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Which Defenses Are The Best At Recording Sacks?

In 2014, there were 17,879 pass attempts in the NFL, and another 1,212 dropbacks that ended up as quarterback sacks. Therefore, the 2014 NFL sack rate was 6.35%, as quarterbacks were sacked 1,212 times on 19,091 dropbacks.

The Buffalo Bills defense was fantastic in general last year, and even moreso with regards to sacks. Buffalo faced 613 opponent dropbacks last season; given the league average, we would “expect” the Bills to have recorded 38.9 sacks.1 In reality, Buffalo sacked opposing quarterbacks 54 times, or 15.1 more than “expected” last season. Only one other team, the Giants at +10.9, reached double digits in sacks over expectation.

The worst team, by a good measure, was Cincinnati. The Bengals faced 628 opponent dropbacks but recorded only 20 sacks! Using the league average as our guide, we would have expected Cincinnati to take down opposing passers about 39.9 times, which means the Bengals fell 19.9 sacks shy of expectation. Only Atlanta at -15.3 and Oakland at -13.6 were within shouting distance of the Bengals when it came to anemic pass rushing.

The table below shows how each defense fared in this metric in 2014:

RkTmOpp AttSacksSk RtExp SkDiff
1BUF559548.8%38.915.1
2NYG522478.3%36.110.9
3KAN545467.8%37.58.5
4PHI591497.7%40.68.4
5BAL595497.6%40.98.1
6NYJ538457.7%378
7JAX541457.7%37.27.8
8MIN534417.1%36.54.5
9IND543417%37.13.9
10STL540406.9%36.83.2
11GNB564416.8%38.42.6
12SEA507376.8%34.52.5
13MIA537396.8%36.62.4
14TEN545396.7%37.11.9
15CAR562406.6%38.21.8
16DET592426.6%40.21.8
17CHI548396.6%37.31.7
18NWE574406.5%391
19WAS519366.5%35.20.8
20SFO551366.1%37.3-1.3
21TAM563366%38-2
22DEN641416%43.3-2.3
23NOR546345.9%36.8-2.8
24PIT543335.7%36.6-3.6
25HOU619385.8%41.7-3.7
26ARI579355.7%39-4
27CLE587315%39.2-8.2
28SDG524264.7%34.9-8.9
29DAL558284.8%37.2-9.2
30OAK538223.9%35.6-13.6
31ATL566223.7%37.3-15.3
32CIN608203.2%39.9-19.9

The Bengals brought back Michael Johnson while the Falcons hired Dan Quinn, but expect both teams to try to find some edge-rushing help in the draft.

I thought it would be fun to calculate this statistic for each of the last ten seasons, and present it in the form of a heat map. Here, blue means “good”, indicating that a defense got to the quarterback at an above-average rate, while red is a sign that a defense was below average. You probably want to click on each image to enlarge, but you can see that Atlanta has been struggling in this department for years. The Falcons have red scores and have been at least 5 sacks below expectation for each of the last six years. Meanwhile, Miami is the only team to be in the blue in every season. How many of you would have guessed that? In fact, the Dolphins defense has posted an above-average sack rate in an incredible seventeen straight years, dating back to Jason Taylor’s rookie season.2

heat image sacks

What about which defenses have been the worst at getting to the quarterback over the last two years? Or three years? That’s right, we’re talking cumulative sacks over average ratings! For example, the Bengals were at -20 in 2014, -1 in 2013, and +13 in 2012; that means since 2014 Cincinnati is at -20, since 2013 the team is at -21, and since 2012 the defense is at -7 (difference due to rounding). That’s what the next heat map shows:

sack cumu

And if you prefer your cumulative sack ratings in rank form, I’ve got one more table for you. Some teams (Atlanta, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Dallas in recent years, Jacksonville prior to Gus Bradley, and Tampa Bay really stand out for the amount of red space. Meanwhile, the Ravens, Bills, Panthers, Packers, Dolphins, Giants, Eagles, and Rams have a whole lot of blue in their columns.

sack rk

Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

  1. This is simply the product of 613 and 6.35%. []
  2. For those curious, the Steelers had an above-average sack rate in every year from 1993 to 2010 other than 2000, which is… well, still not as impressive as Miami’s streak. []
  • Clint

    According to the 1st sheet, the Browns have had a quietly mediocre pass rush over the last 10+ years… which coincides with our record. But the cumulative rankings…. wow. We never get it right.

  • Jack

    The Bills past two years have been as impressive as any team’s two consecutive years on the chart… and they just kept their whole D together and added Rex Ryan, which would seem to help or at least maintain that awesome sack rate. Hmmm… sleeper pick? Or is their cat out of the bag?

    • Yeah, the Bills will definitely be a trendy sleeper pick…. like they have for each of the last 15 years? It will be interesting to see what Ryan can do with a defense that is already outstanding. There may not be a better defensive coach out there, but he’s going to be battling some serious regression to the mean forces.

      The real question is can Rex and Roman turn McCoy/Harvin/Watkins into more than the sum of their parts. Given the histories of Rex and Roman, I’m not too optimistic about that.

      • Jack

        Have the Bills been a trendy sleeper pick the past decade-ish? I don’t recall that at all.

        I think the regression they might face on D is injuries. They had outstanding luck last year in that area. Rex’s strengths/weaknesses are well known but as far as Roman, I think he’s a competent OC and gets too much hate because its fun to hate on OCs. Really, does any team’s fans like theirs?

  • Not all that surprised with the Dolphins. I think a significant part of it is getting a dominant pass rusher on the outside, Jason Taylor and Cameron Wake. But there was a stretch where Taylor wasn’t dominant and Wake wasn’t there. So I think another significant part of it is probably above average pass rushers across the board. Lately it’s been guys like Randy Starks and Olivier Vernon who are nice compliments to Wake.

    In the Dolphins’ case I’m not sure much of it is scheme. They’ve changed from a 4-3 to 3-4 and back to 4-3 during that stretch. But I don’t think they’ve ever been a particularly blitz-heavy team. It seems like pass rushing has just been the one area where they’ve done a consistently good job on the personnel side.

    • Jack

      The Dolphins string of blue years is being overstated a bit on the twitter response to this article. Besides a few great Taylor years, the Dolphins nice run of pass-rushing looks to be more like good consistency rather than smack-you-in-the-face dominance. Even their very best years are eclipsed several times by various other teams.

      That’s not a huge knock, of course. Consistency is nice.

      • Definitely. I didn’t mean to say the team has been dominant as a whole. Just that they’ve had a few individual players who could probably be considered dominant. And I’d argue that if we zoom in a bit, they’ve been consistent from year to year, but not very consistent within seasons. Last year, for instance, they were good at the beginning but really tailed off at the end. That seems to be a pretty consistent theme for Dolphins defenses for some reason.

        • Jack

          yeah they had a really nice D to start the year and then seemed to fall off a cliff. I don’t know if it was injuries or what, I didn’t follow their roster too closely. But they are definitely part of a scary AFC East if they keep it together next year. Suh helps and should keep those sack numbers trending blue.

  • Richie

    Hey, we’re doing something right!!

    • That’s about it, tho 🙂

  • lovesbigfool

    So want to see this from the offense’s perspective. Which teams did well and poorly at protecting the quarterback.

  • Another factor that could be interesting to put in here is the game script. Would be useful to see if any defenses are particularly good at getting sacks even though their team is trailing a lot of the time.

  • Lord Dre X

    “The Bills gave Mario Williams all that money and he went to Buffalo and disappeared. What a disappointment.”

    I still am amazed that Williams gets little respect outside of football nerds and western New Yorkers for the way he has played since signing in Buffalo.

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