FNQB: Sacks by Defensive Tackles Aren’t Worth Much
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Edge rushers in professional football run up the big sack totals, and well, if that left a lot of sacks for non-edge rushers, there would be a whole lot more offensive lineman, 3rd down backs, and offensive coordinators out of work. I’ll begin with a table of all 5.0+ sack seasons that didn’t come from edge rushers over the last four years:
|2009||Randy Starks||7.0||2008||Kevin Williams||8.5|
|2009||Calais Campbell||7.0||2008||Albert Haynesworth||8.5|
|2009||Trevor Pryce||6.5||2008||Richard Seymour||8.0|
|2009||Shaun Ellis||6.5||2008||Bradie James||8.0|
|2009||Kevin Williams||6.0||2008||Jay Ratliff||7.5|
|2009||Justin Smith||6.0||2008||Aaron Smith||5.5|
|2009||Jay Ratliff||6.0||2008||Brandon Mebane||5.5|
|2009||Jonathon Babineaux||6.0||2008||Chad Greenway||5.5|
|2009||David Harris||5.5||2008||Fred Robbins||5.5|
|2009||Mike Wright||5.0||2008||Lawrence Timmons||5.5|
|2009||Vonnie Holliday||5.0||2008||Jason Jones||5.0|
|2009||Clark Haggans||5.0||2008||Tommie Harris||5.0|
|2007||Darnell Dockett||9.0||2006||Warren Sapp
|2007||Tommie Harris||9.0||2006||Bart Scott
|2007||Will Witherspoon||7.0||2006||Karlos Dansby
|2007||Shaun Rogers||7.0||2006||Ty Warren
|2007||Corey Williams||7.0||2006||Jarvis Green
|2007||Bryant Young||6.5||2006||Corey Williams
|2007||Jarvis Green||6.5||2006||Luis Castillo
|2007||James Farrior||6.5||2006||Brandon Moore
|2007||Albert Haynesworth||6.0||2006||Darwin Walker
|2007||Jovan Haye||6.0||2006||Clark Haggans
|2007||La’Roi Glover||6.0||2006||Rod Coleman
|2007||Fred Robbins||5.5||2006||Bryant Young
|2007||Amobi Okoye||5.5||2006||Brian Young
|2007||Marcus Washington||5.0||2006||Fred Robbins
|2007||Brian Urlacher||5.0||2006||Brett Keisel
|2007||Ben Leber||5.0||2006||La’Roi Glover
|2007||David Harris||5.0||2006||Chris Draft
|2007||Shaun Ellis||5.0||2006||Adrian Wilson
The 2009 season featured an explosion of sacks by 3-4 defensive ends. Since 2006, we’ve seen a strong decline in sacks by interior linebackers and defensive backs. The defensive backs aren’t getting sacks because the strong safety position is going away. The inside linebackers…well, more teams are playing the 3-4, so it’s not that. I’m thinking that it’s because of a preference to dictate match-ups that is leading to sacks in the 3-4 being offered to defensive lineman, while the amount of sacks by interior players in the 4-3 is declining so much.
Williams, Ratliff and Babineaux are the defensive tackles who scored 6+ sacks in 2009, and Tony Brown and Anthony Hargrove chipped in another five each. Seeing Williams and Ratliff near the top of this list is nothing new, and their teams have been struggling in pass defense for year. Add in Babineaux, and you have three players who all had excellent years, and no pass defenses who finished in the black, according to DVOA in 2009. The Cowboys had an excellent pass defense in the second half of the year, but you’ll notice that Jay Ratliff only had two sacks after week eight, both against Casey Rabach of Washington, possibly the most plodding center in the NFL. He did get a sack on Favre when the Cowboys were massacred in the playoffs.
Tony Hargrove was not a starter on New Orleans, he was an interior rusher in the nickel package, and his defense was the only NFL defense to rank in the top half in pass D, and have an interior rusher (inside the tackle) with 5.0 sacks in 2009.
In past years, defenses had been successful against the pass with interior rushers who put up the big sack numbers, but on those teams, you still had really good pass rush production from the edges as well. The 2008 Titans had 23 sacks from players not named Albert Haynesworth. Ends Jared Allen and Ray Edwards combined from 19.5 sacks as the edge, plus another 5.5 from Greenway, for their 2008 pass defense. Brandon Mebane had an awesome year for a horrendous Seattle defense that year.
Why aren’t teams that create sacks from interior lineman actually creating a good pass defense? The answer, in my opinion, is that a sack by a defensive tackle tends not to be a very bad outcome for the offense. Typically, it’s not a loss of as many yards as a sack from the edges, it comes to come disproportionately on third downs and later on in plays after the defense has already won all of the mini-battles earlier in the play. It usually amounts to a throw away, a net loss of 2 to 4 yards and a punt. Your interior line is a waste of your pass rushing specialists, and defensive tackles almost never come unblocked. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, defensive tackles almost never generate many forced fumbles, while edge rushers lead the league every year.
While running backs always get criticized for their forced fumbles, the players that defenses can predictably strip the football from are quarterbacks and their receivers. Defensive backs who rank highly in forced fumbles every year don’t get those numbers by putting their head on the ball with a running back in the open field, they get those numbers by stripping receivers after the catch: Charles Woodson and Charles Tillman have done this throughout their careers. Defensive front players don’t ever find themselves matched up against those receivers who are fumble risks, so there’s only one way to get those consistently high FF numbers: get to the quarterback, and knock the football on the ground.
I can make you a complete list with defensive tackles with three or more forced fumbles in a season in 2009, and it’s not going to take nearly as much time to explain as with the sacks list: Tony Brown. Expanding that list to include those with two forced fumbles would include more than 27% of all defensive players in the NFL and…3 defensive tackles. You’ve now added John Henderson, Darrell Reid, and Pat Williams (as well as 5-techniques Justin Smith and Vonnie Holliday). In 2008, 3 forced fumbles from the interior was a more inclusive group, this time including teammates Haynesworth and Jason Jones, as well has hybrid rush-end-rush-tackle Raheem Brock of the Colts. Add another 4 guys, including Mebane, when you expand that list two include two guys with 3 forced fumbles. Also include: a fifth of all defensive players.
Interior players can’t do anything to generate big plays, really, they just have to go out there and be solid play after play, as their only way to create value. It’s not that a sack by Kevin Williams or Albert Haynesworth or Jay Ratliff isn’t valuable, but more along the lines that it doesn’t add a lot of value to their already dominant player profiles.
There’s also no evidence — outside of the 2008 Titans — to suggest that having a good pass rushing interior tackle does anything to significantly alter the numbers of the edge rushers on the same team. On the other hand, new evidence — provided here by Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders (Insider required) — shows that there’s reason to think that having multiple quality edge rushers might increase the overall sack and hurry production by the unit. We already know from past research that having two quality pass defenders on the edges in the secondary creates a multiplier effect of sorts for pass defenses.
Maybe, someday, we’ll do research on DT tandems against the run, or NT-ILB tandems, and find that they have a multiplier effect versus the run. Defensive tackle is still one of the most influential players on the field, and probably has more effect on run defenses than any other player on the defense. It’s also probably a strong net positive effect to have a defensive tackle who can disrupt a line from the interior and collapse a pocket.
What the evidence says is that, in third down and other obvious passing situations, the best pass rushers a team has should be coming from the edge, because if any player is going to make a game changing play on defense; they are probably playing on the edges of the defense. High sack totals from the defensive tackle position mean more when you already have two strong pass rushing ends, but at that point, they still don’t mean as much as the coverage unit with regards to overall team success. If it comes down to spending money or high draft position on defense, fill the edge rushing positions, if possible, and then look to cheaper methods to find the very best players that you can put on the interior.