The Andre Carter All-Stars
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In 2008, Redskins defensive end Andre Carter had what looked like a disappointing season. After amassing 10.5 sacks in 2007, Carter put up just 4.5 quarterback takedowns the following year. That was a big problem for a team that ranked 26th in Football Outsiders' Adjusted Sack Rate metric, which gives sacks (plus intentional grounding penalties) per pass attempt adjusted for down, distance, and opponent. This was why the team drafted Brian Orakpo in the first round in 2009 - to reinforce a pass rush that had declined. And while Orakpo was a stellar choice, Carter's 2008 stats included high totals in two stats that were predictive in a positive sense. Despite his low sack total, Carter led the Redskins with 13 quarterback hurries and 13 quarterback hits.
Football Outsiders classifies quarterback hits as a play in which a defender knocks the quarterback to the ground in the act of throwing or having thrown, adjusted to remove roughing the passer penalties. Quarterback hurries are classified as plays in which our game charters judge that a quarterback was hurried in the act of throwing the ball. There seems to be a strong correlation between seasons with low sack totals and high hit/hurry rates, and higher sack totals the next season. Regression to the mean seems to be one reason - if a player misses a high number of sacks by just a millisecond and has abnormally low sack totals as a result, it makes sense that under similar circumstances the next season, things would even out.
Obviously, Carter's 2009 season proved this to be true - he rebounded with 11 sacks (his highest total since 2002), and the Redskins' Adjusted Sack Rate bumped up to fifth in 2009. The good news is that in the team's new 3-4 defense, Carter looks to have more chances to pin his ears back in an outside linebacker role. The other good news is that Carter didn't just see an uptick in sacks - he also recorded more hits (14) and hurries (21). That tied him with San Francisco's Justin Smith for 11th in the NFL in quarterback disruptions, which is sacks plus hits plus hurries. To start this study, let's look at the top 10 quarterback disruptors in 2009 (or 11, since that's where Carter is).
So, the next question is, who appears to be in line for a huge increase in sacks in 2010? Here are the 10 defenders with the lowest sack percentage among their total quarterback disruptions (minimum 25 quarterback disruptions):
The guys to watch for here are Scott, who gets a lot of opportunities to rush the passer in Rex Ryan's frequent A-gap blitzes, Vanden Bosch, who could see a higher sack total in his new home of Detroit as opposing lines try to deal with uber-rookie Ndamukong Suh, Spencer, who benefited greatly in 2009 from the fact that opposing offenses were double-teaming DeMarcus Ware (which they'll still do), and Edwards, who derives the same benefit from the presence of Jared Allen. Both Edwards and Spencer are great pass-rushers on their own, but it doesn't hurt when opposing linemen are stacking their forces on the other side. Antonio Smith is another guy who works the "buddy system" - it helps him that Mario Williams has turned into a sack expert. Perhaps the most interesting season on this list belongs to Justin Smith, who tied with Ware and Spencer for fifth in the league with 29 hurries despite the fact that he spent about half his time at 4-3 tackle and another 25 percent at 3-4 end in San Francisco's hybrid defenses.
What about the players whose quarterback disruptions (let's call them QBDs for brevity's sake) consisted of a larger percentage of sacks? Redskins fans will certainly recognize the name at the top of the list ... and another one at sixth overall.
Now, just because a player has a high sack total among his QBDs doesn't mean that his sack total will decrease the following year. Orakpo and Carter should benefit specifically from the move to the 3-4, even if Jim Haslett looks to have Carter covering in zone blitzes. I'm a believer in the idea that the meeting of development and scheme could have Orakpo leading the NFL in sacks this season. Matthews is another second-year 3-4 OLB who could put up major sack numbers in 2010. Allen's sack total is high, but you're talking about the best pass-rusher in the game, and his hurries are absolutely ridiculous.
Using regression in a predictive sense isn't fail-safe, but it can tell us interesting things about trends in football as we expand our understanding of the importance of specific stats. Hits and hurries are key to understanding the season-to-season volatility of pass pressure.
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