Judging pass-rushers based on their sack totals is a foolish proposition, as Michael Nania explains through analytics and film.
When looking to figure out the pass-rushing impact of a line-of-scrimmage defender, whether he be a defensive tackle, defensive end, or edge rusher, most observers first point to the player’s sack totals.
Here are a few reasons that the methodology of scouting players by looking at their sack totals is off-base.
Sacks are far too rare to tell the whole story
Take Shaquil Barrett, the NFL’s sack leader in 2019. Barrett led the league with 19.5 sacks, participating in a total of 20 sacks.
Barrett was on the field for 889 defensive snaps in 2019. He picked up a sack on 20 of those – 2.2%.
So. . . why should we evaluate a player based on what he does two percent of the time? What about the other 97.8% of the snaps that Barrett played? Those don’t matter?
This is not to say that sacks themselves are overrated. Sacks are the ultimate prize for a pass-rusher and extremely valuable to a defense. They destroy drives.
The point here is that sacks make up far too small a portion of the pie to be the sole measuring stick for a player’s impact as a rusher. Even the most dominant pass-rushers only pick up a sack every 45-to-55 plays, often going weeks without a sack.
Those 50-or-so plays between sacks? Every single one matters just as much as the plays that do end in sacks.
In addition to keeping a player’s run defense in mind, it has to be understood that pass-rushing is not about how many sacks a guy can rack up in 16 games. Too many fans see it that way. If a player rushes and doesn’t get a sack, fans see it as a lost rep. If a player goes a whole game without a sack, he was a liability.
There is so much more to being a pass-rusher than that. A rusher’s performance on a rep is not a matter of “sack = good, no sack = bad.” How well a player answers these questions is crucial:
- Is he creating pressure?
- Is he disrupting the passing lane?
- Is he snuffing out screen plays, avoiding being pulled into the backfield?
- Is he keeping the quarterback contained in the pocket when it is his job to do so?
- Is he absorbing blockers to create room for a teammate to reach the quarterback?
- Is he blowing up rollouts/bootlegs by restraining from being sucked into play action fakes?
- Is he maintaining lane integrity to prevent a rush lane from opening up for the quarterback?
- Is he maintaining the impact of his presence by minimizing the amount of reps in which he is knocked to the ground (rendering his presence meaningless)?
A player’s performance on the 98-99% of snaps in which he does not get a sack is what should define him, not whether he can get a sack 2% of the time.
There are players who continue to dominate when they are not getting sacks and those who don’t. Some players rack up a fluky bunch of sacks that mask their lack of pressure, poor awareness, insufficient execution of the playbook, large number of embarrassing lost reps that take them out of plays, or other negative effects as a pass-rusher. Others thrive in the intangible areas, making a quiet-but-profound positive impact regardless of how good or bad their sack total is.
For example, in 2019, Jordan Jenkins had 8.0 sacks and 13 quarterback hits in 14 games while Khalil Mack had 8.5 sacks and 14 hits in 16 games. However, Mack ranked 10th among edge defenders in total pressures (70) while Jenkins ranked 61st (31), revealing the true disparity in impact between the two players.
Run defense needs to be taken into account as well. Some great rushers are mediocre run defenders. While pass-rushing is certainly more important than run defense in the modern NFL, the margin is not immense. Run defense is still extremely important.
Keep in mind just how rare sacks are, and that every line-of-scrimmage defender is still having an effect on the game – which could be positive or negative – regardless of how frequently they are picking up sacks.
Sacks are often not attributed to the player(s) most responsible
Many seem to think that sacks are a reflection of how many times an individual defender beats a blocker cleanly and gets straight to the quarterback to bring him down. That is far from the case. Oftentimes, one of these events is what tees up the opportunity for the credited sacker:
- A well-crafted blitz gets home
- Somebody is unblocked because of a protection breakdown
- The coverage is good enough to make the quarterback hold the ball too long
- One defender creates pressure that forces the quarterback to scramble into someone else
- The quarterback simply makes a foolish decision, either standing idle for too long or carelessly waltzing into a defender who didn’t actually beat his blocker
I looked through each of the Jets’ 35 sacks in 2019. Of those, only eight (22.9%) were “legitimate” – primarily created by the actual sacker. Basically, just eight sacks were the result of a legitimate win by a line-of-scrimmage player (EDGE or DL) over a blocker(s) without heavy assistance from coverage, a blitz, the pressure of a teammate, or another factor.
Here are the causes for the other 27 sacks (multiple reasons credited on some sacks):
- 9 coverage
- 7 blitz
- 6 pressures by non-sacker
- 3 unblocked rushers
- 2 broken offensive plays
- 2 QB scrambling into the QB spy
- 2 stunts
- 1 bad QB decision
Of course, the Jets severely lacked pass-rush talent in 2019, so it is not surprising to see that they recorded such a small amount of “legitimate” sacks. They may have had the fewest in the league.
Still, even if most other teams rack up a much higher portion of “legitimate” sacks than the Jets did, their rates are undoubtedly nowhere near 100%. From watching some other 2019 games for this study, my estimate is that the league average is somewhere from 40-50%.
A sack is a team accomplishment. The player who actually receives credit for one is often not the person most responsible for making it happen. Much of the time, he is actually far down the list.
Examples on film
Miscredited sack (Created by someone else’s pressure)
Let’s first look at a few sacks that were credited to a player who did not actually do much to create it.
Jenkins blows by the extra lineman as he rushes to the inside while the lineman sets outside. That attracts the attention of the running back, whom Jenkins beats with great anticipation as he shifts inside well before the back can attempt to block him. Dwayne Haskins is forced to eat the ball as Jenkins bears down. Jenkins comes inches away from touching Haskins down for the sack, but Adams (who is unblocked thanks to Jenkins attracting the RB) flies in untouched to steal the credit.
Adams throws his hands up and basks in the minuscule accomplishment without giving Jenkins a lick of credit.