Why Not All Sacks Are Created the Same in the NFL

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Why Not All Sacks Are Created the Same in the NFL
Scott Halleran/Getty Images

Just as there's more than one way to skin a cat, there's more than one way to sack a quarterback in the National Football League.

Every team wants to get to the quarterback. In fact, they have to. Applying pressure to the quarterback is an absolute necessity, especially in today's pass-happy NFL. If you give the quarterback all day to throw, he's eventually going to pick your secondary apart. (Well, except for maybe Blaine Gabbert.)

However, the ways that teams go about getting sacks, and the situations in which they happen, can vary wildly; they always have. But as the game of football has become more complex, so has the manner in which teams will scheme to make quarterbacks miserable.

The lucky teams are blessed with a dominant pass-rusher capable of fighting through an opponent's best offensive lineman or even a double-team with regularity.

In just the past couple of years we've seen two of the best single-season efforts in NFL history where sacks are concerned. In 2012, J.J. Watt exploded for 20.5 sacks for the Houston Texans en route to NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors.

The year before, Minnesota Vikings defensive end Jared Allen came within a hair of Michael Strahan's single-season mark (22.5), bringing down the opposing passer an eye-popping 22 times.

Compare tape of the two and you'll see a number of similarities, even though one man plays in the 3-4 and the other in the 4-3. It's all about leverage, getting the jump off the snap and the same repertoire of swim moves and spins that made legends of the likes of Reggie White and Bruce Smith.

What made Watt's 2012 campaign all the more impressive is that 3-4 defensive ends don't generally post gaudy sack totals. In many instances, the defensive end's job in the 3-4 is to keep the offensive linemen busy.

That's where the outside linebackers come in.

With the proliferation of 3-4 defenses across the NFL, we've seen an influx of linebackers, such as Aldon Smith of the San Francisco 49ers and Clay Matthews of the Green Bay Packers, who are every bit the equal of their counterparts up front when it comes to giving signal-callers nightmares.

These linebackers use some of the same moves as the defensive linemen, but in general they're more about speed than strength. By the time an offensive lineman gets off the snap and into his stance, it's too late; the linebacker is either all over him or has blown by him altogether.

For some teams, it's more about the unit than the individual. Granted, these squads have plenty of talented individuals, but the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Take the Cincinnati Bengals in 2012. The Bengals ranked second in the NFL in sacks not because of one dominant individual, but because they possess three excellent defensive linemen.

Double-team end Michael Johnson, and tackle Geno Atkins charges up the middle and wraps up the quarterback. Focus on Atkins, and defensive end Carlos Dunlap dines on a passer sandwich.

Some QBs have had their entire careers derailed by getting blasted so much that they start hearing footsteps on every play. David Carr went from first overall pick to permanent fetal position for that very reason.

Some teams send blitzes on more plays than not, and those blitzes come in all shapes and sizes.

Sometimes, a defensive back will cheat closer and closer to the line of scrimmage. Unless the tight end or running back sees him and picks him up, that player often flies through the line untouched to pop the quarterback.

If a team wants to generate pressure straight up the middle, it can "scissors blitz" the inside linebackers. It's a personal favorite of former Arizona Cardinals and current Cleveland Browns defensive coordinator Ray Horton, and a blitz that made a star of Daryl Washington in 2012.

Then there's the zone blitz, the Machiavellian creation of Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau and the favored scheme of the Steelers and Packers.

In the zone blitz, defensive linemen will drop into zone coverage, while linebackers and defensive backs come after the quarterback. Players blitz from all sorts of angles. You never know who's coming, or where they're coming from.

You just know that they're coming.

There are also the times where teams sack the quarterback without even trying—i.e. the "coverage sack." The quarterback drops back, surveys the field, surveys it some more, looks around...

But no one is open. No pocket can hold up forever, and down he goes.

And so it goes. There are any number of other permutations, other star players, other blitz packages. If it involves creaming a quarterback, some team has probably tried it, up to and including sending everybody in a "jailbreak" blitz.

There were 1,169 plays in the NFL in 2012 that ended in a sack, and while the result may have been the same, the methods were (and will continue to be) very different.

That leaves only one question: Who are all these people running around skinning cats?

 

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