In 2007, the Cincinnati Bengals sacked opposing quarterbacks only 22 times, the lowest total in the NFL. To make things worse, the Bengals went into the offseason knowing that their best pass-rusher, Justin Smith, was a free agent who wanted to get out of town as quickly as possible.
Cincinnati's biggest need was crystal clear: somebody to get to the quarterback.
The Bengals hope former Tennessee defensive end Antwan Odom can be that somebody. Cincinnati gave Odom a five-year, $29.5 million deal in free agency, including $11.5 million in guaranteed money.
On the surface, it looks like a great move. Odom has been up and down since the Titans made him a second-round pick in 2004, but he really came into his own after moving to left end in 2007. He started 16 games for the first time in his career, and nearly doubled his career total with eight sacks. He also tied for third in the NFL with 15 quarterback hits.
But were Odom's numbers as impressive as they looked?
Last week, I looked at quarterback hits from the perspective of the offense. A new stat introduced to play-by-play in 2006, quarterback hits are defined as any pass play where the defender knocks the quarterback to the ground. Simple contact isn't enough to score as a hit. Sacks also count as hits except for strip sacks, sacks that end out of bounds, and sacks where the quarterback just trips over his own feet.
The Tennessee Titans led the NFL in quarterback hits on plays other than sacks. If we include plays cancelled by penalty, the Titans had 74 recorded quarterback hits. No other defense had more than 58.
Does it seem odd that the Titans would be that far ahead of every other defense, especially considering they finished 13 sacks behind the Giants for the league lead? Well, your eyes do not deceive you.
Last week's column discussed the way that quarterback hits -- still a fairly new stat -- are scored inconsistently from stadium to stadium. However, most scorers still seem to have the same guidelines for both the home team and the visitor. Not so at LP Field in Nashville, where the official scorer's booth features better home cookin' than even Whitt's Barbeque or the Pig & Pie.
The official play-by-play gives Tennessee 44 hits in eight home games. Twenty-two defenses didn't have that many quarterback hits in all 16 games combined. On the road, the Tennessee defense had 30 hits -- still high, but nothing like what the Titans had at home. Meanwhile, official scorers marked down 20 hits for the Tennessee quarterbacks on the road, but only 10 hits at home. No other team has this kind of strange home/road dichotomy, where both the offense and defense come out looking so much better at home.
Once we adjust for the quirks of the various official scorers, the Titans still end up with the most quarterback hits, but they fall into second in total quarterback knockdowns -- behind the Giants. Remember that the sack totals here will be different from the official totals, because we are including plays cancelled by penalty and leaving out strip sacks that don't knock the quarterback to the ground.
(Wait a minute... the Rams? The St. Louis Rams, who gave up more than 27 points per game and finished 3-13? Yes, the Rams really did knock down the quarterback more often than 29 other defenses. Jim Haslett never met a blitz he didn't like, and the Rams sent more than four pass-rushers on 41 percent of pass plays, the highest rate in the NFC. Those extra pass-rushers did a good job of getting to the quarterback usually a couple seconds after he had thrown a pass for yet another first down.)
With the Titans getting so many hits, it makes sense that the individual league leader in quarterback knockdowns played for Tennessee. It isn't Odom, but he shows up in the top dozen, even after we adjust hits for scorer tendencies.
Do you notice which Tennessee player is missing from that list? Vanden Bosch and Odom had great years, but the Titans' defense was built around defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth. Haynesworth got to the quarterback (nine hits, six sacks) but more importantly, he drew a double team on every play. That freed Vanden Bosch, Odom and the other Titans up to make plays and put up good numbers.
One way to tell how important Haynesworth was to the Titans' pass rush is to look at the numbers during the three weeks he missed with a hamstring injury.
Odom had one sack and two hits during those three games -- although the hits didn't do a lot of good, considering the 35 points Cincinnati put up on the Titans.
There's no question that Odom is a talented player. Even after considering the impact of Haynesworth, it is clear Odom had a very good year in 2007. He definitely fills a big hole in Cincinnati. Just don't expect the Antwan Odom who stands next to John Thornton to make as many plays as the Antwan Odom who stood next to Albert Haynesworth -- especially without a little statistical help from the official scorer at LP Field.
Aaron Schatz is president of Football Outsiders Inc. and the lead author of Pro Football Prospectus 2007 and 2008.