Quarterbacks Under Pressure
To get a sense of how quarterbacks fare in the face of pressure, I took an in-depth look at the numbers from last season. The goal of this piece is not to produce far-reaching conclusions, but rather to provide a general survey of the lay of the land.
In digging through the data, it immediately became apparent that some quarterbacks simply see more pressure than others. Below is a list of the blitz rate for all quarterbacks from 2013 who dropped back to pass at least 100 times:
|40||Alex D. Smith||211||593||35.58%|
|27||Robert Griffin III||168||530||31.70%|
It’s no shock that a rookie quarterback tops the list. Geno Smith was by far the most frequently blitzed quarterback last season. His 42.9 percent blitz rate was just over 12 percent higher than the league average of 30.9.
Interestingly, three of the league’s most mobile quarterbacks – Russell Wilson, Cam Newton, and Colin Kaepernick – were among the league’s most frequently blitzed.
On the other side of the coin, there’s again no surprise with who comes in at No. 1. The threat of Payton Manning tends to keep defenses on their heels. As we’ll see later in this piece, the blitz tends to be generally ineffective against Manning.
Most of the names atop the list – Rodgers, Brees, Stafford – don’t really jump off the page, but E.J. Manuel seems slightly out of place. Unlike his rookie counterpart Smith, opposing defenses did not attack Manuel.
This is only speculation, but perhaps this was part of a broader strategy teams used against the Bills because Thad Lewis did not see a high rate of blitzes either. Aside from left guard, the Bills were a relatively strong pass blocking team.
However, we can’t just assume that blitz rate corresponds to the abilities of the opposing offensive line. Arizona was the league’s worst pass blocking team, but Carson Palmer came in just under the league average in blitz rate.
Blitz rate by no means give a complete picture of how a quarterback fares against the pass rush. We also need to consider how many times he sees pressure in general. Pro Football Focus defines a quarterback pressure as the sum of sacks, hits, and hurries.
It’s important to note that the pressure rate is not the same thing as the blitz rate, as a quarterback can be pressured with a standard four-man rush.
|31||Robert Griffin III||530||202||38.11%|
We see a lot of similar names on this list, with 11 quarterbacks experiencing pressure on over 40 percent of their dropbacks. Here the offensive line play is much more crucial. Four of the five worst offensive lines are represented in that list – Arizona, NY Giants, Atlanta, and Houston. Chicago was the No. 29 offensive line, and Jay Cutler fell just below the 40 percent rate.
From there, players like Pryor, Vick, Gabbert, and Smith almost certainly experienced more pressure due to their indecisiveness in the pocket.
Again, the one glaring name on the list is Wilson. Without a close look at the tape, it’s really tough to decipher exactly what’s going on here. It’s easy to say something like “he didn’t have receivers,” but perhaps there’s more than meets the eye. Disappointed Wilson owners from last season also have a little more insight into why he struggled to put up fantasy points at times. That being said, we still need to consider Wilson’s sack rate, but we’ll get to that in a bit.
|15||Alex D. Smith||593||202||34.06%|
Manning again tops the list, with Dalton coming in a distant second. It’s no surprise to see Dalton’s name here considering how good the Bengals offensive line was as a pass-blocking unit.
Again, there’s a direct correlation between offensive line and pressures. All of the league’s top six best pass-blocking lines are represented in the top 10 – Cincinnati, Denver, Green Bay, Washington, Cleveland, and Detroit. However, it should be noted that Cousins is on this list while Robert Griffin III is much further down at No. 31.
Now, let’s take a look at pressure frequency in correlation with blitzes:
In the bottom 10, we see a number of the usual suspects who either a) had poor offensive line play (Keenum, Glennon/Freeman, Ryan, and Schaub), or b) didn’t perform well against the blitz (Pryor, Vick, Smith, Flynn). Yet again, there’s Russell Wilson’s name.
Likewise, in the top 10 there are quarterbacks who a) have a good offensive line (Manning, Dalton, Rodgers, Stafford, Hoyer, Cousins, Brees, and Kaepernick), or b) perform well against the blitz (Manning, Rodgers, Brady, Roethlisberger, and Brees). In this case, the categories are not mutually exclusive, and there’s certainly some overlap.
While it’s not ideal for a quarterback to be under duress, pressures aren’t the end all, be all. For example, Peyton Manning completed 61.2 percent of his passes he threw when under pressure (79-of-125). This was lower than his season rate of 68.3 percent, but a drop off is to be expected.
Russell Wilson’s decline was even less significant, as he completed 73-of-123 aimed passes, or 59.3 percent, when under pressure. His completion percentage for the season was 63.1.
The key here is not necessarily pressures, but rather sacks. Simply put, a quarterback’s completion percent when he’s sacked is always zero.
Interestingly, some of the names of the most frequently sacked quarterbacks are not the same as the most frequently pressured quarterbacks. Two names really stand out on this list – Nick Foles and Ben Roethlisberger.
Foles only saw pressure on 34.4 percent of his dropbacks, which was below the league average of 35.6 percent. Yet, he was sacked at a rate of over two percent more than the league average of seven percent. Roethlisberger saw even less frequent pressure (32.4 percent), but still came in at over the league average sack rate.
For those of you keeping score at home, there’s Russell Wilson’s name again.
On the other end of the spectrum, we see some obvious names like Manning, Dalton, and Brees. You can also throw Rivers and Stafford (and even Cousins) on that list because of how good their lines were in 2013.
“Good” is not how the Bears offensive line could be described, yet both Jay Cutler and Josh McCown were among the least frequently sacked quarterbacks in the league last season. Both players were able to get the ball out despite seeing above average pressure rates. Likewise, Matt Schaub saw the seventh highest pressure rate, yet fell bellow the league average sack rate.
So obviously some players were better at avoiding sacks than others. Here’s the bottom 15 quarterbacks in terms of rate of pressures converted to sacks:
While some of these players provide a small sample size, both Foles and Roethlisberger are above the league average of 19.7 percent. In this case, the offensive line does not correlate to avoiding sacks when under pressure as we see Dalton, Hoyer, Rodgers, Weeden, Flynn, and Kaepernick make the list despite all having strong offensive lines.
Again we see a number of players on this list who can climb the ladder and get the ball out quickly despite facing pressure. There are some outliers, but Matt McGloin was far and away the least sacked per pressure, which may have contributed to why he endeared himself so much to the Raiders’ coaching staff for part of last season.
Pressure is an important consideration, but to come full circle on this discussion, let’s take a look at how quarterbacks fare when seeing heavy pressure in the form of a blitz:
It was sack city for the names atop the list with several players coming in significantly about the league average of 9.8 percent. Again we see Foles among the league’s worst at dealing with pressure.
Despite seeing a lot of blitzes and having to deal with frequent pressure last season, Wilson proved very capable and fell just slightly above the league average in both sacks per pressure and sacks per blitz. You can’t like the fact that opposing defenses see the need to apply so much pressure on Wilson, but his ability to negotiate this pressure bodes positively.
|15||Alex D. Smith||211||18||8.53%|
|23||Robert Griffin III||168||16||9.52%|
Remarkably, Peyton Manning was only sacked on two of the 160 blitzes he saw last season. His propensity for getting the ball out quickly is second to none.
However, it may surprise you to read that second name. Bradford was very effective at avoiding the blitz. What’s even more impressive is that he completed 48-of-69 aimed passes when blitzed. That 69.6-completion percentage was far better than the 60.7 percent he averaged in the seven games he played last season. Comparatively, Manning completed 94-of-153 aimed passes when blitzed for a completion percentage of 61.4.
Calmness in the eye of the storm is an ideal quality in a quarterback, but handling pressure well is by no means a surefire indicator of fantasy prowess. Still, it’s yet another tool in your arsenal worth considering when you build your draft board.
Editor’s Note: Be sure to check out our new Mock and Companion Draft Tool. Utilizing our updated player projections, run a quick mock draft and see where this year’s crop of free agents are coming off the board in early fantasy football drafts.
Jeff Ratcliffe is the Assistant Managing Editor and resident IDP maven of PFF Fantasy.