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The value of a sack, and why pass rusher is the NFL’s second-most important position

Von Miller, the Super Bowl MVP two seasons ago, is one of the most productive pass-rushers in the NFL. (David Zalubowski/AP)

The NFL continues to become more reliant on passing plays. Last season quarterbacks set a record for most throws per game (35.7) with an average passer rating of 87.6, second-highest in league history. The best passing teams also represented their conference in the Super Bowl — the Atlanta Falcons and champion New England Patriots ranked No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, for passer rating during the regular season.

The teams that protected their quarterback the best were also among the more successful squads in the NFL. The Patriots allowed a 4.7 percent sack rate after adjusting for down, distance and opponent, the sixth-best performance in 2016, per Football Outsiders. Their AFC conference championship game opponents, the Pittsburgh Steelers, ranked fourth (4.1 percent). The NFC conference runner-up Green Bay Packers were well above average (11th at 5.5 percent — the league average is 6.1 percent).

The lesson here: It is more critical than ever for an NFL franchise to build an effective pass rush.

“If the most important person on the field is the quarterback, the second-most important person must be the guy who gets to the quarterback,” said Chuck Smith, a former all-pro defensive end and founder of Chuck Smith Training Systems, where he has consulted with and coached some of the best pass rushers in the NFL, including Von Miller, Vic Beasley and Aaron Donald. “You want to hit the quarterback as much as you can because that changes the dynamics of the game.”

The latest brain study examined 111 former NFL players. Only one didn’t have CTE.

And that type of game changer doesn’t come cheap. Among the 25 highest contracts being paid to NFL players, 10 are quarterbacks and nine are pass-rushing specialists, including Miller, J.J. Watt, Fletcher Cox and Olivier Vernon, each of whom average more than $17 million per season. But the return on investment is substantial because, put simply, sacks kill drives.

According to Football Outsiders, slightly more than 70 percent of four-down series converted for a first down or a touchdown in 2016. However, just one out of every six offensive drives (16 percent) in which the quarterback was sacked eventually got another set of downs, making it easy to see how much of a momentum killer a quarterback sack can be.

Overall, a sack saves a team 1.75 points each time a defender gets to the quarterback, but it is important to note not all sacks are created equal. A sack on fourth and 5, for example, is inherently more valuable than a sack on first and 10. According to the expected number of points scored given a combination of down, distance and yard line, a sack in the first instance saves a team almost three points (2.83) on average, while a sack in the second scenario saves less than two points (1.65).

Field position matters, too, with sacks in the red zone (inside the opponent’s 20-yard line) and at midfield worth more than sacks occurring in other segments of the field.

Yet sacks are only part of the equation — quarterback pressure in the form of hits and hurries also produces tangible results. According to the game charters at Pro Football Focus, pressure reduced the overall league passer rating from 99.3 to 64.6 last season, and even a veteran quarterback such as Aaron Rodgers felt the aftereffects of a sack. The two-time NFL MVP had a league-high 93.8 passer rating under pressure last season, but produced a rating of just 45.5 on plays following a sack in 2016. That’s bad enough to say the team would almost have been better off if Rodgers just threw the very next ball away for an incomplete pass (doing so produces a 39.6 rating).

Aaron Rodgers in 2016 ATT COMP Comp% Yards TD INT Passer Rating
Clean pocket 457 327 72% 3,400 25 6 107.7
Under pressure 153 74 48% 1,028 12 1 93.8
After a sack 14 7 50% 106 0 1 45.5

Rodgers isn’t alone. According to data from TruMedia, the league’s average passer rating dropped to 78.1 on plays immediately following a sack last season, showing that the effects of a good pass rush can linger for at least another down for any passer on any team. Part of the reason for this is that sacks often create long, difficult down-and-distance situations, increasing the likelihood of a quarterback throwing an incompletion or an interception.

That decline could get worse if a player is nursing an injury and tries to overcompensate or gets knocked out of the game completely.

Cam Newton, the 2015 NFL MVP, suffered a partially torn right rotator cuff during a Week 14 win against San Diego last season and saw his passer rating drop from 89.0 to 4.4 (!) — 9 for 31 with 126 yards and three interceptions — under pressure during the next two weeks. Newton had a 56.0 passer rating under pressure during the first 13 weeks of the season.

In games where the starting quarterback was removed in favor of a backup, the passing team saw declines in completion percentage, yards per attempt, touchdown-to-interception ratio and overall passer rating in 2016.

QBs in 2016 Comp% Yds/Att TD/INT Passer Rating
Starter 63% 7.2 2.0 89.8
Backup 54% 6.9 1.3 77.0

Not to mention an interception was much more likely to occur under pressure (3.2 percent of attempts in 2016) than it was if the quarterback had a clean pocket (1.9 percent).

Quarterbacks were also sacked in 3.42 seconds last season per Pro Football Focus, a few fractions of a second faster than a decade ago (3.69), a byproduct of faster defenders.

“The pass rushers are smaller and everybody is a hybrid,” explained Smith. The average defensive lineman at the 2008 NFL combine stood 75.5 inches in height, weighed 285.7 pounds and ran the 40-yard dash in 5.02 seconds. In 2017, those numbers were 75.2, 279.4 and 4.91, respectively. A similar trend can be found in linebackers, who are also smaller, lighter and faster compared to a decade ago.

DL Average of height Average of weight Average 40-yard time
2008 75.5 in. 285.7 lbs. 5.02 secs.
2017 75.2 in. 279.4 lbs. 4.91 secs.
LB Average of height Average of weight Average of 40-yard time
2008 73.9 in. 239.3 lbs. 4.71 secs.
2017 73.4 in. 237.5 lbs. 4.68 secs.

Miller, a 6-foot-3, 250-pound edge rusher for the Denver Broncos, ran a 4.42 40-yard time at the 2011 combine, allowing him to be lined up as a standard defensive end, using both a three- and two-point stance, and as the strongside linebacker. He’s even been used as a spy against mobile quarterbacks, showing a versatility that earned him the fifth-highest pass-rush rating among edge rushers by Pro Football Focus last season after ranking third in 2015 and 2014.

J.J. Watt is as big as some of the great pass rushers of old, but the 6-foot-6, 290-pound defensive end for the Houston Texans is sometimes used at tackle, a flexibility that has helped earn him the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year honors three times in six years, recording 20 or more sacks in two of those seasons.

“You look at Miller and Watt and you are looking at living legends. You can’t make better pass rushers than those two,” Smith said. “People should enjoy what they are seeing now.”

Everyone except for quarterbacks, that is.