As analytics become rapidly integrated into mainstream football analysis and thinking, the understanding that defensive pressures are significantly better indicators of future defensive success than sacks has become cemented. Last week, we looked at pressure-to-sack conversion rates for individual pass rushers. By examining overall pressure statistics to analyze how many sacks above or below average each NFL team produced, we can ascertain which teams are set to either improve or take a step back in 2021.
Pressure statistics are the best reflection of a pass rush’s effectiveness, as these numbers tend to be much less volatile than sacks and improve simultaneously with a defense’s improvement. Relying solely on sack totals leads to misperceptions of defenses as a whole. Exercising caution via looking past raw numbers is especially important during the NFL draft and free agency as teams look to supplement their rosters and fill any perceived holes.
Using the average pressure to sack conversion rate in the 2020 season (23.18% of all pressures were converted into quarterback sacks in 2020), let’s take a look at three teams whose sack totals we can expect to regress and three teams who we can expect to see a rise in sacks in 2021.
This table shows the teams that performed the highest and lowest above their expected sack totals during the 2020 NFL season:
Teams Expected to Regress
Los Angeles Rams
- 2020 stats: 53 sacks on 147 pressures (36.05% pressure to sack conversion rate)
No pass rush unit was as much of a one-man show in 2020 as the Los Angeles Rams. Despite just two pass rushers (Aaron Donald and Leonard Floyd) registering more than one pressure per game, Los Angeles still managed to finish a remarkable 19 sacks above expectation. An average pressure-to-sack conversion rate would have led to 34 sacks for the Rams – an astounding 36% drop in sack production. Both Donald and Floyd were top 10 in the league in sacks above expectation and buoyed the entire defense. Donald’s performance was right in line with his career and led to a Defensive Player of the Year award, while Floyd’s success was a significant outlier from his track record. Morgan Fox, Samson Ebukam and Michael Brockers were the next leading pressure and sack performers and each converted their pressures to sacks at an impressive rate. Combined, the trio translated 43% of their 26 pressures into sacks (15.5) and are prime candidates for regression as this is a significantly higher conversion percentage compared to the rest of their careers. All three departed in free agency this offseason and, based on their 2020 performances, the Rams were right to avoid overpaying for production that was far beyond expectation and likely unsustainable.
Green Bay Packers
- 2020 stats: 41 sacks on 128 pressures (32.03% pressure to sack conversion rate)
Despite the second-highest pressure-to-sack conversion rate in 2020, the Green Bay Packers ranked just 10th in the league in overall sacks. An average conversion rate would have given them just 30 sacks on the season, as a pass rush overly reliant on Za’Darius Smith at times had just two other pass rushers register an average of one pressure a game. Smith was among the league leaders in sacks above expectation as he followed up his breakout 2019 season with another strong showing and improved upon an already above-average pressure-to-sack conversion rate. Rashan Gary and Preston Smith were Green Bay’s other two pass rushers of note, with Gary improving his pressure and sack numbers from 2019 while Preston Smith’s 2020 season disappointingly saw his pass rushing statistics sharply decline (he had less than half of his 2019 pressures and saw his sacks dip by eight).
Washington Football Team
- 2020 stats: 47 sacks on 156 pressures (30.13% pressure to sack conversion rate)
With one of the most talented defensive lines in the league, it comes as little surprise to see Washington near the top of a statistic like this. An average pressure-to-sack conversion rate would have resulted in just a 36-sack season, though a deeper dive reveals room to improve upon an already impressive number. Chase Young and Montez Sweat led the team in sacks and both have reasonable cases to sustain their above-average pressure-to-sack conversion rates. Sweat’s 2020 season of 9 sacks on 31 pressures wasn’t an unreasonable jump from his rookie season in 2019 (seven sacks on 24 pressures), while Young certainly lived up to the hype he garnered as the second overall pick in 2020. Defensive tackle Jonathan Allen was among the league leaders in sacks below expectation as an average conversion rate would have led to a 6-sack season instead of the two recorded; progression from him and fellow interior lineman Daron Payne would further bolster an already lethal pass rush.
Teams Expected to Progress
Las Vegas Raiders
- 21 sacks on 147 pressures (14.29% pressure to sack conversion rate)
The Raiders produced the same exact number of pressures as the Rams in 2020 but a conversion rate over 60% worse led to a drastically worse pass rush and defense. With the fourth-lowest sack total and the lowest pressure-to-sack conversion rate of any team, the Raider’s pass rush was toothless in 2020 – despite facing the ninth-most passing attempts in the league. An average pressure-to-sack conversion rate would have resulted in 34 sacks for Las Vegas, a far cry from the 21 they produced. Only one Raider – Maxx Crosby – had more than three sacks, though three Raiders fell far short of expectation. Defensive ends Clelin Ferrell and Arden Key both ranked among the top 10 in sacks below expectation as Las Vegas was the only team with multiple pass rushers in the top 10 of this statistic. While Ferrell was three sacks below expectation, Key had the most pressures in the league without a sack as his 16 pressures resulted in zero sacks instead of the four that would be expected.
- 17 sacks on 111 pressures (15.32% pressure to sack conversion rate)
The Bengals had arguably the worst pass rush in the league in 2020 thanks to the second-lowest number of pressures and the second-worst pressure-to-sack conversion rate. An average conversion rate would have brought the Bengals up to 28 sacks as their pass rush was led by Carl Lawson with just 5.5 sacks. Lawson had the most sacks below expectation in the NFL as he was five sacks short of what his pressure numbers indicate he should have had. The New York Jets signed Lawson to a three-year, $45 million contract this offseason as the Bengals replaced him with Trey Hendrickson via a four-year $60 million contract, but he got injured in preseason and is out for the year. Notably, Free-agent signee Trey Hendrickson finished with the most sacks above expectation in 2020 (turning in a 13.5 sack season instead of an expected 7.5 sack season) while Lawson finished on the other end of the scale. The only other Bengal pass rusher with more than nine pressures was defensive end Sam Hubbard, who converted just 11% of his pressures into sacks after a 45% conversion rate in the first two years of his career. The Bengals signed Hubbard to a four-year, $40 million extension in July as they will look to him and Hendrickson to provide significant pressure on signal-callers.
New England Patriots
- 24 sacks on 146 pressures (16.44% pressure to sack conversion rate)
After a dynamite 2019 season in which the Patriots ranked ninth in total sacks, New England dropped all the way to 27th in the league as the departures of Jamie Collins and Kyle Van Noy as well as the opt-out of Dont’a Hightower took their toll. An average pressure rate would have given the Patriots 33 sacks on the season which would have been a significant 38% increase. Leading pass rusher Chase Winovich was eighth in sacks below expectation in 2021 as he mustered up just 5.5 sacks. The return of Hightower from his opt-out, the return of Van Noy from Miami and the signing of Matt Judon are all reasons for optimism regarding New England’s pass rush in 2021.