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Rush Hour: Measuring Pressure and the Ability to Stop It During a Historic Passing Boom

 

In the first installment of a series on our advanced football metrics, we take a look at what our four pressure metrics tell us about the brilliance of Nick Bosa, the versatility of J.J. Watt and why the value of having an elite pass protector at center is lower than expected. 

By: Greg Gifford

When looking at the NFL seasons with the most passing attempts in league history, nine have come within the past 10 years. The three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust era is only a distant memory. 

As a result, the ability to protect the quarterback while also putting pressure on the opponent’s passer is as important as it has ever been. Instead of grading players based on opinion, Stats Perform has developed four metrics to measure these critical areas through its quality of data stringing.

In the simplest of terms, Pressure Rate (PR%) is how often a defender is able to get into the backfield and have an unabated path to the quarterback. It is important to note that plays where there is no real chance to reach the QB (e.g. screens, RPOs, extremely quick passes) aren’t included as pass-rush opportunities. Removing these false chances gives a better idea of which players are truly the best in pressuring and protecting the quarterback.

Nick Bosa

On the flip side, Pressure Rate Allowed (PR-A%) calculates an offensive lineman’s tendency to be beaten and allow a defender to get into the backfield and have an unabated path to the quarterback. Finally, Adjusted Sack Rate (ASR%) goes one step further than Pressure Rate and evaluates how often defenders actually get to the QB. And Adjusted Sack Rate Allowed (ASR-A%) measures a lineman’s tendency to allow rushers to reach the passer. 

As you may expect, these rates vary based on position. Because more pressures occur off the edge than up the middle, edge rushers and offensive tackles (OT) have a higher PR% and PR-A% than defensive tackles (DT) and offensive guards (OG), respectively. 

Stats Perform is also able to dissect positional data on a play-by-play basis and examine each player’s rate depending on where he lines up. This provides more context for defenders like J.J Watt, Calais Campbell and Arik Armstead, who will line up either inside or out depending on the situation. 

We’ll be using this positional data to examine player rates in these metrics on both sides of the ball. We’ll also show the average rate and standard deviations at each position, along with examples of 25th, 50th, 75th, and 100th percentile performers as a way to understand how these numbers translate over the entire NFL. 

Let’s start with the edge rushers, who had a PR% standard deviation of 5.2 during the 2019 season:  

PercentilePlayerTeamPR%
100Nick Bosa49ers29.4
75Carl LawsonBengals20.1
50Samson EbukamRams16.0
25Leonard FloydBears13.0

With a 17.7 average PR%, edge rushers are by far and away the top pressure generators. It’s easy to see why Nick Bosa won the 2019 Defensive Rookie of the Year. He finished a full two standard deviations better than the average edge rusher in his first NFL campaign. 

Other notable elite edge rushers in the top 10th percentile include Za’Darius Smith (28.1), Nick’s brother Joey Bosa (27.6) and Von Miller (24.8).

A familiar name headed the DT position, which had a league-average PR% of 14.1 and a standard deviation of 5.9 in 2019:

PercentilePlayerTeamPR%
100J.J. WattTexans33.7
75Leonard WilliamsGiants17.0
50Charles OmenihuTexans12.4
25Jack CrawfordFalcons9.2

Watt spends most of his time on the edge, where he had an excellent-but-not-quite-elite 22.4 PR%. However, he had an astonishing 28 pressures in his 83 pass rush chances at DT in 2019, making him the most efficient inside rusher in football. 

It is worth mentioning that the top regular DT in PR% was not surprisingly two-time Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald (29.7). A few other top DTs were Chris Jones (25.6), Campbell (25.0) and the recently traded DeForest Buckner (22.5). 

Here is the breakdown at NT, which had a league-average PR% of 11.8 and a standard deviation of 4.5 in 2019: 

PercentilePlayerTeamPR%
100Kenny ClarkPackers23.3
75Adam ButlerPatriots14.4
50Danny SheltonPatriots10.9
25Abry JonesJaguars8.5

The numbers here back up conventional wisdom that nose tackles are generally more impactful defending the run, as they only record pressures around two-thirds as often as edge rushers. 

Kenny Clark was easily the most productive rusher from the nose. Vita Vea (18.4) and Derrick Nnadi (18.3) were second and third, respectively.

Now let’s take a look at which blockers did the best job of keeping rushers out of the backfield in 2019. Left tackles had a league-average PR-A% of 10.2 and a standard deviation of 4.8: 

PercentilePlayerTeamPR-A%
100Terron ArmsteadSaints4.3
75Andrew WhitworthRams7.5
50Cam RobinsonJaguars10.4
25George FantSeahawks14.3

Trent Brown (left)

Right tackles had a league-average PR-A% of 9.5 and a standard deviation of 3.7 in 2019:

PercentilePlayerTeamPR-A%
100Trent BrownRaiders3.9
75Morgan MosesRedskins7.8
50Bobby MassieBears9.7
25Kaleb McGaryFalcons12.4

Left tackles give up slightly more pressures than their counterparts on the right side, and they also have a higher variance among qualified players. 

Terron Armstead is the anchor of one of the best lines in football, and Trent Brown is one of three Raiders to top his respective position in 2019.

Another spot where Oakland ruled was left guard, which had a league-average PR-A% of 7.3 and a standard deviation of 2.9: 

PercentilePlayerTeamPR-A%
100Richie IncognitoRaiders2.6
75Will HernandezGiants5.8
50Isaac SeumaloEagles6.9
25Michael JordanBengals9.8

Marshal Yanda

At right guard, players had a league-average PR-A% of 8.2 and a standard deviation of 3.4 in 2019:

PercentilePlayerTeamPR-A%
100Mashal YandaRavens2.6
75Shaq MasonPatriots6.5
50Laurent Duvernay-TardiffChiefs8.3
25Jamarco JonesSeahawks11.1

Just as indicated above when comparing edge rushers and defensive tackles, guards give up noticeably fewer pressures than tackles. A pair of veterans led their respective guard positions last season. Richie Incognito, 36, has had plenty of drama over his career, but he’s also proven time and time again that he’s still one of the league’s best guards. 

On the right side, it’s clear Marshal Yanda didn’t choose to retire due to a lack of ability and the Ravens will have large shoes to fill in the future. 

Finally, let’s look at the center position, which had a league-average PR-A% of 5.5 with a standard deviation of 2.2: 

PercentilePlayerTeamPR-A%
100Rodney HudsonRaiders1.9
75Austin ReiterChiefs4.2
50Weston Richburg49ers5.5
25Trey HopkinsBengals6.8

Rodney Hudson gave the Raiders another lineman in the top spot, showing just how comfortable Derek Carr was in the pocket last season. However, the narrow range between the top 25th and bottom 25th percentiles shows how closely grouped the center position is.

This slightly lowers the value of having an elite pass protector snapping the ball on every play.

Laremy Tunsil

Adjusted Sack Rate

As mentioned earlier, ASR% goes one step further than PR% and evaluates how often defenders actually get to the quarterback. The one adjustment Stats Perform makes in this metric is that it credits ALL players that record a pressure on a sack, even if they weren’t the one to bring down the quarterback.

This prevents a player from getting punished for tearing into the backfield early and flushing a QB before a teammate finishes the job.

Even with this adjustment, ASR% is far less predictive than PR%. Ultimately, there is too much randomness in bringing the passer down before the ball comes out. So over the long term, PR% is a much more important number to look at as an individual rate.

With that said, we’ll still take a quick look at ASR% by position:

PositionLTLGCRGRT
ASR-A%1.71.10.71.21.8
PositionEdgeDTNT
ASR%3.62.41.7

Putting pressure and sack rates together can help us find players that may have underperformed and could be headed for a jump in production for the 2020 season. 

For example, Laremy Tunsil of the Houston Texans was just slightly above average with a 1.6 ASR-A%, but his PR-A% was just 5.2. Tunsil is largely viewed as a future stalwart LT, and it appears he is right on the verge of elite status. 

Here are a few other players with sack rates that appear ready to improve for 2020:

PlayerTeamASR-A%PR-A%
Rodger SaffoldTitans2.24.4
A.Q. ShipleyCardinals1.34.5
D.J. FlukerSeahawks2.66.9
Morgan MosesRedskins2.47.9

And on the defensive side: 

PlayerTeamASR%PR%
Geno AtkinsBengals1.817.5
Leonard WilliamsGiants0.316.2
Adrian ClaybornFalcons2.926.9
Trey FlowersLions2.623.8