Fixing Pass Goes Far Beyond Sack Totals

When it comes to playing the pass, I think it’s generally understood at this point that sacks do not define the job, even if it might be the main objective. You are not going to get a sack every time that the quarterback drops back in the pocket to throw a pass, but you can still be effective by putting pressure on him.

This is what the Pittsburgh Steelers are looking to improve upon the most. They were one of the top teams in the league in sacks in 2015, and after they figured out how to blitz again, they had the most sacks over the course of the final seven games of the regular season last year. But their pressure on the quarterback was not consistent.

That is why I found a statistic from Pro Football Focus so interesting, and worth passing along, that helps illustrate just out important consistent pressure is. It is more valuable to pressure the quarterback on, say, once every three throws in a game than it is to bring him down twice in a game.

To quote Sam Monson:

Sacks are important, but they represent an extremely small percentage of passing plays. Simply applying pressure to quarterbacks this past season dropped their passer rating from 96.7 to just 62.5 (league-wide averages), or the equivalent of turning Derek Carr into Jared Goff. Players that generate a lot of pressure are having a huge impact on the game, whether they get home or not, and those that generate comparatively little pressure won’t necessarily be saved by a high sack total.

This is why Bud Dupree’s numbers are somewhat misleading. He finished the regular season with four and a half sacks in the last five games, but he hardly generated any pressure outside of those five plays. James Harrison only registered five sacks during the regular season, but his pressure while he was on the field was the closest thing to consistency that the Steelers had.

In fact, Harrison was listed 11 on the list in question, which highlights the 15 best edge rushers during the 2016 season. Not that this article is about Harrison per se, nor the list, but Monson writes that “the play of James Harrison at age 38 is one of the stories of the season”, continuing to note that he generated 35 total pressures including the playoffs during the year.

It’s nice for the Steelers to have a rusher like Dupree who can make things happen from time to time with his natural traits for a sack or two here and there, but they need him to be a player who can collapse the pocket and make the quarterback uncomfortable consistently.

I don’t think I can understate how much of a difference it is to drop from a quarterback rating of 96.7 to 62.5. I suppose the Carr to Goff analogy will do. Carr averaged seven yards per attempt and threw 28 touchdowns to six interceptions. Goff averaged 5.3 yards per attempt with a five-to-seven touchdown-to-interception ratio.

About the Author

Matthew Marczi

Passionate Steelers fan with a bit of writing ability. Connoisseur of loud music. Follow me on Twitter @mmarczi.

  • falconsaftey43

    This right here is why I prefer a guy like Carl Lawson (refined hand use that allows him to consistently beat OTs and pressure the QB (see Alabama game, no sacks but won on many reps)) over a guy like McKiney who is very similar to Dupree (fast, explosive, no hand use, limited bend). Also why I like Barnett. Many feel he’s limited athletically (he is) and doesn’t finish a lot of sacks in college and won’t in NFL because he doesn’t have the speed. BUT he has a great dip/rip and bend that gets him around the QB a lot. That’s what matters.

  • RickM

    You’re exactly right. Making the QB uncomfortable and leading to rushed throws is almost as critical as sacks. We often measure pressure at the end of the game by sack total, but the correct figure is Sack/Hurries. I’m not sure why that hasn’t become a regular NFL stat.

    That is troubling about Dupree. The guy is getting few hurries and most of his sacks are on plays that broke down. So far at least, we are 0-2 in recent years finding an OLB who can come close to James’s consistent pass rush, even at 38. Maybe this year.

  • bob_1

    Matt Moore and I remember at least one Dupree pressure in the Miami playoff game that wasn’t scored a sack but was definitely “impactful.”

  • Robert E Lil

    EXACTLY.
    Wonderful piece. Statistics can be incredibly misleading. I’d be curious to see when those sacks happened. In other words, are those sack totals racked up against bad teams (for instance vs Andrew Luck’s backup).
    Once more, how is it that they made such a big jump in sacks but, the opponents rate of 3rd down conversions jumped up. They’re giving up more yardage on 3rd down. To me it gets back to one thing –
    They’re not even close to being able to succeed because at the snap of the ball they’re not playing the line of scrimmage. It’s a coaching problem as much as anything else.

  • PaeperCup

    I know what you are saying. I really really want to like what Dupree is doing, but if he’s not applying consistent pressure, it’s all for naught.

    I do wonder though, why does effective pressures not lead to more sacks? Does Harrison not know how to finish, or does the type of pressure applied force the QB to act instead of sit and take the sack?

  • ATL96STEELER

    The Steelers pride themselves on scoring DEF, NE is the same way. They’re willing to concede some yards and even some FGs, but they want to stop you from scoring TDs.

    If they accomplish that on a fairly consistent basis, theoretically they should win more games than they lose. PIT was 8th vs scoring and 10th yielding yardage…The Patriots using a similar DEF concept was 1st vs scoring and 8th vs yielding yardage.

    Pressure on the QB when the OFC is in obvious passing situations goes along way towards stopping drives and keeping scoring down. This is where Butler failed in the playoffs (particularly the AFCCG) and at times during the season…rushing 4, 3, and even at times 2 players. When you don’t have premier pass rushers, you’re basically exposing your secondary, I don’t care if you’re dropping 8 guys.

    If you paid attention during the super bowl, NE was able to get pressure on Matt Ryan at key points during the game…especially in the second half…the pressure did not always result in a sack, but it did result in a lot more punts in the second half….exactly what they needed to get back into the game.

    Yeah sacks are great, but 4 sacks in the 1st half, and not much pressure in the 2nd half, there’s a good chance you’re going to lose the game. At the NFL level, you must be able to physically effect the QB.

  • Robert E Lil

    Another stat I’d be so curious to see
    How many times did the Steelers give up a first down after they had just gotten a sack? So when it sent from say, 3rd and 5 to 3rd and 15 – how successful were they in getting off the field? My sense is that teams have been successful on 3rd and long

  • blackandgoldBullion

    Fantastic. Just some pressure that forces a quick throw could mean an incompletion and a punt. Sacks are a bonus because of the negative yards. I want consistent pressure even if it requires blitzing 5 or 6. I would gladly expose the D to the occasional big play because I truly believe they have a chance at stopping the opponents perhaps 60-70% of the time.

    I am not saying to blitz all the time and be very predictable but I would welcome a lot of blitzing as I think the stats over the entire season would improve greatly for the D. Overall they might be much better.

    Thank you Matthew. Some people get excited about 10 sacks over 1000 plays in a season. My question is how is this guy performing the rest of the time. Harrison is doing it all well.

  • ATL96STEELER

    Good question…I can count a few times they gave a 1st on 3rd & 10 or more….Personnel was obviously part of it, but schematically they backed off or simply didn’t apply enough heat on the QB…I understand trying to protect young players on the back end, but near the end of the season, those are your guys, you gotta sink or swim with them regardless.

  • Robert E Lil

    Yup. Absolutely. League rank on 3rd down was 24th …worse than in 2015. 3rd down conversion by opposing teams went up from 2015. Opposing qb ratings were higher in 2016 than 2015. I keep making the argument that the defense is getting worse, not better. And the stats I’m citing above point to a part of the defense that has been weak for many, many, many years now – the secondary. Pass rushers have come and gone in that time – the secondary stinks. Personally, I believe it’s the scheme

  • thomas hmmmm

    It doesn’t lead to more sacks because it rushes the QB to make a throw, which tends to be a bad throw, hence the drop in passer rating.

  • falconsaftey43

    1. I think Harrison is a step slower and not finishing the opportunities he used to due to that.

    2. Though improved, our coverage still hasn’t been all that good allowing for check downs and QB getting the ball out quick. This would be ok if we tackled more consistently.

  • thomas hmmmm

    Speaking of NE their D is using the 3-3-5 scheme. With three huge d lineman to stop the run and to push the pocket.
    I liked what I saw from that alignment and would like to see an alignment of Heyward, McCullers and Tuitt. Which would create a huge push on the pocket.
    Sorry to the Hargraves fans but he doesn’t have the strength or push to collapse the pocket. He is to finesse which rarely works.

  • PaeperCup

    So what leads to sacks…not pressuring the QB, but reaching the QB?

    Perhaps majority of NFL sacks are coverage sacks these days.

  • ATL96STEELER

    Spot on…Even though I think Gay has lost whatever he had, I think it’s scheme more so than lack of talent…after the DAL loss, backs against the wall, they changed up, they started coming after the QB a lot more. Granted, they were not facing a lot top shelf QBs at that time, but the pass DEF was considerably better. They resorted to that lame coverage BS vs Brady.

  • RickM

    James is just a step later getting there than in the past. At 38, no matter what he does he can’t replicate the brute strength, speed and power he had in his early 30’s. A strong consistent rusher from the other side would also help him. I don’t have the stats but my guess is Dupree was almost always battling just one guy and more attention was often paid to Harrison.

  • Robert E Lil

    I kinda disagree. I’d point to the last three games of the regular season where the defense was pushed around. Also, Flacco has zero problem moving the ball any time he needs to against us. There were also tons of dropped passes (long passes as well) vs the Chiefs in the playoffs. I just don’t see any improvment

  • RickM

    No, I don’t think so. James used to overpower guys with his bull rush and get there. He just can’t do that as often now. A little less strength. All the weights in the world can only slow Father Time, they can’t stop it. And the weights can’t stop the loss of quickness either. He’s a marvel at 38. Just a shade later getting there and in the NFL that matters.

  • falconsaftey43

    No, it’s just the majority of the time a pass rusher wins, they have time to get rid of the ball.

  • ATL96STEELER

    When you watch Hargrave engaged one on one, he’s winning the battle the majority of the time. Rarely is he getting stymied by one blocker.

    I wouldn’t call him a finesse guy, but I do agree his game is penetration, and he’s not a brute. I still contend that McCullers would flourish more as a 4-3 DT where he doesn’t have to worry as much about his legs.

  • PaeperCup

    but not slow enough to not provide pressure. I just wonder, when does pressure effectively turn into sacks.

  • ATL96STEELER

    I would discount the CLE game, but some truth in your comments there. That said, generally speaking I think the DEF is better, more athletic than they’ve been in the last 3 seasons. With any DEF it starts up front… Tuitt, Heyward you have two pro bowl caliber players. Hargrave we don’t know yet, but he looks to be a starting caliber player…they are better imo, how much idk…I was just very disappointed in the scheme they chose for the AFCCG.

  • Robert E Lil

    The latter we can definitely agree on. I think there’s enough talent there to be better than they are. But I don’t think there’s any edge rusher they can add that will help that secondary running that scheme. I keep pounding the same point – if Tomlin is going to run that passive zone coverage then they need to load up on athletic corners.

  • falconsaftey43

    NE does that with 43 type DEs (Flowers, Long, Ninkovich) that are the size of Dupree. Tuitt/Heyward are much bigger guys.

  • ATL96STEELER

    Definitely agree with this post. Supposedly a deep draft for the edge, but picking at 30 imo it’s unrealistic to expect an impact player.

    That’s why it wouldn’t bother me to see them go CB at 30 if that position is BPA.

  • RickM

    When you get there a step faster. Almost all outside LB’s as they age will see their sack totals diminish. Age has robbed them of some strength and speed. They still have the skill to provide pressure, they just get to the QB a little later and that changes a 10 sack guy to a 5 sack guy.

  • Robert E Lil

    Sounds like we agree that the scheme they’re running stinks. I feel like Tomlin puts his players in positions to fail and that’s what gets me. I’ve defended him vehemently – until now.

  • Larry Jameson

    I understand the article on how pressuring the QB can lead to better results than just looking at the sack numbers. However, the Steelers must realize the road to the Superbowl goes through… hate to say this…. New England. To beat Brady the Steelers MUST get corners that can play tight man coverage. That my friends is what this teams needs to give the high octane offense a chance to get another ring.

  • ATL96STEELER

    IMO, Tomlin is never going to win many games based on his X & O capabilities. Being able to motivate players and get guys like coach Munchak to work for him are his strengths…as much as I don’t care much for Haley’s work, he’s a former HC in this league also, he probably could’ve put himself out there one of these jobs, but it appears he chose to continue working for MT.

    The transition from Cowher’s players (especially DEF players) has not gone smoothly, but with the help of a future HOF QB, Tomlin gotten pretty decent results the last 2 seasons.

    I think most people knew LeBeau’s DEF was LeBeau’s DEF alone and maybe Tomlin wanted some input. For Butler to get the gig I’m sure he showed he was flexible enough to allow Tomlin to have some input that he probably didn’t have with LeBeau.

    The way I look at this as a Steeler fan…we have maybe two more seasons before the window of opportunity for a 7th Lombardi closes for a long time. Whether we like it or not, the Rooneys are most likely going to let Tomlin ride out the remainder of Ben’s career.

  • francesco

    They also need their offense to score practically almost on every possession.

  • francesco

    Harrison is a one trick pony.
    Seldom does he change his line of attack. He has no spin move which I think would give him more sacks.

  • francesco

    A spin move like Freeney would go a long way to improve his repeated no creativity bull rushes.

  • ND_Steel

    The good teams can get consistent pressure with 4 pass rushers, or even a blend of 4 and 5. We need that from the group of…Heyward, Tuitt, Hargraves, Dupree, Harrison. Harrison is the only one that comes close to consistent pressure. I think a rotation that includes these five can do it, but we need at least two more guys…can’t have Heyward and Tuitt playing 90% of the defensive snaps. And Dupree has to get better…he flashes but isn’t consistent. I am still shaking my head at sending 3 against Brady…just a pathetic game plan…

  • thomas hmmmm

    Agreed McC isn’t built for a 2-4-5 but he would be nice in a 3-3-5 as the man clogging the middle. Where Hargraves would be better suited as being a DE in a 3-3-5.
    If the Steelers draft a safety high in this draft I would expect them to start testing out the 3-3-5. As I recall there has been talk of Tomlin doing that for several seasons now.
    That might be due to his trips to WVU which uses the 3-3-5 or it might be because he has legit interest in it.

  • thomas hmmmm

    Yea they have a bunch of different packages but I could have sworn they have a package with 3 behemoth DTs on the field at the same time.

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  • Aaron Dickerson

    Sorry man, I have to disagree with you most forcefully… While yes you do need physical corners who can disrupt receivers coming off the line, but if you don’t have a consistent pass rush, even the worst qb in the league will pick you apart…with the rules the way they are, no DB can consistently cover a WR for more than 5-6 seconds. The falcons made Brady look very ordinary for most of that game and they did it by getting in his face and putting him on his butt….they just ran out of gas at the end of the game because their offense forgot how to play football.

  • Jim Foles

    Coverage Sacks are needed.

  • OVP66223

    The big issue is the soft zone these days. It worked 10, 20 years ago, for the most part, when MOST teams were still trying to throw 20, 30 and 40 yards downfield. Today, MOST teams now are some variation of west coast and more than happy to hit 5, 7 and 10 yard passes all the way down the field for a fairly easy TD. When you throw 7 yards, it doesn’t take more than 2 step drop back, toss and catch to a big hole in the zone. Not even the best pass rusher in the game is going to get pressure (much less a sack) more than 2 or 3 times the entire game on a 2 step drop back and even that pressure won’t be very intense.

    The trouble is not the edge rushers (they could be improved, but most teams can say that), the trouble is the philosophy of zone and blitz/pressure that simply DOES NOT WORK against opposing teams and coaches that simply take what is given and march down the field for a TD. This keeps our D on the field for way too long, each play sapping a bit more energy so that by the 3rd and 4th quarter, the opponent now can start taking open shots downfield as our fatigued D starts trying to guess and jump stuff.

    CHANGE THE PHILOSOPHY against those teams proven to adapt, mix it up even series, ever other down, whatever. Zone for two plays, man for the next 3, blitz on one side, the other side, blitz all LBs and drop back two DE in pseudo man-zone, WHATEVER. Don’t let the other team simply pitch and catch down field. Tom Brady is good, but we make him appear immortal by simply letting him throw practice passes. We give his WRs free releases, meaning EASY route-running to spot already determined.

    Even Forrest Gump can see what keeps the Steelers from winning in post-season, unfortunately between Tomlin and Butler, we have NO creativity when it comes to adapting ourselves. It stinks for us that our zone D works so well about 8 games a year against truly stupid opposing teams/coaches/QBs, because our coaches and GM (and others) can say “see, the zone works”, so they feel little need of adapting and practicing and planning for heavy MAN coverage, bump n run, jamming, etc. Maybe DBs aren’t very good at that, but they never will be if you don’t practice and coach it, ALOT. Hit the weights, practice, bring in retired WR or two that were the best at beating the jam and have them help WR and DBs alike.

    DO SOMETHING DIFFERENT coach Tomlin and Butler. You (and all of us fans) were just humiliated on national TV, for about the 5th time in 5 years, against the Patriots. Belichick probably gives his team an extra day off knowing the Steelers will simply stick to “let Brady soft toss down the field easily” zone D.

    Stupid is as stupid does.

  • OVP66223

    Lebeau’s D wouldn’t work now either. It’s different now than 20 and 30 years ago. Brady would shred any of those Ds now because those Ds say if you can make the easy throw, will let you have it. The trouble is a first down is 10 yards and it only takes TWO catches of 5-7 yards for a first down. Butler and Tomlin seem to think Brady can’t hit 66% of 5-7 yard two step drop passes…lol, dumb. The zone is solid against SOME teams, but if they don’t play more man and show a variety of coverage (mixing it up) the next time they play New England or Green Bay, they might as well forfeit and save us all the embarrassment.

    Two or three step drop and ball is out and you can forget about worrying about a pass rush. There is no time for any sacks or pressure. This is what confounds Butler, Lebeau and Tomlin. If the other team does what Brady does, they have no answer becuase they refuse to go heavy man with blitz. If you disrupt those quick routes, even for a half a second, that throw isn’t there, Brady has to look for second or third target, then and ONLY then can a sack happen. I am so frustrated the Steelers coaches seem dumber than a box of rocks. Even Tomlin seems convinced the game plan and play-calling is not the problem. REALLY? So all you need is 11 pro-bowlers and you might be able to win? Morons. Absolutely embarrassingly moronic our coaches are…so sad.

  • OVP66223

    The trouble is the zone and easy route running. It’s not the pressure itself. You could blitz and have 6 rushing every down and we’d lose even worse because that would leave open zones even bigger and allow a WR to slip the ONE TD saving tackler left for a long TD.

    They should, no, must play more man D with some WR jamming, switching, man-zone, etc. If you play zone, leave wide-open holes with a 5 yard radius all around, Brady is seeing one WR with no defense and playing sideline pitch/catch. It’s like a whole game of simply throwing warm up passes for Brady. Put the best two DEs in the NFL on the Steelers and they’re invisible still because they don’t have the time to make their moves and get to Brady.

  • OVP66223

    YES! THIS!

    I was so angry that we stayed zone. Those little WRs just made one cut off the line, turned and ball was there. Forget fixing the QB pressure, it will fix itself if you fix the lack of WR pressure. Why Larry can our coaches NOT see this? Zone has its place, but once a team shows it will take those WIDE OPEN 5 yard passes, its time to adapt. Mix the zone in, but play more man and alternate jamming with easy releases, keep them guessing.

  • OVP66223

    We’re not asking 5 or 6 seconds. Did you NOT see how easy we let Brady complete passes? All were saying is you can’t stick with soft zone, and NO WR pressure against Brady.

    You say Brady would pick apart man, yes, he could, but it would take another second or two every play, meaning the pass rush gets another second or two, which means more pressures and a few sacks and punts.

    Brady did pick apart our Pop-Warner zone scheme, every single play. You think that was NOT the problem? Man coverage and jamming does not need big DBs, so that part can be thrown out. What you need is simply to disrupt the WR and TEs coming off the line, even if just for half second and that expected wide-open zone throw isn’t there, Brady has to find second or third route and this means TIME and this means more pressure and more sacks. Yes, our DBs will get beat several times, but you have safties and maybe LB in zone for backup.

    Aaron, sorry, but I disagree with you, at least against New England. The size of DBs I agree, but man defense will offer a better chance, even without pro-bowl CBs. The zone was just embarrassed and how you can call it anything else is troubling. Man D at least buys the pass rush another second or two each play and that can only lead to GOOD results over 70 plays.

  • OVP66223

    Coverage sacks are few and far between, even for great Ds. You have to have BAD WRs, great D and bad QB to get those and that is very rare with today’s rules.

    We need to mix man and zone, mix jamming with free releases. We don’t. We don’t adapt, and Brady and Belichick are laughing at us, stunned that we keep doing the same futile scheme with same blown out results. If I am a Patriot fan, I relish playing the Steelers and our sad adherence to a zone full-time. I know Brady and Belichick love getting us as opponent and if that doesn’t get you steamed and upset at our coaches and not working in some man D and some WR jams, I don’t know what would.

    Sadly, we’re doomed to fail in the playoffs and we don’t have much chance at fixing it since Rooneys’ stick with coaches. We win enough to keep those coaches that can’t see the obvious, that think their plan was great, it was just the players didn’t play out of their minds to make it work. I am still steamed watching the Patriots and Brady completing 5 yard pass after 5 yard pass, nearly all of them WIDE OPEN and taking less that 2 seconds to complete.

  • OVP66223

    and they play man or mix man and zone. We don’t. Even if we played 4-3 and had the two best DE’s in the league, the 5 yard pass, requiring a simple one-cut turn for WR and call is there is still wide open and takes no more than 2 seconds. Brady would throw for 350+ yards average less than 6 yards per catch and put up 35+ points every single time they play us.

    The only way our zone works is with an OL breakdown allowing a quick pressure and New England just doesn’t do that often.

  • OVP66223

    We must disrupt and pressure the pass catchers. Most seem to think pressuring the QB is a single task, it’s not, it requires pressuring the pass-catchers as much as the pass thrower. If they can’t get to their spot on time, the QB has to find another WR, this means TIME and a much better chance of pass-rush pressure or sack. If a QB can make his first read pass every play, no pass rush pressure will occur.

  • OVP66223

    The zone requires a QB simply making bad passes or the OL have breakdowns to get the D off the field. When we get in the playoffs finding bad QBs or terrible OLs is difficult and we struggle. It’s fine against the Browns of the world, you can stick with zone all game and hold them after a bad pass or blown blocking.

    We play Brady, Rodgers and others like we play the Browns. That is a recipe for losing. Instead of a few big 50+ yard TDs, we give up 30 5-8 yard catches…death by a thousand paper cuts if you will. Brady loves that. It’s less stressful playing our zone since he can get ball out to wide-open WR sitting the zone’s holes in a matter of two seconds and there is no risk of sacks and thus no risk of injury or pain against us. Again, that works 8-10 games a year, enough to get us wins, but at least 5 games a year, we look like a pee-wee team when the other team stops trying to hit the home run and takes what the zone gives…WIDE OPEN 5 yard passes and the ability to not concern yourself about their pass-rush (there is no time to mount one on a 2 second pass).

  • OVP66223

    When does Brady struggle? Well, Rex Ryan has been successful (relatively speaking) against Brady and Belichick. Why? yes they run 4-3 D mostly, but its not the main reason for success. The main reason is man coverage and not allowing the WRs to get off the line freely and into the route they planned. Brady’s first read isn’t open and suddenly even Brady is thinking “oh crap this isn’t the Steelers” and now has to scan next target and if that isn’t there, he is now getting happy feet and a sack may happen or at least his throw may miss the mark. He has no such concern when we stick to our swiss-cheese zone D and letting WR jog to a spot and turn and hold up therr hands, catch it, and brace for tackle. Rinse and repeat your way downfield for the easiest TD drive ever recorded. Sigh.

  • OVP66223

    Bottom line, play all zone, and prepare for a beatdown again against Brady.

  • ATL96STEELER

    So true…you hit the nail on the head OVP…it boils down to personnel. In LeBeau’s heyday he had the bitter pill for any OFC because he had the personnel.

    He had bump-n-run CBs that may not have been stellar in coverage but they were physical at the LOS and could disrupt timing. Couple that with a maneater at NT, 2 DEs that could stop the run and get penetration and fire breathers on the edge that could beat the 1 on 1 block. Finally he had the wildcard in Troy.

    Yes, that DEF (which was a zone) would still be effective today, but those players are all retired except 1.

    If Tomlin truly believes the DEF game plan they threw out there vs NE in the AFCCG was not the problem…I agree, he is dumber than a box of rocks.

  • OVP66223

    Any scheme that doesn’t just give up easy 5 yard, 2 second passing plays would be an improvement. We play the easiest defense Brady sees all year. The D works against crappy QBs or poor WR teams that can’t catch, but Brady doesn’t even break a sweat against us. Even the lowly Browns make Brady work harder.

    If they play the “let them get open, let them catch it, we’ll tackle them after every first down” zone D against Brady again, the NFL should step in and disband the franchise for our own good.