Thankfully, we are in an era of football fandom where people are starting to realize there's a difference between pass rush and sacks and that sacks are not the end-all, be-all metric for a defensive player going after the quarterback.
A lot of good non-sack results can come from a quality pressure: an incomplete pass, a hit on the quarterback (which, cumulatively, can add up), an interception, a teammate getting the sack, a change in pass protection that limits the number of players that go out on a pass pattern ... you get the idea.
Case in point: The Seahawks sacked Peyton Manning one time (ONCE!) in the Super Bowl on Manning's 50 dropbacks. But you watched it — it was a jailbreak, a total ambush. The Broncos had no chance to block them effectively until it was too late.
Sacks are the number everyone looks at, but pressure is the most important thing. Only three teams averaged more than 10 percent sacks on opponents' pass plays last season.
That's why the recent signings of Julius Peppers by the Green Bay Packers and Jared Allen by the Chicago Bears — doing an NFC North pass-rush musical chairs thing this offseason — must be viewed through the proper lens.
Yes, both players are being brought on to rush opposing quarterbacks, especially in this division with Aaron Rodgers, Jay Cutler, Matthew Stafford and Matt Cassel whatever rookie the Vikings draft. The Bears and Packers signed Allen and Peppers, respectively, to short-circuit that as much as possible.
But expecting a bunch of sacks out of each of them is a risky proposition.
One factor is their age. Allen turns 32 this offseason, and Peppers is 34. According to Pro Football Reference, of the 296 seasons in which players recorded 12 sacks or more since 1983 (when the statistic became official), only 25 of them have come from players 32 or older, and only 11 of them were from players 34 or older.
Of those 25 12-sack seasons, they came from only 17 different players. Five players — Reggie White, Chris Doleman, Kevin Greene, Bruce Smith and William Fuller — accomplished the feat more than once at age 32 or older.
One of the 25 seasons was turned in former Cowboys defensive end Greg Ellis, who knows sacks can be a curious and unpredictable thing. After all, he never had more than nine in a season until his 10th year in the NFL before notching 12.5 at age 32 in 2007. Ellis told Shutdown Corner on Wednesday that he had to adapt as a pass rusher at a similar stage in his career to where Allen and Peppers are now in order to be effective and remain on the field.
"I tell young pass rushers when they first get into the league, ‘Make sure you perfect your pass-rush game because as you get older, you’re not going to be running a 4.5, you’re not going to be as strong and you’re not going to have that same endurance as a first-year NFL player. You are going to have twisted ankles, bone spurs and broken fingers and that kind of stuff, so you have to perfect your craft if you want to have a long career as a pass rusher,’" he said. "Those guys [Allen and Peppers] have evolved, so that has allowed them to stick around and move on to other teams and be wanted."
Ellis also noted that predicting big sack numbers for Allen and Peppers will be tough because they might not be three-down players for 16 games this season. The Bears and Packers might envision roles that reduce their snaps in order to increase their productivity, which is what happened to Ellis at a similar stage in his career.
"Young players also [tend to] play more snaps," he said. "When you’re older, you might get 30 plays, 35 plays, which is a lot for a 10th-year guy. But if you’re there for just a pass-rush purpose, and you’re not productive, then they are going to get rid of you.
"When I was in that stage, I realized I had to become more potent per snap. Meaning that, I am not going to get a whole bunch of opportunities, but they want me to produce if I am going to be a productive football player. They have to be productive on [a per-snap] basis."
Part of doing that means changing up the way you go after the quarterback, Ellis said.
"Look at Reggie White," he said. "When he was young, he had a bunch of sacks. But when you look at his latter years, he was putting up some numbers even though it looked like he couldn’t even hardly walk. I would study guys like Reggie and others in their latter years, and they would attack differently. It wasn’t just speed and power; it was deception and variety and the mental game, setting guys up and changing up your rush. You have to adapt your game at that stage."
Ellis is right. White averaged 15.2 sacks per season up through the age of 32. And in his final six seasons, up through age 37, White still was productive, averaging an incredible 10.2 sacks.
But White is one of the outliers. Ellis knows that expecting 12- and 13-sack seasons for the next three or four years for Allen and Peppers is a bit speculative and dangerous. Instead, Ellis also thinks about the rest of their game — how they hold up against the run, how they combat the double teams that are sure to come and how, especially for Peppers, they drop and handle the full breadth of assignments thrown at them.
Ellis cautions the Packers, even for an athlete as gifted and rare as Peppers, on setting the bar too high and giving him too much to do in his "elephant" role.
"The coaches need to be careful in what they have him do," Ellis said. If he plays any outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme — and Julius has played at 290 pounds — he might have to drop some weight. I was at 260-265 [down from 275] when I made the switch. If you have the running back or receiver running 30 yards down the field, [covering him] is not what a 290-pound man needs to be doing. You don’t want to put him in those kinds of positions."
That can lead to some embarrassing mismatches.
"Covering underneath, you’re not going to be running way downfield," Ellis said. "But I’ll never forget, we played Minnesota [in 2007] and they created a matchup with [then rookie] Adrian Peterson against me. They flexed him out, had him run a 30-yard wheel route. He was my man, and brother, he ran past me like I was a child."
That doesn't appear to be what the Packers want out of Peppers. They want him, like the Bears want Allen, primarily hunting down quarterbacks. That won't produce sacks all that often, but still, sacks are nice. Teams always will take a sack. It negates a pass play that, league-wide, averages about 6.5 positive yards per pass attempt and results in negative yards on that given play.
The Packers and Bears just must be a little measured in their expectations of how often those players will be doing that.
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