Under Pressure: Sack Breakdowns

Under Pressure: Sack Breakdowns
Under Pressure: Sack Breakdowns
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by J.J. Cooper

You’ve heard it here multiple times, but it is worth a yearly reminder: All sacks are not the same. Some can be blamed completely on an offensive lineman. Some can be blamed completely on a quarterback who held the ball way too long. Some are the result of a poor play call or a line call that left a rusher completely unblocked.
And a lot are a combination of these factors.

Some of those factors are beyond our ability to comprehend. After all, if a receiver runs the wrong route and therefore isn’t where the quarterback knew he was supposed to be, that can lead to a sack. And unless someone on the team mentions it in the postgame, we’re never going to know that he was the reason the quarterback didn’t throw the ball.

But there are some things we do know: The longer it takes for a sack to occur, the less the offensive line and pass protection can be blamed. For a 2.5-second sack, it’s most likely that someone blew their block. For a 3.5-second sack, it’s fair to say that the offensive line did their job and the quarterback, the play call, or the receivers are to blame.

Again, while it requires some inferences, the timing of sacks tells a lot. For the purposes of Under Pressure, short sacks are any sack that took less than 2.6 seconds. A normal or medium sack is one that takes between 2.6 and 3.1 seconds, and a long sack takes 3.2 seconds or longer.

It’s not perfect, but the division between short sacks (34.6 percent of all sacks), medium sacks (32.3 percent) and long sacks (33.2 percent) are close enough to view them as three equal parts.

The Dolphins have been sacked a league-worst 32 times. The Jets are third-worst with 29 sacks. But they have done it in entirely different ways.

Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill has been sacked 17 times (53.1 percent) on short sacks, 12 times (37.5 percent) on medium sacks and three times (9.4 percent) on long sacks. It’s a pretty clear sign that the Dolphins sack problems (and they are significant problems) are the line’s fault, and not the fault of wide receivers failing to get open or a quarterback who holds the ball too long.

The story is quite different with Jets quarterback Geno Smith. Smith has been sacked 28 times overall, but only five (17.9 percent) of them are short sacks. Another eight (28.6 percent) are normal sacks and a whopping 15 (53.6 percent) are long sacks. The story is similar with Raiders’ quarterback Terrelle Pryor. Pryor has 22 of the Raiders 30 total sacks, but 59 percent of those are long sacks, while only 13.6 percent of them are short sacks. Both are young athletic quarterbacks who count on their legs to buy additional time to throw.

QB Team Short Sacks PCT QB Team Normal Sacks PCT QB Team Long Sacks PCT
17-R.Tannehill MIA 17 53.1% 17-R.Tannehill MIA 12 37.5% 17-R.Tannehill MIA 3 9.4%
7-G.Smith NYJ 5 17.9% 7-G.Smith NYJ 8 28.6% 7-G.Smith NYJ 15 53.6%
3-R.Wilson SEA 8 29.6% 3-R.Wilson SEA 9 33.3% 3-R.Wilson SEA 10 37.0%
7-B.Roethlisberger PIT 8 30.8% 7-B.Roethlisberger PIT 9 34.6% 7-B.Roethlisberger PIT 9 34.6%
11-A.Smith KC 9 37.5% 11-A.Smith KC 8 33.3% 11-A.Smith KC 7 29.2%
12-T.Brady NE 14 60.9% 12-T.Brady NE 4 17.4% 12-T.Brady NE 5 21.7%
3-C.Palmer ARI 13 56.5% 3-C.Palmer ARI 5 21.7% 3-C.Palmer ARI 5 21.7%
2-T.Pryor OAK 3 13.6% 2-T.Pryor OAK 6 27.3% 2-T.Pryor OAK 13 59.1%
1-C.Newton CAR 6 28.6% 1-C.Newton CAR 5 23.8% 1-C.Newton CAR 10 47.6%
3-B.Weeden CLE 5 23.8% 3-B.Weeden CLE 6 28.6% 3-B.Weeden CLE 10 47.6%
5-J.Flacco BAL 7 35.0% 5-J.Flacco BAL 7 35.0% 5-J.Flacco BAL 6 30.0%
10-E.Manning NYG 5 26.3% 10-E.Manning NYG 10 52.6% 10-E.Manning NYG 4 21.1%
9-D.Brees NO 7 38.9% 9-D.Brees NO 5 27.8% 9-D.Brees NO 6 33.3%
QB Team Short Sacks PCT QB Team Normal Sacks PCT QB Team Long Sacks PCT
9-T.Romo DAL 6 37.5% 9-T.Romo DAL 3 18.8% 9-T.Romo DAL 7 43.8%
14-A.Dalton CIN 7 43.8% 14-A.Dalton CIN 4 25.0% 14-A.Dalton CIN 5 31.3%
12-A.Rodgers GB 7 43.8% 12-A.Rodgers GB 6 37.5% 12-A.Rodgers GB 3 18.8%
7-C.Henne JAC 7 43.8% 7-C.Henne JAC 9 56.3% 7-C.Henne JAC 0 0.0%
8-S.Bradford STL 4 26.7% 8-S.Bradford STL 9 60.0% 8-S.Bradford STL 2 13.3%
8-M.Schaub HOU 3 20.0% 8-M.Schaub HOU 9 60.0% 8-M.Schaub HOU 3 20.0%
12-A.Luck IND 6 40.0% 12-A.Luck IND 3 20.0% 12-A.Luck IND 6 40.0%
7-C.Kaepernick SF 5 33.3% 7-C.Kaepernick SF 3 20.0% 7-C.Kaepernick SF 7 46.7%
7-M.Vick PHI 4 26.7% 7-M.Vick PHI 4 26.7% 7-M.Vick PHI 7 46.7%
10-R.Griffin WAS 3 21.4% 10-R.Griffin WAS 4 28.6% 10-R.Griffin WAS 7 50.0%
2-M.Ryan ATL 3 23.1% 2-M.Ryan ATL 7 53.8% 2-M.Ryan ATL 3 23.1%
10-J.Locker TEN 5 38.5% 10-J.Locker TEN 4 30.8% 10-J.Locker TEN 4 30.8%
3-E.Manuel BUF 3 23.1% 3-E.Manuel BUF 2 15.4% 3-E.Manuel BUF 8 61.5%
QB Team Short Sacks PCT QB Team Normal Sacks PCT QB Team Long Sacks PCT
7-C.Ponder MIN 4 30.8% 7-C.Ponder MIN 6 46.2% 7-C.Ponder MIN 3 23.1%
9-T.Lewis BUF 6 46.2% 9-T.Lewis BUF 3 23.1% 9-T.Lewis BUF 4 30.8%
11-B.Gabbert JAC 4 33.3% 11-B.Gabbert JAC 4 33.3% 11-B.Gabbert JAC 4 33.3%
18-P.Manning DEN 5 45.5% 18-P.Manning DEN 4 36.4% 18-P.Manning DEN 2 18.2%
17-P.Rivers SD 5 45.5% 17-P.Rivers SD 3 27.3% 17-P.Rivers SD 3 27.3%
9-M.Stafford DET 5 50.0% 9-M.Stafford DET 3 30.0% 9-M.Stafford DET 2 20.0%
6-J.Cutler CHI 2 20.0% 6-J.Cutler CHI 5 50.0% 6-J.Cutler CHI 3 30.0%
8-M.Glennon TB 3 30.0% 8-M.Glennon TB 3 30.0% 8-M.Glennon TB 4 40.0%
5-J.Freeman TB 2 25.0% 5-J.Freeman TB 3 37.5% 5-J.Freeman TB 3 37.5%
6-B.Hoyer CLE 3 50.0% 6-B.Hoyer CLE 2 33.3% 6-B.Hoyer CLE 1 16.7%
4-R.Fitzpatrick TEN 2 33.3% 4-R.Fitzpatrick TEN 1 16.7% 4-R.Fitzpatrick TEN 3 50.0%
9-N.Foles PHI 1 20.0% 9-N.Foles PHI 3 60.0% 9-N.Foles PHI 1 20.0%
16-M.Cassel MIN 2 50.0% 16-M.Cassel MIN 1 25.0% 16-M.Cassel MIN 1 25.0%

When it comes to sacks, mobility is a double-edged sword.

Ben Roethlisberger gets slammed (somewhat rightfully) for holding the ball a long time, and praised for escaping a lot of potential sacks. But his sack breakdown by time this year is right along the league average. He just gets sacked a lot more often than the average quarterback, which may be a sign that many of Pittsburgh's problems revolve around pass protection.

On the other hand, Tom Brady is getting sacked a lot and it’s pretty clear that pass protection is the problem. Brady’s sack rate of seven percent is higher than any he’s had since 2001. Carson Palmer is facing similar problems as the latest quarterback to suffer the fate of playing behind the Cardinals offensive line. Palmer has 13 short sacks and only 10 medium and long sacks.


There wasn’t really an exceptionally short sack this week. Patriots linebacker Rob Ninkovich came unblocked off the edge to hit Tannehill. Tannehill bounced off of Ninkovich and into the arms of Dont'a Hightower.

Bills safety Da'Norris Searcy also had a 1.8-second sack this week as he came unblocked through the right side of the Saints line to nab Drew Brees. Impressively, Kyle Williams had beaten center Brian De La Puente so quickly that he was able to share the sack with Searcy.


Pryor is a frequent long sack nominee -- 13 of his 22 sacks this year have been long ones. His mobility buys him time, but it also means he’s more comfortable holding the ball to try to run someone open than fitting a pass into a small window.

This week was more of the same. On a third-and-8, Pryor eventually decided to run to the sideline. Safety Troy Polamalu came up from coverage to run him out of bounds 5.5 seconds after the snap. It’s Pryor’s third sack of the season that took more than five seconds.


23 comments, Last at 04 Nov 2013, 4:59pm

#1 by TomC // Nov 01, 2013 - 3:08pm

Many times over the years, we have heard the question: "How would Tom Brady do with the offensive line and receiving targets of [much-maligned Quarterback X]?" I think we now know the answer. (And don't give me any of this "but his hand is a sausage" crap, that only explains last week.)

Points: 0

#2 by aces4me (not verified) // Nov 01, 2013 - 3:21pm

I think your fallacy is thinking that because a bad O-line can make a good QB look bad that a good o-line can make a bad QB look good. I don't that is true.

Points: 0

#3 by tkc100 (not verified) // Nov 01, 2013 - 3:53pm

They're not attempting to rate the quality of play of QBs rather trying to find the possible underlying cause for sacks. They are pointing out how much time a QB is being allowed to decide what to do with the ball during a passing play. Nowhere does it mention something like "if Geno Smith gets sacked a lot it must mean he's a poor QB." It just means that IF he gets sacked he's most likely to get sacked after running around for a while, as opposed to Tannehill, who, if sacked probably gets sacked before he can even get his feet set. Tannehill is not too bad of a QB so who knows, maybe with some better protection he might have more time to make a decision? Now, more time for Tannehill may equal less sacks and more time to decide, but that does not necessarily guarantee better decisions by Tannehill. Just the same with Smith, although he buys himself more time with his mobility, it does not translate into better decisions in terms of passing, because he still misses open targets downfield and eats the sack.

Points: 0

#4 by aces4me (not verified) // Nov 01, 2013 - 3:58pm

Sorry my comment was aimed at TomC not the article itself.

Points: 0

#5 by Scott C // Nov 01, 2013 - 4:00pm

I would think that sack rate for each type would be more instructive than the percentage. 1/3 of 30 sacks is not the same as 1/3 of 12 to appropriate blame to the OL or QB/WR/Scheme.

28% of sacks being long sacks appears close to league average. But in Rivers' case, that is only 3 sacks because the total is only 11. As a percentage of pass plays it is extremely small, perhaps league leading.

We can use long sacks per pass play as a reasonable measure a QB / offense's ability to get the ball out fast (although an OL's ability to hold _long_ blocks also influences it).

We can use short sacks per pass play to primarily measure OL missing blocks (although A QB's ability to get the ball out _very_ fast helps here).

I don't know what to do with the percentages listed here without normalizing for the number of pass plays.

Points: 0

#6 by Scott C // Nov 01, 2013 - 4:03pm

To add an example. If a team had 60% of its sacks as long sacks, but only had 5 total sacks this year, (3 long, 1 medium, 1 short) it would be ridiculous to blame the QB for holding the ball too long -- they would probably be near the league's best in long sacks per pass play.

Points: 0

#13 by Andy T (not verified) // Nov 01, 2013 - 4:51pm

I agree, this would provide a much better insight. Pro Football Focus lists QB stats (albeit paid subscription) divided into plays that took 2.5s or less to complete (any time: pass, sack, scramble to LOS) and those that took 2.6s or more. Unless there's some major difference in charting, most of the ones in FO's 2.6 or less must have happened at 2.6s exactly because in PFF's numbers, no one has more than 4 "2.5s or less" sacks (18 actually have 0). Sam Bradford is 1st with 2.27% of short-dropbacks resulting in sacks. Brady is next at 2.12%, and 3rd is Joe Flacco with 1.96%.

Although, I would argue that this still doesn't tell us everything because it doesn't take QB/scheme into account. That is, when someone like Brady whose scheme & ability are designed for getting the ball out fast - it says more about the protection he is taking a high rate of "fast sacks" than that of another QB who normally wouldn't get the ball out so fast.

Points: 0

#16 by Scott C // Nov 01, 2013 - 5:33pm

Or someone like Rivers, who is Exhibit A for how much scheme matters.

This year, the scheme is designed to always have an option to get the ball out fast and Rivers is encouraged to check out to another call at the line if needed. He has a large number of completions from throws that were out in less than 2 seconds, and a low sack rate. The scheme works with an O-line that is not especially talented.

In a different scheme last year where there were more long drop backs, a 'deep route first' progression, a similar O-line looked horrible. A scheme like that works well when you have the 1992 Dallas Cowboys, 2008 Chargers, or 2001 Rams Offensive lines, filled with pro bowlers and excellent pass protectors.

Unfortunately, there aren't very many examples like this where an O-line and QB remained largely the same (and the line is poor but QB good at quickly diagnosing a defense and getting the ball out fast). Mike Martz in Chicago.

Peyton has always been known to make his O-line look good because of how fast he gets rid of the ball. I'm now convinced that it is as much the schemes/systems he was in as it is his raw talent for analyzing the defense and getting the ball out fast. If he was forced to play for NORV or other similar schemes behind a poor offensive line, and not allowed to make so many checks at the line, the result would not be pretty. His ability to mask the deficiencies of his lines to large extent is due to the combination of the scheme and his talents.

I'm also now convinced that the Walsh and Coryel offense play calling systems are dinosaurs that are inferior to what Rivers now uses (and Brady has used for a long time) -- Erhardt/Perkins. See

Points: 0

#7 by aces4me (not verified) // Nov 01, 2013 - 4:04pm

I would think style of QB play would effect these number a lot. A long sack of Brady is almost certainly the result of heroic O-line play and great coverage as opposed to a scrambling QB were a long sack might have been the result of total o-line failure (which would result in a quick sack of Brady) but a great scramble.

Points: 0

#10 by Perfundle // Nov 01, 2013 - 4:18pm

On top of that, QBs often escape from a quick pressure and turn it into a positive play, which wouldn't be reflected here. Maybe something like long sack rate (as ScottC suggested) compared to quick pressure rate would be a better comparison.

Points: 0

#11 by japtor (not verified) // Nov 01, 2013 - 4:19pm

I agree, it'd be interesting to see how many of Pryor's long sacks were cause of him holding on too long vs escaping out of a quick sack and just keeping the play alive. It seems like I've seen him do quite a bit of both.

Points: 0

#14 by Scott C // Nov 01, 2013 - 5:06pm

Ideally he would escape the quick sack then throw it away.

There is also quite a big difference between a -1 yard scramble-sack and a -8 yard in-the-pocket sack. Not only in the yardage difference, but in the likelihood of a fumble.

Points: 0

#17 by AM (not verified) // Nov 01, 2013 - 6:20pm

Bingo! Pryor's big sin is running out of bounds behind the line of scrimmage (resulting in a sack, even though he's not actually tackled) instead of throwing the ball away. One theory is he's padding his passing stats.

As far as the O-line play, it's pretty much what you'd expect out of 3rd stringers, which a lot of them are. A lot of Pryor's "long" sacks come from extending a play with his legs, though most of them would be short sacks for "normal" QBs.

Points: 0

#12 by BigWoody (not verified) // Nov 01, 2013 - 4:28pm

Agree. Russell Wilson, for (the best) example, has more long sacks than short but certainly not because the Seahawk O-line is protecting well.

Points: 0

#15 by PackersRS (not verified) // Nov 01, 2013 - 5:08pm

Mr. Cooper, could you explain the reasoning behind those exact numbers being the criteria (2.5 and 3.1)?

Points: 0

#20 by TacticalSledgehammer // Nov 01, 2013 - 10:58pm

"It’s not perfect, but the division between short sacks (34.6 percent of all sacks), medium sacks (32.3 percent) and long sacks (33.2 percent) are close enough to view them as three equal parts."


“Treat a man as he is, and he will remain as he is. Treat a man as he could be, and he will become what he should be.”

Points: 0

#18 by Jerry // Nov 01, 2013 - 6:59pm

Everyone should keep in mind that this column is as much about presenting the raw data (which we didn't see before J.J. started doing this) as it is about drawing conclusions. People are asking a lot of entirely reasonable questions, but I don't think we're at a point where we can answer them systematically.

Points: 0

#21 by Steve4815 (not verified) // Nov 02, 2013 - 12:29pm

While I think this is an important undertaking, I think it fails to consider styles of offenses. For example, a team like the Giants run a vertical offense and like to throw the deep ball, and so their passing plays will naturally take longer to develop than other offenses who rely on a much more underneath passing game like the Patriots (or so it seems).

Points: 0

#23 by foolrider // Nov 04, 2013 - 4:59pm

I think the most interesting difference is between Weeden and Hoyer. You can really tell why Hoyer is a better quaterback, he makes faster and better decisions.

Points: 0

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