Thursday, October 20, 2011
How quarterbacks perform under 'duress'
By Mike Sando
A few notes and observations regarding how NFC West quarterbacks have performed when under duress, defined by ESPN Stats & Information as situations when defensive pressure forced players to throw early, off-balance or when they were getting hit:
- Sam Bradford, St. Louis Rams: Bradford has completed only 5 of 38 passes in these situations. That works out to 13.2 percent, by far the lowest in the league. Oakland's Jason Campbell was next at 22.6 percent before his season-ending injury. Ben Roethlisberger (61.1 percent), Donovan McNabb (54.3), Jay Cutler (50.9) and Cam Newton (50.0) are the only players completing at least half their passes under duress. Dropped passes, covered receivers and holding the ball too long have hurt the Rams. Bradford has been under duress on 25.9 percent of all plays and 18.7 percent of plays featuring pass attempts. Those figures are middle-of-the-pack among players with at least 20 total plays under duress. Two players running versions of the Rams' offense, Tom Brady and Matt Cassel, rank 1-2 in fewest percentage of passes delivered under duress. It's not necessarily the system, in other words. Brady has a lower NFL passer rating than Bradford (30.6 to 39.6) in these situations, having completed 9 of 26 passes for 98 yards and an interception. Cassel's rating (13.5) ranks last in the league. Bradford ranks 32nd out of 34 players (min. 20 plays) in Total QBR (0.5) when under duress. Tony Romo is No. 1 at 46.6. Note that Total QBR figures apply to all plays. I did not ask for separate QBR figures, only those plays featuring pass attempts, only because the stat, by definition, takes into account scrambles, sacks, fumbles, etc.
- Kevin Kolb, Arizona Cardinals: Kolb has been under duress on 32.3 percent of all plays and 23.4 percent plays with pass attempts. Both figures are fourth-highest in the NFL. His 69.4 NFL passer rating in these situations ranks ninth in the league. Kolb has completed 19 of 44 passes for 291 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions on these throws. Michael Vick is the only player in the league with as many touchdown passes under duress, but he also has five interceptions. The improbable scoring pass Kolb threw to Larry Fitzgerald at Seattle comes to mind. Mostly because of sacks and fumbles, Kolb ranks only 27th in Total QBR (1.4) among the 34 players with at least 20 total plays under duress. The lesson? Kolb has made some good things happen when under duress. His relatively high passer rating says as much. But there have been too many negative plays. He knows he's not Roethlisberger and said so this week, but sometimes he plays as though he does not know this.
- Tarvaris Jackson, Seattle Seahawks: Jackson has completed 12 of 28 passes for 136 yards with one touchdown and one interception when under duress. His 55.1 NFL passer rating when throwing under duress ranks 14th in the league -- ahead of some big names (Matthew Stafford, Josh Freeman, Joe Flacco, Matt Ryan, Drew Brees, Romo, Bradford, Vick, Brady, etc). Eli Manning (95.3) and Matt Hasselbeck (87.1) are exceptions as players with exceptionally high NFL ratings under duress this season. Jackson ranks 12th, right behind Kolb, in completion percentage on these throws. While the sacks Jackson has taken largely explain his 20th-ranked QBR of 3.6 when under duress, 27 of the qualifying 34 players are below 15.0 in QBR in these situations. Even the best quarterbacks tend to struggle when under duress. Minimizing damage is key. Jackson has been under duress on 27.8 percent of all plays, ninth-most in the league. He has taken sacks and generally avoided turnovers, explaining why he has been under duress only 16.8 percent of the time on plays featuring pass attempts. That 16.8 figure is among the 12 lowest in the NFL.
- Alex Smith, San Francisco 49ers: When the 49ers were 0-5 last season, Smith was leading the NFL in most pass attempts while throwing under duress, despite taking 10 sacks on these plays. He has attempted 12 fewer passes under duress through one additional game this season, and his NFL passer rating is 61.9, which ranks 12th, as opposed to the 8.1 rating he had while under duress during the 0-5 start. That suggests the 49ers' scheme and play-calling are giving Smith superior options against pressure. Smith has completed 12 of 29 passes for 176 yards when under duress. Smith has been under duress on 26 percent of all plays (13th-most in the league) and 17.6 percent of those featuring pass attempts (20th-most among qualifiers). Even so, Smith's Total QBR for all plays under duress (not just those with pass attempts) lags at 2.5. This is because Smith is tied with Kolb for the worst expected-points figure in the league when it comes to taking sacks (minus-14 points for each player). My feel is that Smith has improved in this area lately.
Seattle's Charlie Whitehurst hasn't played enough to qualify for consideration. Thanks to Marty Callinan of ESPN Stats & Information for providing the numbers. Here's hoping I've explained it well enough to stop your cranium from feeling under duress.
Update: At the outset, I defined duress as plays when defensive pressure forced players to throw early, off-balance or when they were getting hit. Duress also covers non-throwing plays when pressure forced players to scramble or take a sack.