The Elusive Pass Rush Part II: There’s No “I” In Sack

In the first part of this series examining the challenges of sacking a QB in the NFL, we explored the role of the sack artist. Every team lusts after that dominant pass rusher that can pile up 10+ sacks and force the opposing team’s offensive coordinator to lose sleep. But as we found out, those players are exceedingly difficult to find. Only seven out of every 100 linebackers or lineman will hit the 10 sack plateau, and many do not repeat the feat. So what do you do if you are defensive coordinator that knows they need to pressure the passer, but are highly unlikely to have an individual sack master on your team? Well, folks, that’s why they get paid the big bucks.

From Buddy Ryan’s 46 defense to the Tampa-2 to Jim Johnson’s myriad of blitz schemes, defensive coaches have been devising ways to confuse offenses and sack quarterbacks. It is much like what offensive lines are attempting to do for their running backs. Both sides are trying to create open lanes and 1-on-1 match-ups that favor their side. The Seahawks offense got much of the focus during their Super Bowl run, but you may remember that they led the NFL in sacks that season with 50. You may also remember from part one of this series, that the Seahawks did not have a 10+ sack player that season. Bryce Fisher led the way with 9, but players like Lofa Tatupu (4) and LeRoy Hill (7.5) had their career highs in sacks during what was their rookie campaigns. Conversely, the Seahawks enjoyed their first 10 sack season from a player in a long time the next season (Julian Peterson), but were in the middle of the pack for total sacks as a team.

Looking at the chart above, it becomes more clear that having that stud sack master does not have a high correlation with pressuring the QB. The only time the team sack number had a strong correlation to the amount of sacks recorded by the sack leader was the year Patrick Kearney sacked 14.5 quarterbacks, and the year after. Otherwise, the team sack totals rose and fell mostly independent of the individual sack leader.
Even during the Super Bowl season when the Hawks led the NFL in sacks, getting pressure on the QB was still the talk of sports radio and fans. I remember multiple moments on Mitch in the Morning where Mike Sando, Levy and others were perplexed trying to explain how the team led the league in sacks and that it didn’t “feel” like we were a good pass rushing team. Grant Wistrom certainly didn’t scare anybody. So how have the Hawks fared versus the rest of the NFL in rushing the passer?

As you can see, the Hawks have been an above average pass rushing team over the last eight seasons. I know, I was surprised as well. The Seahawks have averaged 2.53 more sack per season than the NFL average during that span. Let’s take a look at sacks/game:

The overall trend lines are identical, of course, but you can see here that the NFL average for sacks each game is a little over 2 (2.21). During that same period, the Hawks averaged 2.37 sacks/game. Not a huge difference, but still above the norm. At our best, we were sacking the QB over 3 times each game (3.13), and at our worst, we were sacking the QB under two times per game (1.75 in two seasons). Unfortunately, one of those 1.75 sack/game seasons was last year. The three year trend for Seahawks sacks is not pretty. As bad as we were, there were still five teams worse. In other words, we may have thought we saw bad pass rushing teams in the past, but we ain’t seen nothing yet. In a stat, I find impossible to believe, the Jaguars had HALF as many sacks as we did last season. Pray that never happens to our boys.
One of my last questions was, “Do you need to be a great pass rushing team to make the Super Bowl?” After all, the one time we got there, we were #1 in the NFL. I decided to go back over these last eight Super Bowls and find the team rank for sacks for each Super Bowl participant. For example, in the 2005 season, the Seahawks rank was #1 and the Steelers rank was #3. Average those two ranks together, and you get 2. In that year, being a good pass rushing team seemed to have a strong correlation to making it to the Super Bowl.

Stepping back to the broader picture shows us that being a great pass rushing team does not give you a significantly better chance to make the big game. Hawks fans can also take solace in the fact that having a poor pash rush also does not preclude a team from advancing. Many of the Colts Super Bowl teams have been poorly ranked in the pass rush department even though they have one of the best individual pass rushers in the sport with Dwight Freeney. Contrary to the old adage, offense wins championships in the NFL.

Bringing this back to the Seahawks for a moment, fans should take a collective deep breath and realize we don’t need Julius Peppers to have a successful pass rush and that we don’t need a ton of sacks to win games. That does not mean, however, pressuring the opposing QB is unimportant. No stat can convince me that pressure-free time in the pocket for opponent’s QBs is conducive to winning. Watch closely in game one of the regular season to see if the scheme is creating open lanes for pass rushers. This will be a defense that finds creative ways to get after the QB because we simply do not have the individual talent to succeed there.