Pass Rushing Productivity – Third and Fourth Downs

| 2 years ago

Pass Rushing Productivity – Third and Fourth Downs

First and ten. The defensive end puts a spin move on the tackle, gets to the quarterback and you’ve got yourself a seven yard loss. The only problem being the offense recovers, picks up another first down and goes on to score a touchdown.
Third and five. Defensive end puts a spin move on a tackle, hurries the quarterback into making a throw when he’s not ready. End result an incompletion and the punt unit is coming onto the field.
You see pressure is always important, but never more so than in those get-off-the-field situations. So that’s why today we’ll be applying our Pass Rushing Productivity measure (hits and hurries worth three quarters of sacks, divided by the number of pass-rushing snaps and multiplied by 100) to passing plays on third and fourth downs.
What’s more, if you stick with me, I’ll dig into this to see what the numbers show not just for this past season, but for the past three years as we look at which defenders are the most efficient on those critical downs.


Let’s start with looking at which players generated the most pressure. It should really come as no surprise to those who have read some of our previous Pass Rushing Productivity articles, that Tamba Hali held the top by a sizeable margin. He was a clear seven pressures ahead of Chris Clemons in second, and Cameron Wake in third. What’s interesting about Clemons being so high is that he wasn’t the only Seahawk to feature in the top 15. Another player they picked up in a hectic off season, Raheem Brock, finished all the way up in 12th, ahead of players like Julius Peppers and Justin Tuck. Credit to the Seahawks for finding such potent pass rushers when it really mattered (and for such a relatively low cost).

Total Pressures, 3rd & 4th Downs, 2010

RankPlayerTeamTotal Pressures
1Tamba HaliKC46
2Chris ClemonsSEA39
3Cameron WakeMIA35
4Trent ColePHI33
5Dwight FreeneyIND32
6Terrell SuggsBLT31
7tCharles JohnsonCAR30
7tDeMarcus WareDAL30
7tLamarr WoodleyPIT30
7tChris LongSTL30
11Jared AllenMIN28
12Raheem BrockSEA27
13tAntwan BarnesSD26
13tJulius PeppersCHI26
15Justin TuckNYG25


But the numbers above can be taken out of context.  After all, some of those players were rushing the passer a lot more often (for example Tamba Hali had 208 third down pass rushes, and someone like James Harrison only had 96). So, taking into account the nature of the pressure (whether it was a sack, hit or hurry), and how many opportunities they had, brings us quite nicely to our third and fourth down pass rushing stats (minimum number of 75 rushes to qualify).
Up at the top was a player who had a real bounce back year in 2010, and, though he was largely overshadowed by the man next to him, established himself as a legitimate pass rushing nuisance. Cliff Avril, left end for Detroit, missed some time so he only had 76 chances at the passer, but his PPR rating of 23.36 settled in above the rest.
Just behind him is a soon-to-be-free agent who should draw plenty of interest as a situational pass rusher if nothing else. Antwan Barnes didn’t last long in Philadelphia, but San Diego found in him a pass-rushing star, with Barnes picking up 26 total pressures on just 92 rushes. That was a slim margin ahead of James Harrison for whom perhaps the most surprising thing was how few attempts he had in these situations – just 96 … 49 less than LaMarr Woodley.
Other somewhat surprising names on the list are Raiders outside linebacker, come nickel defensive end Kamerion Wimbley. To many, miscast in the Raiders 4-3, Oakland got the best out of Wimbley in sub package defenses where he picked up pressure on 20.88% of the third and fourth down plays he spent hunting QB’s.
Among the other names to take note of were Mark Anderson, who showed flashes of the play we probably haven’t seen since his rookie year, and Kroy Biermann. The Falcon is overlooked as a productive pass rusher because of his sack numbers, but he does impact the quarterback (even if it doesn’t always show up on the stat sheet). Here are the 15 most efficient pass rushers on third and fourth down in 2010:

Pass Rushing Productivity, 3rd & 4th Downs, 2010

RankPlayerTeamPass Rushing SnapsTotal PressuresPRP
1Cliff AvrilDET762223.36
2Antwan BarnesSD922622.28
3James HarrisonPIT962420.31
4Justin TuckNYG1062519.81
5Charles JohnsonCAR1203019.79
6Trent ColePHI1423318.31
7DeMarcus WareDAL1373017.88
8Tamba HaliKC2084617.67
9Ray EdwardsMIN962117.45
10Chris ClemonsSEA1793917.32
11Kamerion WimbleyOAK911917.31
12Cameron WakeMIA1723516.86
13Clay MatthewsGB1152316.74
14Mark AndersonHST791616.46
15Kroy BiermannATL1142416.45


Three Years

His superb 2010 was enough to land Tamba Hali level with Dwight Freeney at the top of the total pressures list when looking at 2008 through 2010. Those two have amassed five more total pressures than Trent Cole has managed in that time, with Jared Allen and DeMarcus Ware rounding out the top five.
Of the Top 15, one name sticks out: Justin Smith. The rest of the guys are 4-3 ends and 3-4 outside linebackers who tend to create a lot more pressure, while Smith (who did play in a hybrid in 2008) is a 3-4 end who kicks inside as a defensive tackle in nickel defenses. It’s remarkable to see him on the list, and gives an idea for how consistent (and durable) he has proven as a 49er.
It’s also interesting that a number of teams have multiple players in the top 15. The Colts, Vikings and Steelers all have players consistently getting pressure on these key downs. What is an opposition to do, when you commit to stopping one guy, the other is going to get you. It will be worth watching to see what the Vikes do without Ray Edwards, though it should be noted that back in 2008, Brian Robison was an extremely effective rusher on third downs (before opportunities became rare for him).

Total Pressures, 3rd & 4th Downs, 2008-2010

RankPlayerTeamTotal Pressures
1tTamba HaliKC92
1tDwight FreeneyIND92
3Trent ColePHI87
4Jared AllenMIN86
5DeMarcus WareDAL80
6Julius PeppersCHI79
7Robert MathisIND77
8James HarrisonPIT73
9John AbrahamATL71
10Ray EdwardsMIN67
11Chris ClemonsSEA66
12Justin SmithSF65
13Justin TuckNYG64
14Mario WilliamsHST62
15Lamarr WoodleyPIT60


Adding weight for the type of pressure and further context in the form of the number of pass rushes gives us a different set of results. Out front is Cameron Wake, who has always been productive when he’s been on the field. Back in 2009, when he was limited to a sub package role, he was particularly impactful and he carried that through as a starter in 2010. Essentially, when you need someone to get to the quarterback, Wake is your guy.
Rather interestingly, Justin Tuck follows him in second place. The Giant (one of two in the Top 5) is among the most complete defensive ends in the league, but, overall, has never generated the kind of pressure the top ends do. He doesn’t quite sell out as much on first and second downs when teams are prepared to run the ball, making him less effective as a pass rusher compared to those that do. Yet, when he knows a team is likely to pass, he can get to the quarterback as quickly as anyone.
49er fans may be a little surprised to see Parys Haralson so high, though when you think how many of those pressures have come against the likes of Levi Brown it is a little bit more explainable. Still, Haralson is an effective rusher when that’s all you ask of him.

Pass Rushing Productivity, 3rd & 4th Downs, 2008-2010

RankPlayerTeamPass Rushing SnapsTotal PressuresPRP
1Cameron WakeMIA2205219.32
2Justin TuckNYG2986417.53
3James HarrisonPIT3397317.40
4Parys HaralsonSF2485317.14
5Mathias KiwanukaNYG2154617.09
6Chris ClemonsSEA3116616.80
7Charles JohnsonCAR2655616.79
8Robert MathisIND3777716.64
9Aaron KampmanJAX2284616.56
10Jared AllenMIN4168616.47
11Dwight FreeneyIND4429216.46
12Tamba HaliKC4419216.38
13Kroy BiermannATL2374715.72
14Mario WilliamsHST3186215.64
15DeMarcus WareDAL4198015.63


On third and fourth down, defenders rushing the passer have less of a concern for defending the run. Their job in those spots is simply to stop the quarterback from making a throw that moves the chains or gets the ball into the end zone. Having guys that can produce in this department is incredibly valuable.
We’ll be watching this closely next year to see which guys step it up, and will quite possibly be using it to find breakout candidates on the sack front. We saw it with Cameron Wake and would expect a big year in store for Antwan Barnes, but like many things it comes down to opportunity. Wake got his and took it, while we don’t know if Barnes will be given that chance.
Pass-rush-needy teams have to take a look at any of these that are soon-to-be free agents. They could be the reason your defense just got off the field.
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  • uppercut

    My initial “feeling” was “well, on 3rd/4th they SHOULD be getting pressure, so it’s not overly impressive. 1st & 2nd you don’t expect them to, so then it is” — but right before you mentioned it here, I had the same realization that perhaps because EVERYONE is knowing they can go all out, perhaps its the better, more fair measure (or dare I say, the TRUE measure?) Buuuut, I guess you could argue that maybe you’d sacrifice a little run play as long as you have a guy who’s getting that pressure all the time (even if he’s selling out on “run-downs”).

    I really hope SD re-signs Barnes, because that is an insane number (if only for 92 snaps). We still need someone who can bring some heat on 1st & 2nd down though.

    I’d be curious to know how guys who made the total-pressure but didn’t make the PRP list fared (PRP wise) – like Peppers, Woodley, Abraham, Ray Edwards, Mario Williams, etc. (big name guys)

    • uppercut

      oh geese. ignore Mario Williams in “guys how didn’t make the PRP list”… totally glazed over him @ 14

  • tim tellean

    I think this article might be a little flawed. 3rd down and how many yards? and 4thdown and how many yards? True pass rushers are less likely to be on the field on a 3rd and 1 or 4th and 1, versus say a 2nd and 15. I think the parameters are too general to make a good statement and reach conclusions,
    Too many variables such as yards to go, field position, time on clock and score figure into this type of study, especially as it relates to 4th down. Now make it 2nd and long, 3rd and long with the requisite data and we’re talking.

    • uppercut

      While I would say on 3rd & 4th & short there likely wouldn’t be a lot of passing, I do agree that looking at “& long” plays would be interesting — like…3rd & 5+, or 1st/2nd & more than 10 — HOWEVER, 1st/2nd & (very) long you could still go a short pass & have another play after that (not that you can’t get pressure on a short pass, but on 3rd/4th you’d HAVE to get all the yardage, so perhaps only 3rd/4th & long would be best).

      I’m sure a staff-member would say though that the point of this article was looking at guys who contribute to “closing out the drive” (on 3rd/4th) rather than just who’s good in “obvious passing situations” (as they said, a guy could make a play on 1st or 2nd, but by chance don’t after that & the offense gets the 1st down).

  • R.Q.E.

    Were 3rd and 4th down filtered for distance? I’d assume most ends aren’t selling out on 3rd & 3 or less

  • Rick Drummond

    It certainly would be an interesting look to break it down even further, but in this instance, we were counting all passing plays (all pass-rushing opportunities) on third & fourth downs, regardless of distance.

    • R.Q.E.

      Ah, okay, that makes sense.

      • R.Q.E.

        And thanks for putting up great articles and being so responsive to questions!

  • Khaled Elsayed

    That’s probably something for further study. Not just looking at third and fourth over a certain distance, but even looking at 2nd down and 15+. For example. Can’t say when the time would be there to do it, but it’s something for us to look at.

    As with all these stat type pieces, they are never fully conclusive – merely they add a bit of context to the debate about what’s going on, so those concerns about 3rd/ 4th and short distances are completely understandable.