Under Pressure: Trolley Problems

Under Pressure: Trolley Problems
Under Pressure: Trolley Problems
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by J.J. Cooper

Philosophers and other thinkers have long debated the trolley problem. It’s a simple problem, but one without an easy answer. A trolley is barreling down the tracks. Ahead on the tracks are five people tied up on the tracks. You can divert the trolley onto a different track, but there’s a person on that track as well. You can’t derail the trolley, so your choice is to do nothing and watch five people die or divert the trolley and kill one.

There is no "right" answer, but the way you answer is supposed to say something about how you think.

Offensive linemen face their own version if the trolley problem on a regular basis. Chargers tackle King Dunlap faced his trolley problem against the Giants. Against a five-man rush, Dunlap was out on an island with no good choice. He could block the pass rusher shooting by him to the inside, or the one looping past him to the outside.

OK, no one was going to die, but Dunlap was going to get to pick which 250-pounder would run over his quarterback. Fun, huh?

Like the trolley problem, there is no "right" answer, but there may be a better one. Dunlap blocked the man to his outside when he probably should have blocked Justin Tuck rushing by him to the inside. It may not have ensured Philip Rivers was safe from a sack, but it could have given him a couple of tenths of a second more to get rid of the ball. It’s hard to blame Dunlap: He saw two men who needed to be blocked, and he could only handle one himself. He did what he could, and his quarterback got creamed anyway.

This happens around the NFL on a regular basis. Watching line play every week, it’s somewhat amazing how many split-second decisions linemen have to make: recognizing stunts, knowing when to hand off a pass rusher to another linemen and when to pick someone else’s man up. Sometimes watching from home it looks easy. Sometimes it looks impossible. But as we move into looking at which linemen are giving up the most sacks, it’s worth remembering that it’s an amazingly difficult job.


With just two weeks left in the 2013 season, we have a pair of offensive tackles who have reached double digits in sacks.

Most Sacks Allowed through Week 15, 2013
Sacks Snaps Pct.
NYG 65-W.Beatty 10 837 1.2% WAS 71-T.Williams 6 935 0.6%
CLE 72-M.Schwartz 10 918 1.1% BAL 74-M.Oher 6 874 0.7%
NE 77-N.Solder 9.5 961 1.0% MIN 75-M.Kalil 6 859 0.7%
PHI 65-L.Johnson 9 903 1.0% SD 76-D.Fluker 6 829 0.7%
TB 70-D.Penn 9 857 1.1% NE 62-R.Wendell 5.5 974 0.6%
MIA 77-T.Clabo 9 765 1.2% JAC 65-W.Rackley 5.5 647 0.9%
MIA 78-B.McKinnie 9 836 1.1% GB 69-D.Bakhtiari 5.5 890 0.6%
ATL 76-L.Holmes 8 841 1.0% IND 69-H.Thornton 5.5 730 0.8%
STL 77-J.Long 7.5 794 0.9% NE 70-L.Mankins 5.5 973 0.6%
ARI 79-B.Sowell 7.5 609 1.2% NO 71-C.Brown 5.5 896 0.6%
NYJ 60-D.Ferguson 7 840 0.8% KC 71-J.Allen 5.5 769 0.7%
NYJ 67-B.Winters 7 552 1.3% KC 72-E.Fisher 5.5 672 0.8%
ARI 73-E.Winston 7 847 0.8% HOU 74-W.Smith 5.5 824 0.7%
HOU 75-D.Newton 7 712 1.0% DEN 75-C.Clark 5.5 860 0.6%
CAR 77-B.Bell 7 848 0.8% TEN 76-D.Stewart 5.5 714 0.8%
GB 67-D.Barclay 6.5 735 0.9% CLE 77-J.Greco 5.5 871 0.6%
PIT 68-K.Beachum 6.5 652 1.0% BAL 60-E.Monroe 5 824 0.6%
MIA 71-J.Martin 6.5 453 1.4% DAL 65-R.Leary 5 799 0.6%
ARI 74-P.Fanaika 6.5 868 0.7% IND 74-A.Castonzo 5 854 0.6%
ATL 66-P.Konz 6 771 0.8% MIA 74-J.Jerry 5 831 0.6%

It’s not exactly an honor you want to reach, but Giants tackle Will Beatty and Browns tackle Mitchell Schwartz each have given up 10 sacks this year, worst in the league.

With Schwartz, there’s no one overarching problem. He’s been beaten with speed, he’s been driven back into the quarterback, and he’s developed more of a tendency as the season has ground along to overplay to the outside to try to slow down speed rushers, allowing a chance for rushers to cut back inside for sacks.

The story is pretty similar with Beatty. He’s most vulnerable to getting beat by speed around the edge, but his knowledge that that’s a big problem for him has made him more vulnerable to being driven back by bull rushers who shed him.

Both Schwartz and Beatty also show up on the "leaderboard" for the worst sack percentage.

Highest Percentage of Sacks/Snaps, through Week 15, 2013
Team Player Sacks Snaps PCT Team Player Sacks Snaps PCT
MIA 71-J.Martin 6.5 453 1.4% CLE 72-M.Schwartz 10 918 1.1%
NYJ 67-B.Winters 7 552 1.3% MIA 78-B.McKinnie 9 836 1.1%
ARI 79-B.Sowell 7.5 609 1.2% TB 70-D.Penn 9 857 1.1%
NYG 65-W.Beatty 10 837 1.2% PIT 68-K.Beachum 6.5 652 1.0%
MIA 77-T.Clabo 9 765 1.2% PHI 65-L.Johnson 9 903 1.0%

On the other end of the spectrum, here’s a look at the offensive linemen with 700 or more snaps allowed who have not given up a sack.

No Sacks Allowed, Through Week 15, 2013
Team Player Sacks Snaps
DEN 65-L.Vasquez 0 1001
BUF 70-E.Wood 0 937
CLE 55-A.Mack 0 918
DET 75-L.Warford 0 916
DET 51-D.Raiola 0 914
CIN 71-An.Smith 0 912
CHI 63-R.Garza 0 875
SD 61-N.Hardwick 0 857
NYJ 66-W.Colon 0 840
OAK 61-S.Wisniewski 0 706


Roaming the lobbies of the baseball winter meetings last week didn’t allow enough time to log the sacks, so this is a look at the past two weeks.

Vikings running Matt Asiata went from unknown to feature back thanks to injuries to Adrian Peterson and Toby Gerhart. He had a solid first week in the spotlight, but his attempted block of Eagles linebacker Mychal Kendricks was a pretty poor one. Kendricks was able to jump over his cut block, nabbing Matt Cassel just 1.6 seconds after the snap.


Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo can dance around in the pocket like few quarterbacks in the league. He doesn’t have the pure speed of many other quarterbacks, but he can dodge a sack with the best of them. Romo came close to pulling off a highlight-level dodge against the Packers, as he twice dodged rushers and danced around. But he eventually was caught from behind 9.3 seconds after the snap.


13 comments, Last at 23 Dec 2013, 8:58am

#1 by Bolt332 (not verified) // Dec 20, 2013 - 11:57am

Nice to see Hardwick bounce back after a rough 2012.

Points: 0

#2 by bernie (not verified) // Dec 20, 2013 - 1:02pm

Those are the sack numbers, but do you have records of the amount of QB hits these guys give up? Someone may have only given up 3 sacks, but if they've also surrendered 30 QB hits, then they're really not doing that well in protection.
On the other hand if those 10 QB sacks are the only contact they've allowed on the QB, then I'd argue they have faired significantly better.

This really means nothing without the complete picture of line play.

Points: 0

#3 by JoeyHarringtonsPiano // Dec 20, 2013 - 1:11pm

Even though I'm always suspicious of subjective ratings, that's exactly why I like Pro Football Focus when judging offensive lineman, since they track hits, hurries, and pressures given up.

Points: 0

#13 by nath // Dec 23, 2013 - 8:58am

PFF's quantifiable numbers (snaps, pass rushing productivity, pass protection) are much better than their subjective +/- rating system.

Points: 0

#4 by James-London // Dec 20, 2013 - 1:31pm

Four Dolphins on that list, and three of them (Martin, McKinnie & Clabo), have all given up sacks on at least 1.2% of plays.

Buffalo this weekend scares me...

Phil Simms is a Cretin.

Points: 0

#5 by FrontRunningPhinsFan // Dec 20, 2013 - 1:45pm

I'm assuming that McKinnie number is the player for the season, not since he's been with the Dolphins?

Points: 0

#6 by drobviousso // Dec 20, 2013 - 1:59pm

JJ - How has Beachum looked? Do his sacks look like Ben's fault, or his? An is he trending up or down? It looks to me like he's trending up, as is the whole Pit line, but I can't say I watch as close as you do.

Points: 0

#7 by Dan // Dec 20, 2013 - 2:06pm

I am surprised that you were able to analogize offensive line play to the trolley problem without making a joke about pushing the fat man in front of the trolley.

Points: 0

#8 by mike G. (not verified) // Dec 20, 2013 - 2:40pm

Watch enough of Brandon Weeden play, and you can attribute 2-4 of Schwartz's sacks to Weeden having absolutely no pocket presence / peripheral vision. Almost to the point where you'd wonder whether or not Weednen took some time off from playing football in the last 5 years.

Points: 0

#9 by chrisS (not verified) // Dec 20, 2013 - 2:57pm

The more interesting part of the Trolley question is when the scenario changes to: there isnow only one track and you are on a bridge next to very fat man and you can stop the trolley by pushing the man off the bridge onto the tracks causing the trolley to derail and miss the 5 people. Many more people will pull the lever (90%) than will push the man (10%) even though the results are the same, 1 dies instead of 5. This distinction poses some interesting thoughts about human morality. Not sure what the analogue of this version would be in the pas protection world (shove your RB in front of the DL or give up the sack).

Points: 0

#10 by dryheat // Dec 20, 2013 - 3:12pm

I think there are indeed "right" answers to both questions. You divert the train and think about it terms of saving 5 as opposed to murdering one. As an offensive tackle, if you find yourself in position where you are responsible in blocking two defenders, unless the called pass is a QB rollout to your side, you always, always, always block the man threatening the inside gap.

Points: 0

#11 by Charles Jake (not verified) // Dec 20, 2013 - 3:13pm

So good to see no Bears on the "Most Sacks Allowed" List.

Points: 0

#12 by Jerry // Dec 20, 2013 - 6:37pm

Shouldn't the play where Roethlisberger held onto the ball much too long before throwing the touchdown pass get some kind of mention?

Points: 0

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