Running The Numbers: Projecting Sacks in 2012
The importance of sacking the quarterback is understood within the NFL, but I’m not sure the value is fully grasped outside of league circles. Four of the last five Super Bowl champions have been in the top three in the league in sacks, with the 2009 Saints being the lone exception. With 32 teams in the NFL, that’s quite a feat.
The Cowboys have generated a pretty formidable pass rush over the last half-decade, finishing 9th, 16th, 7th, 1st, and 3rd since 2007. In the top two years, the ‘Boys averaged 11 wins. They totaled only 14 combined wins in the bottom two seasons over the span.
In an effort to predict how the Cowboys’ pass rush might fare in 2012, I spent some time tracking sack and pressure totals for all 32 NFL teams over the past three seasons. If you remember from my other posts, a pressure occurs when a defender reaches the quarterback and forces him to step up or move out of the pocket, ultimately affecting his ability to unload the football.
It turns out teams bring down the quarterback right around 25.7 percent of the time they reach him. Even though some defenses have a Ware-type player that can sack the quarterback more effectively than the average rusher, the percentages tend to even out over the long run for entire defensive units.
That sack rate of 25.7 percent can be extremely useful when attempting to predict future sack totals. Actually, it turns out a defense’s total pressures and sack rate are far more predictive of their future sack totals than even their past sack totals. That means when a team registers a sack rate far higher than 25.7 percent, they are probably due to regress in sacks the following year. Teams that reach the quarterback often but don’t bring him down much often see an increase in sacks in the next season.
In 2009 and 2010, defenses sacked the quarterback less than 22.0 percent of the time they reached him on 20 occasions. Those teams improved their record the following year 55.0 percent of the time. They registered more total sacks an amazing 75.0 percent of the time. Similarly, teams that acquired a sack on over 28.0 percent of their total pressures over that timeframe lost more games the following year two-thirds of the time. Incredibly, they totaled fewer sacks 78.9 percent of the time.
Basically, these stats are an attempt to factor luck out of the equation when it comes to sack totals. By using pressures to gauge a team’s pass rush, you can get a more accurate representation of their true talent.
The Cowboys aren’t immune from the numbers. In 2008, the defense totaled a league-leading 58 sacks, bringing down the quarterback an astonishing 41.7 percent of the time they reached him. That was the highest rate in the league that year. While that was certainly a good thing, it also meant the defense was unlikely to experience the same amount of success in 2009. Although Ware & Co. reached the passer 30 more times that season, they acquired 17 less sacks and a more pedestrian sack rate of 28.0 percent.
In the past two seasons, we saw the opposite phenomenon take place. The ‘Boys were rather unlucky in their pass rush in 2010, generating only 35 sacks despite pressuring the quarterback a sensational 189 times. That low 18.5 percent sack rate wasn’t a welcome sight that season, but it meant the Dallas defense was likely to see more sacks in 2011. They did; despite forcing pressure on only three extra snaps, the Cowboys totaled seven more sacks.
So you’re probably wondering what this all means for 2012. Luckily for the Cowboys, everything looks good on the pass-rush horizon. By multiplying each squad’s 2011 pressure totals by the standard 25.7 percent sack rate, I was able to create sack projections that are more accurate than last year’s sack totals alone. Here’s how that list shakes out:
2012 Sack Projections
1. Philadelphia Eagles: 54 sacks
2. San Francisco 49ers: 53 sacks
3. Detroit Lions: 50 sacks
3. St. Louis Rams: 50 sacks
5. Dallas Cowboys: 49 sacks
6. Miami Dolphins: 47 sacks
6. Oakland Raiders: 47 sacks
8. Atlanta Falcons: 46 sacks
9. Chicago Bears: 45 sacks
9. Seattle Seahawks: 45 sacks
11. Houston Texans: 44 sacks
12. Arizona Cardinals: 43 Sacks
13. New England Patriots: 42 sacks
14. New Orleans Saints: 41 sacks
15. Green Bay Packers: 40 sacks
16. Minnesota Vikings: 39 sacks
17. New York Giants: 38 sacks
17. Washington Redskins: 38 sacks
19. Pittsburgh Steelers: 37 sacks
20. Cincinnati Bengals: 35 sacks
20. San Diego Chargers: 35 sacks
22. Carolina Panthers: 34 sacks
22. Denver Broncos: 34 sacks
22. Tampa Bay Bucs: 34 sacks
25. Baltimore Ravens: 33 sacks
25. New York Jets: 33 sacks
27. Jacksonville Jaguars: 32 sacks
28. Buffalo Bills: 30 sacks
28. Tennessee Titans: 30 sacks
30. Cleveland Browns: 29 sacks
30. Kansas City Chiefs: 29 sacks
32. Indianapolis Colts: 27 sacks
The Cowboys, who finished ninth in the NFL in sacks last season, are due to improve in 2012. The primary reason is that their 2011 sack rate of 22.4 percent didn’t match up with league standards. Even if nothing changes in 2012, the Cowboys should put up more than the 42 sacks from last season.
The Philadelphia Eagles led the league in sacks in 2011, and unfortunately they also led the NFL in pressures. Their pressure rate of 24.5 percent means they aren’t likely to regress much in 2012. There’s still good news for Cowboys fans, though. The Giants were one of the luckiest teams in the league last year, acquiring a sack on 29.4 percent of pressures. They finished fourth in total sacks in 2011, but that almost certainly won’t happen again. In terms of pressures and sack rate, the Giants should drop considerably in 2012, most likely to end up in the bottom half of the NFL in sacks according to my calculations.
These projections could obviously be refined with more information, such as personnel changes, scheme alterations, opponents, and so on. Nonetheless, projecting future sack totals based on pressures and sack rates has proven to be far more accurate than simply mirroring sack totals from the previous season.
The math is on the Cowboys’ side in 2012, and so is common sense. In addition to putting up seven fewer sacks than the numbers indicate they should have, the ‘Boys have a motivated Rob Ryan coming back with a simplified and more effective scheme. They’ve also got another year in the system and a couple rookie rushers coming in to bolster the attack.
Regardless of which player steps it up this year, the numbers indicate the team is well on their way to more sacks, and more wins, in 2012.