Unblocked Pressure: 2014’s Top Players
Ben Stockwell looks at the defenders who best took advantage of unblocked opportunities to ge to the quarterback in 2014.
Unblocked Pressure: 2014’s Top Players
Last season we took you on a tour through some of the numbers from deeper in our database as we gave you a look at the most productive teams and players at generating unblocked pressure. A year on we’re splitting that data in two and in this article we’ll be looking at the top players and taking a quick look at the most productive unblocked pass rushers from last season to see whether their production carried over from a season ago.
A Familiar Face on Top
You would think that as the league’s most destructive pass rusher J.J. Watt simply wouldn’t have the unblocked opportunities to rack up sufficient numbers to lead the league, but that’s exactly what he did. His 16 unblocked pressures are fewer than both Lavonte David (19) and Brian Robison (17) collected to be first and second a year ago, but were enough to ease him clear of Clay Matthews for the league’s best mark in 2014.
Increased opportunities on the edge of the defense this season saw Watt gain opportunities to harass opposing quarterbacks unattended and he took full advantage converting a quarter of his unblocked pressures into sacks and 13 of 16 into a hit or sack. If it wasn’t already clear enough that you shouldn’t leave Watt unblocked in any circumstance, that knockdown percentage should leave you in no doubt.
Another player to feature prominently was Connor Barwin who feasted both as an unblocked defender and cleaning up when other defenders had created pressure and flushed the quarterback from the pocket. Barwin’s 56 total pressures were fourth-most among 3-4 outside linebackers last season but a large percentage of those came unblocked, in clean up, or pursuit. 26 of his 56 pressures came in one of these cases with nine of 16 sacks falling into these categories. On average, edge rushers got around 30% of their pressures in one of these three categories while Barwin collected 46% of his pressure this way.
Making the Most of their Opportunities
Taking advantage of unblocked opportunities to pressure the quarterback is one thing, finishing the play and knocking the quarterback down with a hit or a sack (as Watt so often did) is taking far fuller advantage of the opportunity provided. For example, both Pernell McPhee and Calvin Pace were in a group tied for 10th place with 11 unblocked pressures last season, but while McPhee converted six of 11 into sacks (two) or hits (four), Pace converted only one of his 11 unblocked pressures into a hit or sack.
The best knockdown percentage for any defender who recorded at least six unblocked pressures last season was Keenan Robinson of Washington who knocked the quarterback down on all six (1 Sk, 5 Ht) of his unblocked pressures. Looming large near the top once again is Watt with C.J. Mosley’s knockdown percentage of 69.2% very impressive from his 13 unblocked pressures.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the scale, the likes of Brandon Graham, Cameron Wake and Justin Houston couldn’t match that conversion rate, registering no more than one unblocked hit or sack with at least six unblocked pressures to their names.
Maintaining Unblocked Production
A valid question to ask is whether unblocked production is consistent? Is there too large an element of luck involved in it or is it a measure of scheme and hustle leading the same names to crop up towards the top of the list in successive seasons.
As it happens, a couple of familiar names did rise in each season, though there was plenty of turnover at the linebacker position. This was led by Lavonte David whose unblocked production fell away with the rest of Bucs’ defense, thanks in large part to a change in defensive scheme. A number of the top edge defenders from a year ago stayed toward the top of the list, though, and in Brian Robison’s case maintained a similar profile in terms of conversion. Second to David a year ago with 17 unblocked pressures, Robison racked up 12 in 2014 to remain inside the league’s Top 10 but in both seasons converted only two of his unblocked pressures into a sack or a hit.
One spot where we saw a change of name but same role retaining the unblocked production was Todd Bowles’ inside linebacker in Arizona. Karlos Dansby was sixth in the league with 13 unblocked pressures a year ago for Bowles and after his departure his replacement, Larry Foote, took Dansby’s spot inside the Top 10, finishing tied for seventh with 12 pressures. Jets fans will doubtless be expecting to see David Harris or Demario Davis included when we come to reveal the 2015 numbers in 12 months time.
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Ben Stockwell | Director of Analysis
Ben joined Pro Football Focus in 2007, and has since been in charge of the company’s analysis process. He also contributes to PFF’s weekly NFL podcast.