FanPost

A Pass Rushing OLB - Patriots defensive draft needs Part II

 Do sacks correlate to an efficient defense?

The New England Patriots were the worst team in football in 2010 when it came to defensive 3rd down efficiency.  That is, the ability to get off the field on third down and put the ball in the hands of our best player.  The Patriots defense allowed opponents to complete 47% of their 3rd down attempts.  Consequently, the Patriots allowed their opponents to posses the ball for an average of 31:25 per game.  Comparatively, the remaining teams left in the postseason all rank in the top ten in defensive 3rd down efficiency and allowed opponents to posses the ball for an average of 28:50.  Just think what Tom Brady could do with an extra 2:30 each game, or 40 minutes over the course of a season.

Of course it's all well and good quoting stats but how do these particular stats relate to this evaluation of OLB performance?  Of the teams that rank in the top five in the league in defensive 3rd down efficiency, FOUR of them had 40+ sacks on the season.  Of the remaining playoff teams, THREE of them had 40+ sacks.  To illustrate how potentially important the sack is, only ONE of the bottom ten teams in defensive 3rd down efficiency achieved the 40+ sack mark (Tennessee Titans).  I am not trying to suggest everything boils down to sacks here - I content that coverage on the backend by defensive backs is equally important, as I will illustrate later in this article.  However, as can be seen from the data, sacks are a good barometer at evaluating defensive 3rd down efficiency, therefore a good place to start the analysis as to whether the Patriots should prioritise an OLB in the 2011 draft...

The Patriots improved their sack total to a solid 35 this year.  Those sacks were spread out between numerous contributors, a staple of the Belichick defense since his time with the Patriots.  However, looking at the sack total, the leader was defensive lineman Mike Wright with 5.5 sacks.  Now consider two things: i) Wright hasn't played a down since November 21st, ii) in the 3-4 defense, the sacks totals are primarily supposed to come from the OLB's.  Even when the Patriots go into a sub defense with a 4 man line, those OLB's are expected to generate pressure with their hand in the dirt.

For much of this analysis, I used a comparison of the remaining 3-4 defenses in the playoffs and stats are purely looking at OLBs unless stated.

So how did Patriots OLB's fare in generating sacks?

In 2011, Patriot OLBs generated the grand total of 13 sacks (as a point of comparison, Clay Matthews has 13.5!).  Those 13 sacks make up 37% of the team sack total, whilst the Patriot Defensive Line generated 40% of the sacks.  Again, in the 3-4, it's the OLB's who are typically expected to be the sack getters! 

In comparison to those 13 OLB sacks, Green Bay (24.5) and Pittsburgh (22.5) both far outgain the Patriots in this regard.  The Jets (16.5) barely outgain the Patriots, but it is clear that their defensive efficiency on third down stems from a combination of early down run-defense efficiency and outstanding downfield coverage by DB's.  However, when looking at the Packer, Steeler and Jet sack totals, their OLBs accounted for the greatest percentage of team sack totals, so it's fair to say that Patriot OLBs are behind the competition in this regard.

When extrapolating sack data to look at the whole defense and how it rates as a pass rushing unit, I used the Football Outsider ‘Adjusted Sack Rate,' which adjusts sack rating according to different things, such as down and distance, obvious passing situations...etc.  The Patriots ranked 18th with an adjusted sack rate of 6.2%.  This means that, for example, on obvious passing downs, the Patriots would get a sack 6.2% of the time.  In comparison, the Packers (8.2%), Steelers (8.3%) and Jets (7.0%) ranked 4th, 3rd and 11th respectively.

Put simply, from a purely pass rushing perspective; Patriot OLBs are not pulling their weight on an underperforming defensive whole when it comes to putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

But the Patriots had 35 team sacks...

As I said earlier, 4 of the top 5 most efficient 3rd down defences accumulated 40+ sacks this season.  Whilst I don't want to paint this as a golden target figure, its stands to reason that this would be a good target of improvement from the 35 the Patriots achieved this season.

Some people are perhaps saying that "Well the Patriots got 35 sacks, it's not that far away!" Well, consider this statistic if you will. Including the playoffs, the Patriots had SIX games where they produced 1 or 0 sacks...or 35% of their games.  For this defense, the pressure is inconsistent and sacks tend to come in bunches (5 team sacks came against rookie QB Matt Flynn and 5 against Big Ben and the horrendous pass protection he receives!).  35 sacks is a very good total if the pressure is consistent and the sacks are consistent but they are not.

I always think the way to judge a great team, player or unit is based on how they perform in the clutch.  Looking at it this way reveals the most damning statistic of all.  Let's look at how the Patriot pass rush as a whole performed in the 2010 playoffs as opposed to the remaining teams left in the playoffs when playing in playoff games this year (I used averages since some teams have played two games and others only one):

Team

Total Sacks

Average Per Playoff Game

Patriots

0

0

Packers

8

4

Steelers

5

5

Bears

2

2

Jets

6

3

Not only is the pass rush inconsistent in the regular season but it failed to produce on the biggest stage of all and when it matters most.  The Patriots need their OLBs in particular to start applying more consistent pressure, more so in the playoffs.

OLB's as playmakers

It's clear that a sack is not the only statistical success an OLB can have.  Turnovers are becoming such a vital part of football that very often, it appears players are trying to strip balls from players rather than simply tackle them.  Patriots OLB's are expected to account for turnovers, as they are on every team, be they interceptions or forced fumbles.  Turnovers aside, a Tackle For Loss (TFL) can be considered just as good as a sack in many cases.  In Part I of this series, I indicated that when it comes to TFL's or stuffing the run, the Patriots defense as a whole ranked 25th in the league.  However, looking at the stats for these other kinds of big plays, the Patriots OLBs stack up quite well against the OLBs from the remaining playoff teams operating similar 3-4 systems.

The following table is based purely on OLB statistics:

Team

TFLs

Forced Fumbles

Interceptions

Patriots

12

5

2

Steelers

8

11

4

Packers

8

6

3

Jets

12

4

1

Clearly, Patriot OLBs have performed well when it comes to TFL's and are generally in line with the other teams in terms of interceptions and FF's.  Standouts with these stats include Jermaine Cunningham, who whilst only registering one sack, came up with 5 TFL's and 2 FF's.  In addition, Rob Ninkovich came up with a solid 4 sacks, 4 TFLs and 2 INTs as a good role player.

Clearly, this aspect of the OLB position is well represented by the Patriots, though it would be good to see a few more forced fumbles and interceptions like the standard setting Steeler OLBs!

Setting the edge

Another key aspect to playing the 3-4 OLB is the ability to set the end against the run.  It's one of the biggest challenges college players face when transitioning to the stand up OLB role.  Let's look at how the Patriots OLBs fared in setting the edge, when comparing them against them competition:

Team

Opposition Running at the ROLB (YPC - League Rank)

Opposition Running at the LOLB (YPC - League Rank)

Patriots

4.10 - 16th

3.90 - 14th

Steelers

3.89 - 12th

3.14 - 3rd

Packers

4.45 - 19th

3.39 - 16th

Jets

5.09 - 29th

3.33 - 5th

Using this Football Outsiders data, it's clearly statistical mediocrity for the Patriots when it comes to OLB run stopping ability.  Interestingly, all four teams struggle to defend the run on their right side, but the Jets and Steelers excel at the LOLB spot at stopping the run.  Clearly, with Ty Warren returning next year and Jermaine Cunningham showing outstanding run defense skills, I expect the Patriots to improve into the top 10 defending runs to the defensive left side next year.  However, as I indicated in Part I of this series, the Patriot D-Line is the worst in the league defending runs at RDE.  To me, the Patriots need to invest significant draft picks to the right side of the run defense, both on the line and at OLB as neither position is adequate enough.  Although the data above suggests OLB run stopping ability on the right side does not seem as much of a necessity, the fact the Patriots desperately need RDE help expedites the need for a solid run defending talent at ROLB to help a potential rookie RDE.

So where does this leave us for the draft?

Despite having decent success from the current crop of Patriot OLBs in generating TFL's,FF's and INTs, it's clear that we need help from a pass rushing perspective.  Again, FOUR of the TOP 5 defensively efficient teams in the league had over 40 sacks on the season.  Of those, OLB/DE's were primarily responsible. 

Obviously Cunningham will be a solid contributor as will Ninkovich but I think Tully Banta-Cain may have overstayed his welcome and could see his time with the Patriots at an end perhaps.  Yes, I know they gave him a contract extension but I wouldn't rule out a trade of some sorts.

Therefore, I think it's justified that the Patriots need to add that pass rusher we've been missing.  Someone who can add consistent pressure to quarterbacks rather than sporadic pressure.  Just as much as RDE is a need given the fact we are the worst in the league defending runs to that spot, we are also worst in the league in 3rd down defensive efficiency.  Since the higher sack totals in the league seem to be a solid indicator of 3rd down defensive efficiency, thereby putting the ball in in your quarterback's hands more often, it's clearly justified that a top need in the draft would be a pass rushing OLB.  This has to be the main focus of the draft, such that we need to improve a very flawed pass rush and also help a weak right defensive side against the run.  As I have shown defensive efficiency holds significant correlation to pressure and sack totals, so I think a primary target in the draft should be one of the following:

Aldon Smith - 6'5", 260lbs - Great pass rusher, explosive with a great motor.  In my opinion, similar measurables to Jason Pierre-Paul last year but with more experience.  Come draft time, I think he'll be a top 20 pick.  He has really long arms and he sets a decent edge.  Relies a bit too much on the swim so would need to diversify.

Jeremy Beal - 6'3", 250lbs - Consistent pass rusher with a great work ethic and plenty 3-4 OLB experience.  He sets a good edge against the run.  He is not very explosive and may struggle against some of the bigger Left Tackles in the league.  Also, would probably need to add a little bulk to be able to play in the 4 man line sub package and the added bulk surely won't help his explosion.

Sam Acho - 6'3", 260lbs - the diamond in the rough and the player nobody is talking about here at the moment.  He will gain some momentum come draft time, not only due to his excellent pass rushing ability but also his unbelievable intangibles.  Very strong player with diverse pass rushing skills.  Only downside is he has limited ability dropping into coverage.  Could get him early 2nd round.

The views expressed in these FanPosts are not necessarily those of the writers or SBNation.

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