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Sacks Are Coming From Lighter Players

In 1994, the “average” sack came from a player that weighted 266 pounds. Wait, what do you mean by average sack? Well, if you look at all 937 sacks in 1994, and identify the weight of the sacker on each sack, you can calculate the weight of the average sack in each season. John Randle was 290 pounds, and he had 13.5 sacks that year, so he gets 13.5 times as much weight a player with one sack. The graph below shows the weight of the player producing an average sack in each year since 1982. As you can see, it peaked in the mid-’90s, and has declined slightly since.

However, players in general are getting heavier, including in the front seven. The graph below shows the average weight of a player in the front 7 — weighted by the number of starts by such a player — for each year since 1982. That data is in orange; the blue line showing the average sack weight is still included in the chart for reference.
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Concentration Index and Defensive Sacks

Are sacks more highly concentrated among a few players now? Look at the 2016 Raiders: Khalil Mack, who won the Defensive Player of the Year award by one vote over Von Miller, had 11 sacks. But Mack and Bruce Irvin (7.0 sacks) were the only Oakland defenders to record more than three sacks last year, and only six Raiders finished the year with a sack. In Atlanta, Vic Beasley led the NFL with 15.5 sacks, but only eight other Falcons had a sack, and no other Falcon had more than five. Meanwhile, the ’86 Oilers had 17 players record at least one sack and no player with more than five sacks!

In 2014, J.J. Watt had 20.5 of Houston’s 38 sacks. And in 2012, Aldon Smith had just over half of the 49ers sacks, too. But are things really getting more concentrated? Memory can play tricks on us: after all, in 1989, Tim Harris had 19.5 sacks for the Packers, which represented 57% of all Green Bay sacks that year.

As it turns out, the Raiders and Falcons weren’t great examples to measure the modern NFL. They were the two most concentrated teams in the NFL last year in terms of sacks. Let’s look at the Raiders sack totals more closely, and use the same methodology we’ve used the last few days (also known as the Herfindahl index): [click to continue…]


NFL Gray Ink Sack Leaders

Watt has a lot of gray ink in a short amount of time

Watt has a lot of gray ink in a short amount of time

Gray Ink tests are fun ways to measure player dominance by giving some — but not too much — credit to longevity. In simplest form, gray ink tests give 10 points for finishing 1st in a category, 9 points for finishing 2nd, and so on. Let’s use Kevin Greene, third all-time (shorthand for since 1982, of course) in career sacks with 160, and Bruce Smith, the career leader with 200, as examples.

Smith was the better player — he was an 11-time Pro Bowler and an 8-time AP first-team All-Pro, compared to just 5/2 for Greene — and consequently was a clear first-ballot Hall of Famer. For whatever reason, it took Greene 12 years, but this summer, he will finally be inducted into the Hall. Given the fact that Smith has 25% more career sacks than Greene, you probably think that Smith was the better pass rusher. To that, the Gray Ink test says not so fast, my friend. [click to continue…]


In April, I looked at how each defense fared at recording sacks. Today, we flip things around and look at it from the offensive perspective.

In 2014, there were 17,879 pass attempts in the NFL, and another 1,212 dropbacks that ended up as quarterback sacks, translating to a sack rate of 6.35%.

Peyton Manning offenses are always excellent, and they’re always particularly excellent at avoiding sacks. In 2014, the Broncos had 624 dropbacks; given the league average, we would “expect” that Denver’s quarterbacks would have been sacked 39.6 times. In reality, Manning was sacked just 17 times, of 22.6 fewer sacks than “expected” last season. Only one other team, the Joe Flacco and the Ravens at 17.4, had 15 fewer sacks than expectation.

The worst team, by over 10 expected sacks, was Jacksonville. The Jaguars had 628 dropbacks and were sacked an incredible 71 times. Using the league average as our guide, we would have expected Blake Bortles and the Jaguars quarterbacks to have been sacked 38.4 times, which means the Jaguars were sacked 31.1 more times than “expectation.” [click to continue…]


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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Adjusting team sack rates in the NFL for SOS

I’ve got sacks on the mind today. A few hours ago, I looked at the single-season sack records by various players in both the 3-4 and 4-3. Today I also want to look at things from the team perspective. In 2012, which team is the best at getting to the quarterback? You might think that’s as simple as looking at a list of defensive statistics and sorting by sacks, but I’d like to take a more nuanced approach.

There are two factors that heavily impact a team’s sack rate: the opponents they face and the number of passing plays they defend. Using sack rate instead of sacks helps to solve the latter issue, but we still need an opponent adjustment even if we use sack rate. It’s a bit tricky doing it correctly, because you need to iterate the results just like you do with the SRS. What I mean by that is the sack rate of the Denver defense will need to be adjusted for the sack rate of the Kansas City, Oakland, and San Diego offenses (among other teams), and those will need to be adjusted for the Denver defense (and all the other defenses those teams faced).

Once you properly iterate the results, what are the results? The table below shows the top defenses this year at getting to the quarterback, although note that these numbers exclude the games from week 15. The table shows how many pass attempts each team has faced, the number of actual sacks they have recorded and their actual sack rate; the next column shows the SOS adjustment to the sack rate, with a positive number indicating a difficult strength of schedule (i.e., they’ve faced teams that are difficult to sack). The last two columns show the SOS-adjusted sack rates and total sacks.


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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 []

When thinking about the 2012 Cowboys, it’s easy to focus on Dallas’ star offensive players. Unfortunately, that overshadows the fact that we’re witnessing the prime of the career of what will end up being the best 3-4 outside linebacker in the history of pro football.

There is nothing DeMarcus Ware could have done, or could do in the future, to convince most football fans that he ranks ahead of Lawrence Taylor in any all-time list. That’s not unique to Taylor; some would find it unfathomable to vault a cover corner over Deion Sanders, a middle linebacker over Dick Butkus, or a running back over Jim Brown. So let’s just get that out of the way. To many, ‘LT’ is the best 3-4 outside linebacker ever (if not best linebacker or defensive player, period) and that will never change. To them, this post won’t change your mind one bit. To others, allow me to make the case that when he retires, Ware will have been the best player to ever play his position.

The best 3-4 outside linebacker ever?

The 3-4 defense didn’t enter the NFL until 1974, when the scheme was brought to Houston, Buffalo and New England. Putting aside Taylor, the best outside linebackers to play in this scheme include names like Robert Brazile, Tom Jackson, Ted Hendricks, Clay Matthews, Andre Tippett, New Orleans’ Rickey Jackson and Pat Swilling, Kevin Greene, Greg Lloyd, Cornelius Bennett and Derrick Thomas. In today’s game, it’s probably Ware and Terrell Suggs, who also splits his time playing as a 4-3 end. With all due respect to Suggs, and other active stars like Tamba Hali, LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison, Aldon Smith, Clay Matthews and Cameron Wake, no current player has the body of work to compare to Ware.

The Cowboys star has been named an AP first-team All-Pro four times; among 3-4 outside linebackers, only Taylor has more selections. Taylor (10), Robert Brazile (7), Rickey Jackson (6) and Ware are the only 3-4 linebackers to have been named to six Pro Bowls, and Ware has been a selection in each of the last six years. Ultimately, outside of perhaps a vocal minority that would argue for Derrick Thomas over Taylor (and more on that tomorrow), Ware’s case as the best 3-4 outside linebacker of all-time comes down to whether you could put him ahead of Taylor as a player1.

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  1. Taylor’s legend appears to grow every year, and as a mythical or historical figure, Ware stands no chance of surpassing him. []