Late last week we asked for questions from our readers and we’re happy to see so many of of you get involved. We received some excellent queries on a wide range of topics and are making every effort to sift through and select some of the most interesting for our analysts to answer and post in this new feature.
The first set of answers is below and we’ll continue to chip away at the pile, but please continue to submit your questions and perhaps they’ll hit this page in the coming weeks. As always, send what you’d like answered about our grading, what we’ve seen in our tape review about your favorite team, our methodology, opinions, or anything else PFF-related to email@example.com. We look forward to the next wave.
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How is it that the Atlanta Falcons are ranked sixth overall in pass rush when it didn’t seem like they got to the QB enough and you have Baltimore ranked lower in pass rush and they sacked the QB at least 53 times? – Toby Douthit
Neil Hornsby: The main criteria we consider when looking at pass rushing are the number of times the quarterback had his throw disrupted in some way (whether it be via sack, hit, or hurry), how long that pressure took to occur, and finally how many attempts the team had in terms of total pass rushes.
The numbers for the two teams you mentioned were as follows:
● Atlanta: 35 sacks, 47 hits, and 186 hurries on 2869 individual pass rushes
● Baltimore: 53 sacks, 64 hits, and 143 hurries on 3119 individual pass rushes
Our pass rush productivity formula for these two would, therefore, look like this:
● Atlanta: (35 + (47*0.75) + (186*0.75)) * 100 / 2869 = 7.3
● Baltimore: (53 + (64*0.75) + (143*0.75)) * 100 / 3119 = 6.7
As you can see, in terms of pure numbers, Atlanta has been more productive at disrupting the quarterback.
As many Falcons fans will attest though, the team is quite conservative defensively. They don’t blitz very much (and when they do, it’s hardly exotic) because they rely on their front four to get there. Atlanta committed an average of 4.2 rushers per pass play in 2011 with 88% of those rushes being from defensive linemen. On the other hand, the Ravens averaged 4.4 rushers per throw with only 79% of those being from the DL (counting Terrell Suggs as a defensive end).
So why were the Ravens a significantly better defense? Because they are on a different planet than Atlanta when it comes to stopping the run (thanks in large part to the unparalleled way both Suggs and Jarret Johnson set the edge) and on the back end were Ed Reed and Lardarius Webb had superb seasons.
However, all this does beg another question which, spookily, was also in this week’s mailbag:
It is pretty well known that you guys value consistency over big splash plays. However, since splash plays can have such a great effect on a game, do you think you undervalue those plays? For example, a DE may be putting consistent pressure on a QB, without making a sack or fumble, would probably grade out fairly well. However, another DE may be fairly quiet throughout the game, but causes a sack-fumble which turns the flow of the game and eventually leads to the win. Who is more important? The one that causes the win or the one who plays consistently? – Shane Bailey
Neil Hornsby: It’s a great question and something that we do spend a lot of time discussing. Before I get into giving you an answer, though, let me first offer a bit more context. In case you assume (from the question above) we always class hits and hurries as worth 75% of a sack, that would not be the case. This is simply an average based on previous experience; in our actual grading, we attempt to do what you suggest.
Obviously not all sacks are created equal and a player being held in check at the line of scrimmage, but then cleaning up with a sack of another player’s making will not grade as highly as the player actually flushing the QB. However, a guy making a sack and in the process causing a fumble will almost always draw our highest possible grade of +2.0.
The essence of your question, though, is should that strip-sack be worth more than a hurry where the QB is forced to throw the ball away and/or a hit forcing an incompletion? As usual, the answer always needs more context. What if that strip-sack had occurred in garbage time in a blow-out while the incompletion came on 4th-and-Goal with the defense leading by four with 11 seconds left?
To finally answer your question, I like what we do because to some degree it provides an antidote to the highlight-obsessed media that makes DeAngelo Hall a Pro-Bowler on the back of one game, but I think we can do better.
Our goal has never been to give our readers definitive answers, but to provide you with more information to better form your own opinions. Are splash plays a better indicator of a player’s worth? Our view is that it isn’t, but in writing this answer I now think we are not doing a good enough job of providing you with the relevant data to debate it fully. I think we should have another column in our statistics for “Number of Splash Plays”, define them for each position and then provide them as additional data and let you decide.
Is there any viable strategic justification for the Bengals to have let two quality defensive linemen, Jonathan Fanene and Frostee Rucker, walk as free agents while the team is reportedly far below the salary cap, or is this just another example of Mike Brown being cheap at the expense of strengthening the team? Same question applies to letting Jonathan Joseph walk last offseason when he could have been franchise tagged. – Sean O’Connor
Sam Monson: The first point I think is worth making is that losing Jonathan Fanene and Frostee Rucker isn’t a massive blow–neither player is a top end lineman that you can’t replace, and in Jamaal Anderson I think the Bengals have already gone a long way to filling that void.
Both players are far more capable against the run than they are rushing the passer, even if Fanene’s seven sacks last year give the illusion of a strong interior rush presence. Rucker had a +4.0 grade last season, but he actually graded -7.1 as a pass rusher with only 11 total pressures from 272 snaps rushing the passer. He is essentially a run-specialist only and Anderson is a similar player. Fanene is a little more versatile, but not a player you would lose sleep over losing. He may have notched seven sacks, but he had only 22 more total pressures, and rushed the passer 331 times last year. Though he wasn’t poor as a pass rusher, the seven sacks flatter his production somewhat and I would expect them to look to add his replacement in the draft.
However, I do think the Bengals are inclined to be cheap when they can–they don’t spend money unless it’s strictly necessary–and given the massive cap room they have had, I think Jonathan Joseph is an example of that last season. Joseph and Hall could have been a top corner pairing for years to come, and Cincinnati could easily afford to pay both, but instead they elected to go the cheap route and allow Joseph to walk.
Your offensive line run blocking grades this season were extremely low with an extremely high proportion of offensive linemen grading below average or worse. Do you really think this many offensive linemen were bad run blockers this year, or is this an area you need to improve next season to accurately capture the quality of run blocking? – Michael Mann
Ben Stockwell: The immediate response here is that, in the simplest terms, yes this was a poor year for linemen in terms of the overall quality of run blocking league-wide.
All of our positional grades are normalized to bring the league average back to around 0.0 in each discipline. There is a detailed description of our normalization process here, under point No. 5. Clearly, because we can’t know what the average grade will be each season, we take normalization factors from previous seasons which results in the average grade fluctuating from zero. What this shows is that in comparison to prior seasons the quality of run blocking league wide this season dropped.
We have graded individual linemen very well in the past, we have graded offensive lines very well in the past, and we have also graded linemen as performing well this season, but league-wide the standard dropped in 2011 by our unchanged methodology. The question of why this is, however, is a more difficult one to answer.
In terms of the distribution of grades, what we saw league-wide was a drop off in “dominant” blocks which attain higher grades for a single play. Linemen were still making a similar, if somewhat diminished, number of solid blocks but the volume of really crushing blocks dropped away. The proliferation of the passing game certainly hasn’t helped in this regard and, in combination with that, a high number of rushes came from the shotgun formation which tend to take linemen out of their comfort zone.
The majority of linemen are at their best establishing a rhythm moving forward in the running game and with fewer teams committing to a run-first offense, less linemen got into that rhythm this year. There are some quality run blockers across the league and one poor season doesn’t immediately make them bad players, but on the whole, this wasn’t a vintage year for offensive linemen gaining the upper hand in the running game and really dominating opposing defensive lineman.
After the additions of Mario Williams and Mark Anderson, along with re-signing most of their key free agents, Buffalo has opened up a lot of options in the draft. Do you think Buffalo has a legitimate chance to beat the Patriots this season, both head to head and for the division, or are they another draft class and a couple free agents away? – Mark McCollough
Sam Monson: I really like what they Bills have been building since Chan Gailey arrived. Mario Williams was a huge addition, not just because of what he brings on the field, but because he signals a clear intent to the rest of the division and the league that the Bills aren’t just playing; they intend to be serious contenders. Kyle Williams is a monster when healthy, Marcel Dareus showed huge talent as a rookie, and putting Mario Williams next to that pair makes three-quarters of a fearsome defensive line.
Anderson was impressive last season for the Patriots, but I worried about his next landing spot given the seasons he put in before New England took him in. However he landed in about the best possible situation for him as the fourth man on that line. He should experience favorable looks like few other linemen in the league, and he gives the Bills a front four that should be able to apply serious pressure without needing to add blitzers.
As for overtaking the Patriots in the division, they can certainly challenge them–especially head to head–because the team now has too much talent to be ignored, but the Patriots are a long-term proposition; they know how to win 10+ games a season over and over and make noise in the playoffs. The Bills need to iron out the bad days, especially from Ryan Fitzpatrick, who I worry about having the ability to take them to the next step.
Fitzpatrick actually graded negatively for us last season and the problem comes when he is rattled or surprised by what he sees. Under pressure last season his passer rating plummeted from 89.2 to 32.6, and he threw for just 488 yards (on 136 snaps) with only a pair of touchdowns against eight interceptions. The Bills gave Fitzpatrick big money convinced that he was the answer and their future at the position–they need to be right if they are going to stand a chance of getting past the Patriots.