 37
TB Josh Freeman 7 2.4% 17 SF Alex Smith 16 6.6% 38
NYJ Mark Sanchez 8 2.5% 18 WAS Kirk Cousins 1 10.0% 39
ARI John Skelton 5 2.7% 19 NYJ Tim Tebow 1 14.3% 40
PIT Ben Roethlisberger 9 2.7% 20 NYG David Carr 1 33.3% 41
IND Andrew Luck 11 2.9% 21

Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill’s lack of long sacks is surprising. Generally, quarterbacks with mobility are more likely to get a long sack because they are more likely to buy time by scrambling. Jake Locker’s zero long sacks would appear to be even more impressive, but since I've been logging sacks for three-and-a-half years now, it’s hard to not notice that it may be a function of the Titans scheme. With the exception of Vince Young, no Titans quarterback in the past four years has picked up many long sacks. Kerry Collins had five long sacks in 508 dropbacks from 2009-2010 (1 percent), and Locker and Matt Hasselbeck combined to pick up six long sacks in 608 dropbacks last year (again, 1 percent).

Bears quarterback Jay Cutler always seems to have plenty of long sacks, but 49ers quarterback Alex Smith’s appearance at the bottom of the long sack charts is somewhat surprising. From 2009-2011, Smith’s long sack percentage was 2.5 percent. This year, it’s more than doubled, as Smith has as many long sacks this year (16) as he had in the past three years combined. Smith’s interception rate has gone down in the past two years as his sack rate has gone up, so it may simply be an intentional decision to hold the ball for sacks instead of getting rid of the ball.


Fittingly, Newton had the longest sack of this week. But in this case, it was really a function of the play call's inability to block a defensive back. Newton managed to dodge an unblocked defensive back blitz at 2.6 seconds, but that led him to decide to tuck and run. Kevin Vickerson ran him down at the sideline two yards behind the line of scrimmage at 6.8 seconds.


The shortest sack of the week is hard to judge. Is it Carson Palmer’s flop job where he fell down backing away from center? Palmer fell to the ground just 0.8 seconds after the snap, but it took another 2.4 seconds before the first Ravens defender finally got around to touching down the stone-footed Raiders quarterback.

If not for that sack, the shortest sack of the week would have belonged to Mark Sanchez and the Jets. The Jets got so worried about picking up a potential overload blitz by the Seahawks that they forgot to block Bruce Irvin. Watching the play on the all-22 view, it’s quite clear that the Jets were all talking about slanting the line to their left (notice the number of players pointing at Seahawks defensive end Chris Clemons lined up on the Jets left.)

The Seahawks were actually rushing only four, but the Jets slanted their protection anyway.

New York had no problem blocking the pressure from its left, but in doing so, right tackle Austin Howard protected his unoccupied inside gap. Irvin accepted the gift of an unblocked run at the quarterback, slamming Sanchez to the turf just 1.6 seconds after the snap.


The most innovate pass rush I saw this week was a variant on the 11 Angry Men approach that has become so popular in the NFL. Many teams will have all but one or two men stand up in obvious pass-rushing situations. The idea is that by having different players milling around, you create confusion for the protection scheme.

The Bills didn’t really worry about creating confusion with their approach on a third quarter third-and-5 against the Patriots: they had everyone stand up, with no linemen with their hands on the ground. But the real reason was so defensive tackles Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams could stand shoulder-to-shoulder to get a running start at Patriots center Ryan Wendell.

It’s hard to find any center who’s going to be able to handle that much mass if they get the jump on him. At the snap, Williams spun away from guard Logan Mankins while Dareus simply knocked Wendell on his butt. The two Bills defensive tackles met at Tom Brady, sandwiching him under 630 pounds of Bills’ beef.

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It’s been a couple of seasons now since the Jaguars had an offense that could be described as mediocre. Completely inept is a pretty fair description of the Jags under quarterback Blaine Gabbert. After finishing 31st in offensive DVOA in 2011, the Jags are, again, 31st this year.

The ineptness was apparent again last week when the Colts managed to pick up a pair of sacks on safety blitzes that should have had no business succeeding. Twice in a three-minute span in the fourth quarter, the Colts ran safety blitzes from what, pre-snap, looked like a Cover-2 set. For the first sack, Antoine Bethea took off from 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage to sack Gabbert. In this case, the sack was a coverage sack, as Bethea sacked Gabbert 4.5 seconds after the snap.

Less than three minutes later, Tom Zbikowski did the same thing. In the Jaguars defense, this blitz was a little tougher to defend. Zbikowski timed his approach well, waiting until the Jags picked up a blitzing linebacker with the one back in the backfield. Because of that, Zbikowski arrived unblocked 2.3 seconds after the snap.

Those weren’t the only bizarre sacks the Jaguars gave up last week. On another sack, the Jaguars lined up wide receiver Justin Blackmon, their first-round pick this year, as a tight end, then asked him to block cornerback Josh Gordy coming off the edge on a cornerback blitz. Blackmon did an awful job in pass protection, as Gordy flew by him to nab Gabbert for a 14-yard loss. Then again, when the Jaguars drafted Blackmon, he probably didn’t know he needed to work on his pass-protection skills.


29 comments, Last at 19 Nov 2012, 3:37am

1 Re: Under Pressure: Short and Long Sacks

Hey, JJ -- how difficult would it be to take the data you've collected and turn it around to tell us the proportions of long and short sacks by teams' defenses? It might be a fairly blunt measure, but it would tell us something about whether teams are getting to the QB via a good pass-rush or good coverage. It could also be helpful in establishing some sort of opponent adjustment weighting for your end-of year long-and-short sack tallies.

5 Re: Under Pressure: Short and Long Sacks

But I thought that was intentional. I've heard from another 49er fan that the coaches tell Smith that it's far better to take a sack than throw an interception, resulting in Smith eating the ball for a sack, instead of trying to throw it away.

7 Re: Under Pressure: Short and Long Sacks

Its the sort of stuff that can really hurt you down the line imo. The take sacks, don't take risky throws...all that is afforded when your defense is great. I suppose its trading possible long term stability for short term success, not necessarily a bad decision if Smith ISN't in your long term planning.

On the other hand...if you plan to keep playing smith 2-3 years down the line, after the defense has lost some people to free agency/age/regression, this style of conservative play WILL leave you with a LOT of 6-10, 7-9 seasons.

14 Re: Under Pressure: Short and Long Sacks

Karl, again, I'm prognosticating. If the 49ers fall behind, doesn't it then feel logical to say that Smith's take sacks don't force anything style is going to get him in trouble? Was it by accident that he melted down against the giants with those ints or took a check down on that 4th and long? I do recognize that those could just be isolated plays and secretly alex smith is perfectly fine throwing from behind or the lead, but I don't buy it.

As far as I'm concerned, the question then becomes, do you not at some point force him to change his mindset? It sort of becomes a question of risk versus reward. In the short term, the risk is big because they have a superbowl o line and defense so its best to play the game close to vest, limit turnovers and play field position, but in the long term, once the talent regresses(and barring big time luck, it will), what then?

16 Re: Under Pressure: Short and Long Sacks

I don't buy the argument, because Aaron Rodgers follows a somewhat similar mindset. It's not so much that he eats the ball to avoind INTs, but that he won't throw into coverage. He also will hold the ball waiting for big plays to develop. This leads to worse sack numbers than other elite QBs, but excellent INT% combined with plently of big plays.

Now Rodgers has big play ability that Alex Smith has never demonstrated, but he's still a perfect example of a case where holding the ball does not necessarily imply "game manager".

19 Re: Under Pressure: Short and Long Sacks

This seems to stem from you already having decided that Kaepernick will be a failure. He had a crap game against the Giants but the problem was his awful play that put the niners in that hole when the game was still close, not his performance when behind. As for the 4th and long, it wasn't great but clearly he was thinking that his best shot was to put the ball in the hands of his best playmaker. Maybe a better question is why Davis wasn't being sent deep on that play to begin with, I've said before my call on that play would have been four verticals, there would have been a one on one matchup somewhere.

In a few years the niners will be a different team, as will every other team. I hope that they'll still be good and if they are it will be as a result of having a good coaching staff.

20 Re: Under Pressure: Short and Long Sacks

I have nothing against Kaepernick personally. I also have nothing against the 49ers- i watch them so much. I think my dislike is really for all scrambling qbs at all. Sure, there will be some that manage to balance run and pass effectively, but I guess I just prefer pocket passers.

As for Smith. I probably am reading too much into the giants game, but I also dislike qbs that limit mistakes and feel like trading repeat three n outs is somehow a better alternative. I tend to think of the 49ers a few years ago when they had David Carr and they had JT O'sullivan. WHich qb would you rather have if forced? JT's style was easier to blame, but i think David carr is an even worse qb.

22 Re: Under Pressure: Short and Long Sacks

49ers had 6 come from behind wins last year. That should answer your question.
Also judging Smith by the Giants game, his worst performance in his last 30 games is not really going o tell you much. Pick any QBs worst game in a two season long period to have an opinion about him and you will develop a lot of unsubstantiated opinions.

23 Re: Under Pressure: Short and Long Sacks

The giants game was merely the most convenient ready example of what I perceive to be Alex Smith's fundamental weakness, mainly, he is an average qb that will ultimately need to be replaced somewhere in the next 3 years should the talent on the 49ers start to regress

24 Re: Under Pressure: Short and Long Sacks

You are entitled to your opinions. However when you pick one sample out of a large set that aligns most with your opinions it makes it look like your see cherry picking and does not make it very convincing.
Besides, there are no QBs out there that are available that will make 49ers a better team. Until then, Alex Smith it is.

25 Re: Under Pressure: Short and Long Sacks

I agree, but the question was, should the 49ers attempt to find a replacement for smith eventually- ie, not now, but eventually. This was what i was debating with Karl. I'll admit, here i have a pretty extreme view, but inevitably, i think if the 49ers want to sustain their excellence, they will need to groom a suitable pocket passer. That, in my opinion, means either trading up to get a mid 1st rounder(think denver in 2006 with cutler), or wait till the 3rd rounder and have him sit for a while(think kevin kolb with the eagles).

Again, just my view.

26 Re: Under Pressure: Short and Long Sacks

Alex Smith is young, getting better every year and has a low salary. Until 49ers observe any real decline somewhere they don't need to do anything. They can keep being competitive by good coaching and using the money they save at the QB position on other positions

27 Re: Under Pressure: Short and Long Sacks

I will concede that no one knows for sure, however, alex smith is in the prime of his career. Arguably, this is the pt at which he should be at his peak or near at it. Since hes currently about average or slightly above(though I don't buy it), that should concern 49er fans. Plus, is it him getting better or is it the talent around him? the 49ers currently boast one of the most, if not, the most talented roster in the nfl. Just as matt cassel has shown, a qb can look great with talent and god awful without it. Talent matters and its not fair to say that the improvement in the 49ers has been the result of Smith. I would argue, smith is the same qb he was in 09, the difference has been the talent around him. Again, that talent will regress and the 49ers OUGHT to prepare themselves, lest they end up like the chiefs.

28 Re: Under Pressure: Short and Long Sacks

Smith got consistently better every year. if you know that he has peaked already you know more than everybody.

This is the first year that the talent around him is above average. Last year the talent around him was below average and he played well. Actually he played very well given the circumstances.
You can argue as much as you want that he is the same guy as 09, I don't think you will find many takers.

No one said 49ers improvement has been due to Smith. I has been mostly due to going from god awful Singletary to a very component Harbaugh. Smith and every other 49ers player benefited from that.

29 Re: Under Pressure: Short and Long Sacks

I think you're the one whos made assumptions that you know more than everyone else. As in , you know that he was not the same guy in 09. That you know it was the talent that was to blame prior, that it was singletary. You're also assuming the improvement is due to no singletary and that every player including smith benefited with harbaugh. Maybe, but to what degree?

I'll conclude like this.

THe 49ers threw the fewest number of pass attempts last year than any team in the nfl. That sort of pass attempt distribution is unusual even for the usual great defensive teams. I haven't dug into pff's stats, but according to advanced football stats, Smith threw the fewest deep passes of any full time starter last year. To believe smith is anything beyond an average player is foolhardy. Again, go look at Cassell for evidence of when its the talent and when its the player. 2008 Classel feels unrecognizable to 2012 Cassel, and yet, one would suspect 2012 Casell would be much better given the experience.

8 Re: Under Pressure: Short and Long Sacks

As an addendum, only tom brady can lead a successful offense without being forced to make risky throws-but then you have to be tom brady and have his offensive setup to make that work.

12 Re: Under Pressure: Short and Long Sacks

Depends on what you mean by a successful offense. Matt Schaub is rarely asked to make anything approaching a dangerous throw, and the Texans offense has only been outscored once. Drew Brees throws something like half his passes within three yards of the LOS. And there are several guys whose offenses don't force them to make risky throws so much as they just -do- make risky throws. (Romo, Rivers). And then there are guys counted on to make those throws successfully over and over (E. Manning is the one who sticks out, but Rodgers and Cutler, too).

To be fair, I think the problem with Cutler is that his receivers like holding hands with defensive backs on the way downfield like they're scared of being alone.

13 Re: Under Pressure: Short and Long Sacks

I truly believe, its much harder to remain talented over time with a roster loaded on defense and the offensive line. We saw it with the jets, how quickly a great o line can deteriorate once you start losing a few players. By contrast, its much easier to stay great with a great qb and a set of great receivers. So while Matt Schaub is leading a successful offense, that sort of offense isn't sustainable(against just imo) beyond 3 years.

17 Re: Under Pressure: Short and Long Sacks

I'm pretty sure that Rick Dennison can keep churning out effective offensive lines until the cows come home. The Texans replaced a starting right tackle who picked up a big contract as a free agent with a 7th round 2nd year player, and a starting right guard who also got a pretty substantial contract with a rotation of a disappointing 3rd round pick from a few years back and a 4th round rookie, and the drop-off really hasn't been that large. Duane Brown would be hard to replace, but they just locked him up for the forseeable.

9 Re: Under Pressure: Short and Long Sacks

As with Vick, lots of Sanchez short sacks are his own fault because he fails to read what are pretty obvious blitzes. Last week, for example, the Seahawks came with a DB blitz off the offensive right side, which Sanchez failed to read and then fumbled it in a ridiculous attempt to throw it away as he was being sacked. Ironically enough, the sack by Irvin illustrated by JJ looks like a missed assignment by Lex Hilliard, and Sanchez actually did the smart thing by getting down.

15 Re: Under Pressure: Short and Long Sacks

I'm not comfortable with the conclusion that shorts sacks are the fault of the line and long sacks are the fault of the QB.

I've seen plenty of long sacks where there is immediate pressure that the QB escapes but is eventually brought down. Likewise I think a QB not reading the presnap correctly is just as likely to lead to a quick snap as the offensive line making a mistake.