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Mathis takes down Manning

Mathis takes down Manning.

Good stat courtesy of Bill Barnwell this week: Robert Mathis has 11.5 sacks, while the rest of his Indianapolis teammates have just 10.5 sacks. Jerrell Freeman is second on the team with 3.5 sacks, Cory Redding has a pair of sacks, and no other Colt has more than one sack. That’s obviously very impressive: no other defensive player in 2013 has even 40% of his team’s sacks, with only LaMarr Woodley (5 sacks), Mario Williams (11), and Robert Quinn (10) having more than one-third of their team’s sacks.

Since the sack became an official statistic in 1982, the record for percentage of team sacks by an individual player was set by right outside linebacker Tim Harris on the 1989 Packers. Green Bay ran a 3-4 defense under Hank Bullough, and Harris had 19.5 of the team’s 34 sacks.  That means 57.4% of all sacks by Packers players that year came from Harris; no other Green Bay player had more than three sacks.

Aldon Smith had 19.5 sacks, too, playing on the 2012 49ers. Last year, San Francisco recorded 38 team sacks, meaning Smith — playing that same ROLB position in the 3-4 defense — had 51.3% of his team’s sacks.  Two other players recorded exactly half of their team’s sacks.  In 1984, when Mark Gastineau (playing at left defensive end in New York’s 4-3 defense) set the sack record, he recorded 22 of the Jets 44 total sacks. Fifteen years later, Football Perspective All Underrated star Simeon Rice (who lined up at right defensive end) had 16.5 of the Cardinals 33 sacks.

Mathis was a star 4-3 defensive end, but he’s already matched his single-season career high in sacks. He’s having perhaps his best season playing as rush linebacker in the system devised by Greg Manusky and Chuck Pagano. And his numbers look even better as a percentage of team sacks. Below are the top 50 leaders from 1982 to 2012 in percentage of team sacks, which is a cut-off deep enough to bring in another Robert Mathis season:
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J.J. Swatt.

Houston’s J.J. Watt sacked Andrew Luck three times on Sunday, bringing his season sack total to 19.5. Entering 2012, Bruce Smith was the single-season record holder for sacks by a defensive lineman in a 3-4 scheme with 19 in 1990. The sack has only been an official statistic since 1982, but since the 3-4 only entered the NFL in the mid-’70s, we can be pretty sure that Watt is now the all-time record holder.

The tables below show the single-season leaders by various defensive players in 3-4 and 4-3 schemes from 1982 to 2011.

Let’s start with a look at the most sacks by a 3-4 defensive end:

1990BUFBruce Smith3-4 DE19
1983SFOFred Dean3-4 DE17.5
1984PHIGreg Brown3-4 DE16
1983MIADoug Betters3-4 DE16
1983SEAJacob Green3-4 DE16
1992NORWayne Martin3-4 DE15.5
1986RAISean Jones3-4 DE15.5
1985NYGLeonard Marshall3-4 DE15.5
1993KANNeil Smith3-4 DE15
1986SDGLee Williams3-4 DE15
1986BUFBruce Smith3-4 DE15
1984KANArt Still3-4 DE14.5
1984SEAJeff Bryant3-4 DE14.5
1983GNBEzra Johnson3-4 DE14.5
1997BUFBruce Smith3-4 DE14
1993BUFBruce Smith3-4 DE14
1992BUFBruce Smith3-4 DE14
1989SDGLee Williams3-4 DE14
1984MIADoug Betters3-4 DE14
1984CLEReggie Camp3-4 DE14
1983PITKeith Willis3-4 DE14

As you can imagine, 3-4 defensive linemen don’t rack up many sacks. Bill Pickel, a nose tackle for the Raiders in the ’80s, recorded 12.5 sacks in both ’84 and ’85, making him the only 3-4 tackle to record more than 12 sacks in a season. Karl Mecklenburg, with 13 sacks for the Broncos in ’85, remains the only inside linebacker in a 3-4 with more than a dozen sacks.

Of course, 3-4 outside linebackers get all the glory in that scheme. San Francisco’s Aldon Smith has 19.5 sacks so far in 2012 with two games remaining, but here were the leaders prior to 2012:

1986NYGLawrence Taylor3-4 OLB20.5
2008DALDeMarcus Ware3-4 OLB20
1990KANDerrick Thomas3-4 OLB20
2011DALDeMarcus Ware3-4 OLB19.5
1989GNBTim Harris3-4 OLB19.5
1984NWEAndre Tippett3-4 OLB18.5
2008MIAJoey Porter3-4 OLB17.5
1995BUFBryce Paup3-4 OLB17.5
2009DENElvis Dumervil3-4 OLB17
2006SDGShawne Merriman3-4 OLB17
1992SFOTim Harris3-4 OLB17
1991NORPat Swilling3-4 OLB17
1989NORPat Swilling3-4 OLB16.5
1989RAMKevin Greene3-4 OLB16.5
1988RAMKevin Greene3-4 OLB16.5
1985NWEAndre Tippett3-4 OLB16.5
2008PITJames Harrison3-4 OLB16
1992DENSimon Fletcher3-4 OLB16
1990SFOCharles Haley3-4 OLB16
2010DALDeMarcus Ware3-4 OLB15.5
1988NYGLawrence Taylor3-4 OLB15.5
1998CARKevin Greene3-4 OLB15
1989NYGLawrence Taylor3-4 OLB15
1984PITMike Merriweather3-4 OLB15

What about 4-3 defensive ends?

2001NYGMichael Strahan4-3 DE22.5
2011MINJared Allen4-3 DE22
1984NYJMark Gastineau4-3 DE22
1989MINChris Doleman4-3 DE21
1987PHIReggie White4-3 DE21
1992PHIClyde Simmons4-3 DE19
1983NYJMark Gastineau4-3 DE19
2003NYGMichael Strahan4-3 DE18.5
2002MIAJason Taylor4-3 DE18.5
1986WASDexter Manley4-3 DE18.5
2011PHIJason Babin4-3 DE18
1988PHIReggie White4-3 DE18
1984CHIRichard Dent4-3 DE17.5
1999STLKevin Carter4-3 DE17
1992SDGLeslie O'Neal4-3 DE17
1985CHIRichard Dent4-3 DE17
2011NYGJason Pierre-Paul4-3 DE16.5
2008ATLJohn Abraham4-3 DE16.5
2000MIATrace Armstrong4-3 DE16.5
1999ARISimeon Rice4-3 DE16.5
1998SEAMichael Sinclair4-3 DE16.5
2005OAKDerrick Burgess4-3 DE16
2004INDDwight Freeney4-3 DE16
1998GNBReggie White4-3 DE16
1983STLCurtis Greer4-3 DE16

And 4-3 defensive tackles:

1989MINKeith Millard4-3 DT18
1986PHIReggie White4-3 DT18
2000NORLa'Roi Glover4-3 DT17
2000TAMWarren Sapp4-3 DT16.5
1997MINJohn Randle4-3 DT15.5
1997SFODana Stubblefield4-3 DT15
1992SEACortez Kennedy4-3 DT14

4-3 outside linebackers rarely rack up huge sack numbers. In fact, Denver’s Von Miller, who has 16 sacks this year, is already the record holder in the official sack era. Derrick Thomas (14.5 sacks in 1992, 13 in 1996) in Kansas City, Washington’s Ken Harvey (13.5 in ’94) and Cleveland’s Jamir Miller (13 in ’01) are the only other 4-3 outside linebackers with more than twelve sacks in a season since 1982. (Of course, Thomas also had a 20-sack season a 3-4 outside linebacker.) Charlie Clemons, with 13.5 sacks in 2001, is the record holder among 4-3 middle linebackers.


Thirty years ago, the NFL began officially recording defensive player sacks. Prior to 1982, all teams kept their own individual sack data, but those records (with few exceptions) have never been verified. As a result, it’s an unfortunate reality that for much of NFL history, we simply do not have reliable sack data for individual defensive players.

Three times, Deacon Jones produced 20+ unofficial sacks in the 1960s.1 In 1967, Raiders defensive end Ben Davidson Ike Lassiter had 17 sacks2 in the AFL. Jack Youngblood and Jim Katcavage both led the league in sacks on two different occasions in the pre-1982 era.3 Cincinnati Bengal Coy Bacon has been credited with 21.5 unofficial sacks during in 1976. The first team to record 60 sacks in a season was the ’57 Bears, and we can be sure that Doug Atkins recorded more than his fair share of that number. For players like Gino Marchetti, Norm Willey, and Len Ford, even unofficial records weren’t kept during their time, leaving us unsure as to who is the true sack king.

It’s important to remember that just because we don’t have official sack data before 1982 doesn’t mean there were great sack artists before then. But that’s a topic for another today. So while we can’t precisely measure how the forefathers of the game played, we do have official data for the last 30 years. So who has been the best pass rusher of the last three decades?

Brett, are you SURE you're okay?

Using total sacks isn’t a fair method to current players, or to those players who chose to retire instead of sticking around to compile six-sack seasons. So if we want to measure sack dominance, we can’t simply look at total sacks any more than we can grade running backs by looking at career rushing yards. One method I like that I’ve used before is sacks over one-half sack per game. This makes 8 sacks in a 16-game season the bar; a player only gets credit for their production over that level. This means that 12 sacks in a 16-game season brings a value of +4.00, while 16 sacks is twice as valuable at +8.00.There’s no great reason to choose 8 over 6 or 10 or any other number. I chose 8 because it feels right, but I don’t claim that it’s based on anything other than my personal, subjective preference.

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  1. According to research done by John Turney. []
  2. Source. []
  3. Source: Turney/Webster []