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Navigating Bear Markets: Evaluating EDGE Rushers

A look at EDGE pass rush productivity based on strength of schedule.

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Photo: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

I have felt for some time that EDGE rusher stats rely too much on volume, and not enough on quality. Let us jump right in by looking at the top 10 edge rushers, according to PFF’s pass-rushing grades:

More pressures and pressures per game mean one player is better than the other as a pass rusher, right? Well, maybe. We always need to account for snap counts in multiple ways. How many of these players never come off the field? You can use the snap counts to gather which players may be rotational, injury-prone, and which ones are too important to take off the field.

Let’s take a closer look at each of these players’ opponents. I started out by accumulating how many snaps they lined up on each side of the line in each game (against either the LT or the RT). I then found the snap counts for each game to find who the snap leader at LT and RT was for the opponent.

Once I had the offensive tackle’s names, I pulled their pressures allowed and pass protection stats numbers to find their individual pressure allowed rate. I weighted their pressure allowed rate by the edge rushers snaps against that side (LT or RT) in each game to generate an “Expected Pressure %” figure. An example of this for Khalil Mack below:

Once we have gotten to the “Expected Pressure %” figure, it is easy to generate “Pressure % over Expected”, “Expected Pressures”, and “Pressures over Expected” figures. Here are the alignment and pressures allowed figures for each player considered:

You can think of the Expected Pressure % as a type of strength of schedule here, or strength of opponent offensive tackles. That will bring it full circle to each player’s stats over expectations:

One thing I do want to note here is that while players like Hughes, Lawson, and Okwara had outstanding seasons as pass rushers, they have not yet matched the overall performance of people like Mack, Bosa, and Watt. Brian Burns is looking like a force to deal with in the near future though. Run defense stats detailed below:

Now, let’s look at team-wide stats for this concept.

Sack Rate Strength of Schedule

Kyler Murray avoids sacks with his incredible mobility. Baker Mayfield relies on a stout OL and strong run game to feed the play-action attack and keep the pass rush at bay. Russell Wilson plays with great mobility, but he tends to take sacks at a high rate looking for action downfield. Getting the opportunity to beat up on a rookie QB with a bad offensive line can also make for a nice stat sheet. Who the opponents are for each team matters when looking at sack production.

We are looking at how well each team was able to sack the quarterback relative to their opponents’ 2020 averages allowed.

  • Team Sack %: This is each team’s total sacks divided by their opponent’s dropbacks in 2020. The #1 ranked team had the highest rate of sacks.
  • Strength of Schedule (SOS) – Sack %: This is the sack % allowed by each team’s 2020 schedule of opponents, subtracted by the league average sack % allowed. The #1 ranked team had the most difficult schedule to achieve sacks.
  • SOS Adj. Sack %: This is each team’s sack rate, plus their SOS – Sack %. The intention here is to project each team’s sack rate as if they all played an average schedule. The #1 ranked team had the highest rate of sacks with all schedules being equal.

The Below table is sorted by SOS Adjusted Sack %.

Some notes:

  • The Bears ranked 16th in sack rate in 2020. This was disappointing considering the amount of cap space committed to the pass rush.
  • The Bears schedule ranked 16th in sack % allowed, at 0.07% more difficult than league average. They played the most average schedule of opponents possible concerning sacks allowed.
  • After the strength of schedule adjustment, the Bears sack rate jumps from 16th to 14th. This small of a jump is generally underwhelming though, as more sack production is needed in 2021.
  • If we project the 2020 trends to the 2021 schedule, the Bears will face a schedule that would have ranked 13th in SOS – Sack %. Very little change worth discussing here.
  • The largest climber here is the Broncos. The Broncos ranked 14th in sack rate, but rank 4th after accounting for SOS. They played the most difficult schedule in the NFL for Sack %.
  • The largest drop-off here is a tie between the Cardinals and Cowboys.
  • The Cardinals ranked 6th in sack rate but dropped all the way to 13th after adjusting for SOS. They played the 3rd easiest schedule in the NFL in regards to sack rate.
  • The Cowboys ranked 21st in sack rate but dropped all the way to 28th after adjusting for SOS. They played the easiest schedule in the NFL in regards to sack rate.

Pressure Rate Strength of Schedule

If we look at sacks, we have to follow that up with pressures. We are looking at how well each team was able to generate pressure on the quarterback relative to their opponent’s 2020 averages allowed.

  • Team Pressure %: This is each team’s total pressures divided by their opponent’s dropbacks in 2020. The #1 ranked team had the highest rate of pressure.
  • Strength of Schedule (SOS) – Pressure %: This is the pressure % allowed by each team’s 2020 schedule of opponents, subtracted by the league average pressure % allowed. The #1 ranked team had the most difficult schedule to generate pressures.
  • SOS Adj. Pressure %: The intention here is to project each team’s pressure rate as if they all played an average schedule. The #1 ranked team had the highest rate of pressure with all schedules being equal.

The Below table is sorted by SOS Adjusted Sack %.

Some notes:

  • The Bears ranked 10th in pressure rate in 2020. Most had hoped for more, but overall it is hard to complain about a top 10 season here.
  • The Bears schedule ranked 8th in pressure % allowed, at 1.1% more difficult than league average. Only seven teams faced a tougher schedule for generating pressures.
  • The more difficult schedule led to the Bears being boosted up to 7th in SOS Adjusted Pressure %.
  • If we project the 2020 trends to the 2021 schedule, the Bears will face a schedule that would have ranked 6th in SOS – Pressure %. This means that the Bears schedule is only getting more difficult in regards to generating pressure in 2021.
  • The largest climber here is a tie between the Ravens and Panthers.
  • The Ravens ranked 13th in pressure rate, but 8th in after accounting for SOS. They played the 4th most difficult schedule in the NFL for Pressure %.  
  • The Panthers ranked 26th in pressure rate but 21st after accounting for SOS. They played the 6th most difficult schedule in the NFL for Pressure %.  
  • The Patriots make the largest drop ranking 20th in pressure rate, but 28th after accounting for SOS. They played the easiest schedule in the NFL for Pressure %.

Pace and Style of Play

Different opponents play different styles of football. You expect a faster pace from the Cardinals air raid than you would from the Ravens ground attack. With that, comes the opportunity for more or fewer sacks and pressures. A more pass-heavy regular season schedule could theoretically open the door for more pass rush production.

Below, we look at every team’s opponents throughout the 2020 season:

  • Opponent Plays per Game: How many offensive plays per game each team’s opponents totaled over the course of the season. Think of this as how fast-paced each team’s opponents were. The #1 ranked team faced the fastest-paced schedule in the league.
  • Opponent Dropbacks per Game: How many QB dropbacks per game each team’s opponents totaled throughout the season. Think of this as how pass-happy each team’s opponents were. The #1 ranked team faced the most pass-happy schedule in the league.
  • Opponent Runs per Game: How many rush attempts per game each team’s opponents totaled during the season. Think of this as how much each team’s opponents relied on the ground game. The #1 ranked team faced the most run-dependent schedule in the league.

The table is sorted by opponent plays per game:

Some notes:

  • The Bears faced the fourth slowest-paced offensive schedule in 2020. Their opponents averaged 63.3 plays per game in 2020, while the league average was 64.5 plays per game.
  • Only four teams faced a schedule averaging fewer dropbacks per game in 2020. The Bears ranked 28th in Opponent Dropbacks per Game.
  • Teams who played the Bears in 2020-ranked 21st in rush attempts per game. In general, opponents played a more ball control style of offense, but not near the same extent as Houston or Jacksonville.
  • If we project the 2020 trends to the 2021 schedule, the Bears face a schedule that would have ranked 3rd in plays per game at 67.9, 4th in dropbacks per game at 40.6, and 2nd in rush attempts per game at 27.3. They will be seeing much more pace from offenses in 2021 than they saw in 2020. This opens opportunities for more splash plays but also opens more risk if the defense is not up to par.

Check out our previous installments, you can also follow me on Twitter for more content like this, @butkusstats.


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4 months ago

[…] week, I looked into what factors could affect some of the league’s best pass rushers. This week, I am taking a closer look at Robert Quinn under the same […]

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3 months ago

[…] more production out of the outside linebacker room. Once you get past star pass rusher Khalil Mack, the drop off is noticeable. Robert Quinn was brought in last season to solidify the position, but was a large disappointment. […]

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