Sacks and Suh

| May 17, 2011

As we’ve said before, and will no doubt say again, you have to look beyond statistics. This might seem like a bit of a strange thing to say, given we provide a lot of unique statistics at PFF, but the point we’ve always made is that there is no substitute for the context of actually watching the games and understanding what really happened.

Every stat needs to be placed in its proper context, and that’s where our grading comes in. Not every catch, interception, tackle, sack, or yard is created equal – some are more equal than others – and our grades help to contextualize the stat in question, and tell you exactly how good a play each was.

So we come to sacks, a stat we’ve been critical of in the past, and to prove the point we’re going to look at the season of Ndamukong Suh, rookie sensation.

Suh is a physical force at the defensive tackle position, and he played more snaps than any other player at his position, as a rookie. That in and of itself is extremely impressive, but he was at times a disruptive menace as a pass-rusher as well. The problem is, people point to sack totals to try and prove it.

If you’ve followed PFF for any length of time, you’ll know that we don’t think Suh was the all-conquering force some do. We consistently graded him well below the dominant standard set by some other DTs in the league, despite the fact that he led all of them in sacks, and came close to the rookie record for the position.  So what gives? Surely anyone that can dominate the way he did and almost set the rookie record for sacks with double-digits was automatically a monster, no?

Well not necessarily. There are so many variables that go into any given play and so many things that can happen, that the difference between an average and anonymous five-sack debut and a record-threatening 10-sack rookie year is just five snaps, out of nearly 1000. Five snaps would change the way everybody viewed Suh last season, and those five snaps might have had very little to do with Suh’s play. Surely nobody wants to distill the impact of a player that played 997 snaps in 2010 to just five plays and claim that proves something about his season?

You simply can’t expect sacks to tell the whole story about a player because the sample size is so small, and one weird quirk in any given play over a season can result in a sack. Instead, you need to look at overall pressure, something the NFL doesn’t keep track of, but we here at PFF do.

Let’s take a look at the sacks Suh recorded and see what we’re talking about.

Sack #1 – Week 1 @ Chicago – 2nd and 19in the 1st Q.

Four man rush. Chicago runs a designed rollout to the right side. Suh sees it, disengages at the line, and is the closest man to Jay Cutler as he steps out of bounds behind the line of scrimmage. Cutler avoided a lunging tackle attempt from Kyle Vanden Bosch, who had hussled over from the far side of the line before cutting his losses. At no point is Suh particularly close to even making contact.

Sack #2 – Week 2 vs. Philadelphia – 2nd and 7 in the 3rd Q.

Five man rush. Suh takes the outside from his DLT position and is 1-on-1 with RG Nick Cole. Cole initially has good position and leverage, but Suh fights through the outside shoulder and is able to bring Vick down with a strong hand to the shoulder as the guard tries to drive him past the pocket. Excellent play by Suh.

Sack #3 – Week 4 @ Green Bay – 3rd and 10 in the 3rd Q.

Four man rush. Suh stunts around from his DLT position. LG Daryn Colledge doesn’t see it and runs away from his spot next to C to help out the LT on the edge, allowing Suh a free run up the middle. Both DEs, Cliff Avril in particular from his DLE spot, prevent Aaron Rodgers from any chance of lateral movement to escape the unblocked Suh.

Sack #4 – Week 6 @ New York Giants – 1st and 10 in the 1st Q.

Four man rush. 1-on-1 with the RG, Chris Snee. Suh initially takes an outside angle, but Snee quickly regains control of the block. Kyle Vanden Bosch beats the left tackle immediately with a combination of a bull-rush and move inside, but by the time Eli Manning feels that pressure and tries to move up, there is no space.  Suh has pushed the RG far enough back to cut off the escape route and is able to disengage from his block and help bring down the QB. Suh won his battle with the RG, but would probably not have come to anything but for Vanden Bosch torching the LT and destroying the play. Vanden Bosch gets the sack, Suh piles on. After reviewing this play, we actually take the sack off Suh and credit him with a QB hit instead.

Sack #5 – Week 6 @ New York Giants – 2nd and 7 in the 2nd Q.

Six man rush. Front four plus two blitzers. Giants protect with seven (TE and HB stay in). Pressure from CC Brown on the safety blitz and Cliff Avril from his DLE spot forces Eli Manning to pull down the throw, spin away from pressure and look to escape right of the pocket. RG Chris Snee releases Suh, presumably believing the ball to be thrown, and Suh brings down Manning as he tries to scramble right. QB flushed to Suh.

Sack #6 – Week 8 vs. Washington – 1st and 10 in the 2nd Q.

Four man rush. Instantly beats Redskins RG Artis Hicks to the inside from his DLT position by swatting the guard’s arms inside and accelerating through the A-gap to take down the QB at the top of his drop. Fine move from Suh.

Sack #7 – Week 8 vs. Washington – 3rd and 13 in the 2ndrd Q.

Four man rush. From a 2-point stance head up over the LT Suh beats Trent Williams inside immediately. He gets help from Cliff Avril coming around the edge from his DLE position, forcing McNabb to remain in the pocket and in the firing line of Suh as he comes through the line to drag McNabb down. Lions had sold out on the left side to crash through the middle, and McNabb had lots of room to his left had he not been forced to step up by Avril. Good play by Suh, QB’s escape cut off from additional pressure.

Sack #8 – Week 11 @ Dallas – 3rd and 15 in the 3rd Q.

Four man rush. Lions run a twist on the left hand side of the D-line, with Lawrence Jackson taking a hard angle inside the RT.  Suh comes around the outside and behind Jackson, outpacing the big RG Leonard Davis and he and Jackson meet at the QB who has nowhere to go. Textbook twist against a man-blocking scheme up front for Dallas.

Sack #9 – Week 12 vs. New England – 3rd and 6 in the 1st Q.

Five man rush, two down linemen and three more rushers (KVB and Suh from a 2-point stance). Corey Williams as one of the down linemen beats LT Matt Light inside as LG Logan Mankins comes off the initial double team to help out picking up the rush of both Kyle Vanden Bosch and Suh – both of whom are coming from a 2-point stance hovering off the line of scrimmage.  When Mankins passes Williams off, Light can’t contain him, and he gets quick pressure up the middle, forcing Brady to leave the pocket to the left.  After getting movement against Mankins (who was on to his 3rd defender at that point), Suh recognizes Brady’s escape route, comes down the line to mop up before Brady can get positive yardage. QB flushed to Suh.

Sack #10 – Week 16 @ Miami – 1st and 10 in the 3rd Q.

Four man rush. Initially a clean pocket, Chad Henne bails on it when he feels a hand from DRE Turk McBride as he is pushed past him. Pressure eventually comes from DRT Sammie Lee Hill inside the LG Pat McQuistan. Suh had been 1-on-1 initially with the RG John Jerry who then got help from C Richie Incognito and was stoned at the line. Henne eventually runs straight into a waiting Suh for the sack. QB flushed to Suh.

Sack #11 – Week 17 vs. Minnesota – 3rd and 5 in the 4th Q.

Four man rush. Both DEs (Avril at DLE and Jackson at DRE) beat their OTs to the outside and converge on QB Joe Webb at the top of his drop.  Webb is able to back away and get around them, scrambling to right field chased by Jackson and Suh. Webb gets around both players but as he is forced to break down by LB Bobby Carpenter over by the sideline Suh is able to push him down from behind and get the sack.

Bottom Line

2 Sacks chasing QBs to the sideline

1 Sack from a stunt, totally unblocked

1 Sack from a stunt, vs. man-blocking scheme, G never had a chance

3 Sacks where QB is flushed to Suh

3 Sacks where Suh beats offensive lineman 1-on-1

That difference we talked about earlier between an anonymous five-sack season and a record-threatening, defensive rookie of the year and All-Pro type season?  How about three plays where the QB gets flushed straight to Suh, one where he just happened to be the closest man to a QB stepping out of bounds, and another where he was totally unblocked? If those five plays in a thousand happen just a fraction differently, Suh doesn’t get the sacks and nobody is talking about the effect he had as a pass-rusher, which would have been just as wrong as pointing to the sack number and claiming he was unstoppable.

Now sure, all defensive linemen benefit from time to time from those same things, players being flushed to them, unblocked sacks etc, I’m sure the other leaders in sacks from the interior had similar ratios, right?

Well, let’s take BJ Raji for an example (and we don’t hear anybody screaming about his all-conquering season). Eight sacks: one where the QB was flushed to Raji, one where he was left 1-on-1 with Danny Woodhead (nice!) and six where he beat a lineman 1-on-1. The majority of Raji’s pass rushing work came not from traditional NT positions, but from the Packers’ sub-package work too, so it’s a legitimate comparison.

Ironically, when you look through Suh’s sacks, the thing that jumps out is how much of a disservice they do to his pass-rushing performance. There wasn’t much immediate and disruptive penetration – what he is known for, and what his numbers do show when you look beyond the sack figures. In terms of total pressure (sacks, hits, and pressures combined), Suh was definitely amongst the elite of the league last year. The talk of double teams was also conspicuously absent in his sacks.

Over the season, only two other DT/NTs could top the 41 total pressures that Suh posted (Oakland’s Tommy Kelly with 44 and Buffalo’s Kyle Williams with 43), and only Williams posted more defensive stops than Suh (50 to Suh’s 48, with those two players being way out in front of the chasing pack). Suh was routinely in the opponent’s backfield and causing mayhem.

When you look at some of his hits and pressures – the ‘almost’ plays in the eyes of many – they give a much clearer look at a player that could cause havoc for offenses:

Week 1 @ Chicago – 1st and 10, 3rd Q.

Four man rush. Suh is initially double teamed by the RG Lance Louis and RT Frank Omiyale before Omiyale passes him off inside and kicks back out to help the TE on the edge. At that point, Suh immediately beats Louis to his outside and closes with speed and aggression on the QB, delivering a big hit just as Cutler throws the ball.

Week 10 @ Buffalo – 3rd and 4 – 4thQ.

Five man rush, front four and Louis Delmas on a run-blitz. Again Suh is initially doubled from the snap by the C Geoff Hangartner and RG Eric Wood. As soon as Hangartner passes Suh off to look towards a linebacker, Suh gets leverage under Wood, rips his way inside and gets pressure on the passer. Only an uncalled hold prevents him from accelerating towards the QB and getting either a hit or sack.

Suh was relentless over the season. Despite playing more snaps than any other DT, or perhaps as a result of that, he wasn’t shut out of a single game as a rookie in terms of generating pressure; getting at least a sack, hit or pressure in every game he played in.

As we know, there are lies, damn lies and statistics, and sack numbers could fall into any of those categories. If people want to prove that Ndamukong Suh was one of the best DTs in the league, they need to look beyond a number that tries to sum up his season in just ten snaps. Let’s look a little deeper, and give him credit for his total body of work rushing the passer – Don’t try and distill his season into the five snaps between anonymity and adoration.

  • tom

    Unfortunately, the average fan does not have the time, money or accumen to break down tape and truly evaluate players. We mostly have real time TV coverage and statistics to go by. You guys seem to have a process much like an NFL coach puts in place to evaluate his guys. The stats and grading process would be different for each team; take Suh, for Detroit he was probably monumental, for Belichick’s gap control defense he probably would have sat down for shooting gaps. Suh and Fairley together should be quite interesting along with KBV.