Sacks are down across the NFL
Across the NFL, defensive ends like Julius Peppers and Michael Strahan are finding it harder to get to the QB.
Even on a television videotape of last weekend's Atlanta-Carolina matchup, one could sense the mounting frustration of Panthers left defensive end Julius Peppers, palpably feel his ire as he was thwarted in his attempts to get to Falcons quarterback Doug Johnson.
And then as he closed to within sniffing distance of Johnson, the Falcons quarterback released the ball, and Peppers was forced to perform an incredible contortion simply to avoid contact and a possible personal foul penalty. Little wonder that Peppers, who had 12 sacks as a rookie in 2002 before his season was truncated by a four-game suspension for using a banned substance, ambled back to the defensive huddle shaking his head.
"People don't understand sometimes," lamented Peppers, "just how hard it is to get a sack in this league."
If the first month of the 2003 season is any indication, however, the epiphany could well be coming.
Oh, sure, quarterbacks have gone down in 2003, just as they do every season. But sacks have also gone down, reduced on a per-game basis, as offensive coordinators increasingly conjure up ways to protect their franchise performers.
There has been an average of 4.2 sacks per game through the first month of the season, a reduction of nearly 10 percent from the first four weekends of the 2002 campaign, when the average was 4.6 sacks per contest. Only 11 of the 32 defenses have double-digit sacks at this point and nine clubs have posted five sacks or fewer. The Arizona Cardinals, with the fewest sacks in the league over the last three years, have but two sacks in 2003.
Were the leaguewide trend to continue through the season, 2003 would mark the fewest sacks per game since 1994, when the average was 4.18 quarterback kills.
That possibility likely serves as little consolation for Daunte Culpepper of Minnesota or Kelly Holcomb of Cleveland, two quarterbacks currently sidelined because of injuries suffered in regular-season games. It is probably zero consolation to St. Louis quarterback Kurt Warner, sacked six times in the opener against the New York Giants, a game in which he sustained a concussion.
But the numbers are meaningful to defensive players being paid big money to sack the quarterback, who understand that their numbers have been blunted this season, and feel that it has become much more difficult to storm the pocket fortress.
"Teams will do whatever it takes, it seems, to (protect) the quarterback," said Tampa Bay defensive end Simeon Rice, who despite the opposition efforts, still has four sacks in his first three games. "The holding, the grabbing, chopping at your legs ... all of that stuff is part of it. Then you add the fact that almost every team is throwing off three- or five-step drops now, man, and it's tough to get (to the quarterback) on time. It's like an obstacle course. And then, by the time you get over all the hurdles, the ball is already out of the quarterback's hand. Yeah, it's frustrating, sure it is."
Indeed, offensive coordinators seem even more aware now of spinning a cocoon around their quarterbacks, trying to keep hits to a minimum. There is no empirical data to point out the increase in "maximum protection" blocking packages, but anyone who watches videotape on a regular basis should be able to detect that trend, even in an era of 'spread" formations. One indicator: Receptions by running backs are decreased because the backs are being kept in for blocking purposes.
For six seasons, the last five of them at left tackle, Tarik Glenn of the Indianapolis Colts has lined up as a starter every week. The guy has never missed a game, hardly ever takes a snap off, and is regarded by some personnel directors as one of the better left tackles in the game. But the former first-round draft choice rarely draws much publicity and has never been selected for a Pro Bowl appearance. Well, on Monday night, Glenn gets his chance in the big spotlight. In this week's marquee game, with the Colts traveling to Raymond James Stadium, he draws the key matchup, working against Tampa Bay star right defensive end Simeon Rice. The Bucs' standout has four sacks, is a disruptive force in attacking the pocket, and will have Peyton Manning in his crosshairs. If Glenn can keep Rice away from Manning, on the league's biggest stage, maybe he will finally begin to get some of the credit he has deserved for the last few years.
Not only is Baltimore Ravens tailback Jamal Lewis leading the NFL in rushing, and on pace to set a new single-season league record, but he is also averaging a remarkable 6.5 yards per carry through four games. Among players who rushed for 1,000 yards or more in a season, Beattie Feathers holds the record for highest average gain, 8.4 yards in 1934. But in the modern era of football, no one has ever topped the 6.4-yard average posted by Jim Brown in 1963. There are 19 occasions on which a player rushed for 1,000 yards and averaged 5.5 yards or more per attempt. Here is the list:
|Jim Brown (Browns)||1963||6.4|
|Barry Sanders (Lions)||1997||6.1|
|Joe Perry (49ers)||1954||6.1|
|O.J. Simpson (Bills)||1973||6.0|
|John David Crow (Cards)||1960||5.9|
|Jim Brown (Browns)||1958||5.9|
|Jim Brown (Browns)||1960||5.8|
|Barry Sanders (Lions)||1994||5.7|
|Paul Lowe (Chargers)||1963||5.7|
|James Brooks (Bengals)||1989||5.6|
|Eric Dickerson (Rams)||1984||5.6|
|Franco Harris (Steelers)||1972||5.6|
|Clinton Portis (Broncos)||2002||5.5|
|Marshall Faulk (Rams)||1999||5.5|
|Robert Smith (Vikings)||1997||5.5|
|Stump Mitchell (Cards)||1985||5.5|
|Walter Payton (Bears)||1977||5.5|
|O.J. Simpson (Bills)||1975||5.5|
|Gale Sayers (Bears)||1966||5.5|
Stat of the Week
Much has been made, without explanation, of the problems Atlanta kicker Jay Feely has experienced at home, in the Georgia Dome. The third-year veteran has converted just 36 of 50 field goal attempts (72.0 percent) in the Georgia Dome. In road games, however, he has connected on 85.7 percent (30 of 35) of his field goal tries. Ironic is that it's a perfect record in road domes that has helped boost that mark. While he struggles at the Georgia Dome, Feely is 10-for-10 in indoor stadiums on the road.
Stat of the Weak
Since compiling 107 yards on the ground in the season-opening win against New England, the Buffalo Bills have managed just 107 rushing yards on 58 attempts over the past three games. That's a 1.8-yard average. In that stretch, the Bills have only one rush for more than 10 yards, and that was an 11-yard scramble by quarterback Drew Bledsoe.
The Last Word
The New York Giants' Michael Strahan, for instance, has just one sack, although no one can suggest he isn't playing at a high level. LaVar Arrington of Washington has wreaked havoc at times in 2003 but has but one sack. Miami end Jason Taylor, who led the NFL in 2002 with 18½ sacks, has one-half sack this year. The Green Bay Packers might need the dismantled KGB of vintage Soviet Union days to unearth their own "KGB," defensive end Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, whose sack total stands at two.
For sure, some new sack threats have emerged this season, like Mike Rucker of Carolina, who has taken advantage of the double-team attention Peppers has drawn, and the Jets' Shaun Ellis. A converted linebacker who had to resurrect his career in the CFL just three seasons ago, Bert Berry of Denver, has 4½ sacks. Baltimore Ravens rookie and first-round draft choice Terrell Suggs has four sacks, despite playing only about one-third of the snaps to date. Little, of the Rams, continues to be a terror.
Even with the performances of those players, however, some premier pass rushers have gotten the bum's rush in 2003. Big-time sacks have been relegated to sad sack(er)s in some cases. And offensive coordinators are extracting some degree of glee in enacting schemes that frustrate defenders accustomed to notching quarterback scalps.
"Whatever the cost," said one AFC offensive coordinator, "you protect the quarterback. And you can do it a lot of ways. Blocking schemes. Throwing (schemes). You name it. I mean, you look at Tampa Bay, where everyone always rips the offensive line and Brad Johnson isn't exactly a guy with any escape dimension. But they've given up just one sack this year. They just don't surrender sacks. It's partly a credit to the line, and partly a credit to Johnson, because the ball is out of his hand by the time the rush gets there. If you can frustrate the (pass rushers), get inside their heads before they can get inside your backfield, that's half the battle."
In truth, the average number of sacks per game has been shrinking the last few years, although this year's piddling number is most alarming to defensive coaches. The league average was 5.04 sacks per game in 1999. Since then, it dropped to 4.97 in 2000, to 4.82 in 2001 and 4.59 last season.
Among those unsurprised by that revelation was Jacksonville right defensive end Hugh Douglas, the nine-year veteran who has been around long enough to discern the trend, and who knows full-well the NFL's emphasis on protecting the quarterback.
"It's all about (the quarterback)," Douglas said. "It's like they've built a wall around them and they've dared (the rushers) to find a way to storm the castle."
Around the league
Come the offseason, the bloodletting will be in full swing, as the Jets will have to resign themselves to rebuilding through the draft. One veteran who probably won't be benched, not until Chad Pennington returns in early November, is quarterback Vinny Testaverde. As pointed out by several New York-area papers this week, Testaverde's contract has incentive clauses based on playing time, and which could increase his compensation for 2003 by as much as $3 million. The more realistic figure, based on the likelihood that Testaverde will take about half the snaps this season, is about $1.5 million. Edwards, a former player himself, is cognizant of what message might be gleaned in the locker room if he benches Testaverde before Pennington's return. Some veterans would certainly see such a move as management-mandated, a financial initiative, one meant to save money. Yeah, the Jets have lost games this year, but Edwards hasn't yet lost his players. He's too savvy to risk that by sitting Testaverde down, a move that would not be received well in some quarters, one that would cost the coach some respect.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.