It used to be that getting sacked was accepted as one of the downsides to being an NFL quarterback – it was part of the job description. I’m not so sure that’s the case anymore.
The game at Lambeau on Sunday will feature two of the best QBs to ever play the game. It’s not happenstance that Rodgers and Brady, also are among the lead leaders in avoiding sacks. Tom Brady was sacked only 21 times during the regular season, while Aaron Rodgers was dragged down 20 times (in 84 fewer pass attempts).
Nowadays, the best and winningest QBs are becoming congregated at the low end of the sack list. Besides Brady and Rodgers, Josh Allen was sacked only 26 times; Ryan Tannehill 24; Patrick Mahomes 22; and Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger only 13.
There was really only one QB who made the playoffs this season who bucked this trend: Russell Wilson, who suffered the third most sacks, 47. The others in the top dozen of most-sacked QBs were a motley crew: Carson Wentz (50), Deshaun Watson (49), Daniel Jones (45), Matt Ryan (41), Kirk Cousins (39), Matt Stafford (38), Sam Darnold (35), Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert (32), and Cam Newton and Teddy Bridgewater (31).
A bunch of crafty veteran QBs have come to realize how difficult it is to win games when frequently getting sacked – and they’ve smartly made adjustments to their game. Happily, Aaron Rodgers joined this group in 2020.
Rodgers used to be a regular name near the top of the sack list; he had 51 in 2012, 50 in 2009, and 49 as recently as 2018. But in two years of being under the watchful eyes of Coach LaFleur, he dropped down to 36, and now to 20.
Brady went down 41 times in 2001, 40 times in 2013, and 35 times in 2017. Over the last three seasons, however, he’s only been sacked 21, 27, and 21 times.
Roethlisberger was sacked 40 or more times five times from 2006 through 2011; in his last six years though, his highest number has been 24. Big Ben is the league’s premier quick passer.
Sensible players adjust their games as they age. I was prepared to cite Brett Favre as a contrast, but I see that in 20 years Brett was never tagged with more than 40 sacks.
Josh Allen, who’s becoming acknowledged as being a top-tier QB, averaged 33 sacks in his first two years – his cutting down to 26 this year is impressive, as he attempted the six most passes this past season. By the way, Brady was #2 in attempts, Big Ben was 3, Justin Herbert was 4, Mahomes was 5, and Rodgers, with 526 pass attempts, ranked 13th – with exactly 100 fewer attempts than league-leading Matt Ryan.
The Quick-Pass Connection
I’ve beat this drum many times over the last couple of years: the best way to cut down on sacks is to release the ball quickly – a time-to-throw (a Next Gen statistic) average of about 2.5 seconds is highly desirable. As you can see from looking at the above names, avoiding sacks has little to do with the ability to avoid tacklers or withstand hits.
I’ll go even further: I don’t think that the quality of a QB’s blockers is a critical factor in how many sacks one suffers – at least not if you’re a quick-release guy. A quarterback who properly disciplines himself to pass in a timely manner, or to throw the ball away as his pocket is collapsing, will avoid being too excessively sacked.
Rodgers’ sack numbers this year highly suggest that Aaron has come to see the light. To go from 49 sacks in 2018 to 20 in just two years is a great credit to Aaron – and to the coaching staff as well. It’s one of the main reasons he’s in line to be named the league’s MVP. Brady’s stats show a similar picture, as he suddenly in 2018 dropped from 35 to 21 sacks, and has stayed in the low- to mid-twenties ever since.
During the regular season, the Tampa Bay defense recorded 22 sacks, but its offense sacked opponents 48 times. In quite similar fashion Green Bay’s D gave up 21 sacks, but its offense registered 41 sacks of the opposition. The Buccaneers’ sack leaders are DE Jason Paul-Pierre (9.5), ILB Devin White (9), and OLB Shaquil Barrett (8). Green Bay counters with Za’Darius Smith (13.5), Rashan Gary (5), and Preston Smith and Kingsley Keke (4). Keke, who missed the Bears’ and Rams’ games with a concussion, was listed on Wednesday as participating in limited play. His return to the lineup will be welcomed, as his snap count on the season is less than half of some of the others.
Green Bay pass rushers have another advantage in this matter. Rodgers still has good movement, while Brady has the mobility of a clothing store mannequin.
Of course, hurries/pressures will also be critical in this battle of two passing legends. Each QB has shown over the course of the season that he can be rattled by a strong pass rush.
While turnover differential is known to be an enormous factor in deciding the outcome of a game, sack numbers are also very meaningful in determining who wins. Because it results in a loss of down and yardage, a sack often halts an offensive drive. Many times a sack is also accompanied by a fumble. Sacks also tend to cause quarterbacks to “hear footsteps,” and alter their concentration and focus on subsequent pass plays.
What might we expect come Sunday in the way of sacks? We should expect that each QB will play like he has recently.
Each one was sacked nearly the identical number of times during the 2020 regular season – barely more than once per game. In the postseason so far, Brady was sacked once by the Saints, and three times by Washington. Rodgers went without a sack against the Rams, though they were the league’s top-rated defensive unit during the regular season.
Given that the two teams are statistically closely matched, just one or two more sacks by one side than the other could be determinative in which team goes on to Tampa. On the strength of recent statistics, however slightly, it appears more likely to me that Green Bay will have the better sack differential in the NFC championship contest.