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Thursday, March 27, 2008
Patriots' pass-happy offense puts Brady at risk

By Aaron Schatz

How good was New England's pass protection in 2007? NFL statistics list the Patriots' offense with just 21 sacks allowed (the fifth-lowest total in the league), yet that number doesn't quite seem to match our memories.

Early in the season, Tom Brady had ridiculously good pass protection, enough time to sit in the pocket, scan the field and maybe knit a baby blanket or two before the other team even breathed on him. However, as teams began to blitz the Patriots more and more toward the end of the year, it seemed like Brady was constantly delivering the ball to a receiver with a defender in his face.

After the catch and tackle, the next camera shot always showed Brady popping up off the ground. When the Super Bowl came around, the best pass rush in the NFL forced Brady to eat grass the entire game.

Well, if you think Brady was constantly hitting the ground last year, you are right. If you think the Patriots' offensive line did a good job protecting him, you, too, are right.

There is more to a pass rush than just sacks. Conveniently, in 2006, the NFL play-by-play added another stat -- the quarterback hit -- which helps us judge pass rush and pass protection.

A quarterback hit is any pass play on which the defender knocks the quarterback to the ground. Simple contact isn't enough. Sacks also count as hits, except for strip sacks, sacks that end out of bounds and "self sacks" (when the quarterback trips over himself without being touched by a defender).

The scorers at the different stadiums have been fairly inconsistent when it comes to recording quarterback hits, leading to some wild swings between how many hits a team has at home compared to how many hits a team has on the road.

For example, not including sacks, Oakland's defense had only four quarterback hits at home last year. That doesn't sound ridiculous, because Oakland didn't have the world's greatest pass rush in 2007. Then you notice that Oakland's quarterbacks were hit only eight times at home. The Raiders aren't known for great pass protection, either, so that seems a little fishy.

It turns out it is. Oakland's defense had 15 hits on the road, and Oakland quarterbacks were hit 23 times. That means there were 38 total hits in Oakland's road games (by either team) and only 12 in Oakland's home games. Clearly, the scorers in Oakland aren't marking quarterback hits the way everyone else is.

This problem exists in a number of stadiums. Combining offense and defense, Atlanta, Philadelphia and Denver also had less than half as many hits at home as on the road. On the other hand, Seattle's offense and defense combined for 60 quarterback hits at Qwest Field and only 24 on the road.

So if we want to see which quarterbacks are taking abuse, it probably is a good idea to adjust hit totals based on the tendencies of the scorers compared to the league average (home defenses do generally have a few more hits than visiting defenses). We also want to add back in sacks that end up with the quarterback on the ground. I'm also including plays cancelled by penalty -- after all, some of the biggest quarterback hits end in roughing-the-passer penalties. Technically, this means the play never happened, but don't try telling that to the quarterback as he heads to the sideline with a concussion or a torn MCL.

Once we've done all that, here's a list of the quarterbacks who took the most abuse in 2007:

Under Pressure
Quarterback Team Hits Sacks Total
Jon Kitna Lions 38 45 83
Donovan McNabb Eagles 27 43 70
Tom Brady Patriots 45 23 68
Kurt Warner Cardinals 51 17 68
Ben Roethlisberger Steelers 22 42 64
Jeff Garcia Bucs 44 20 64
Matt Hasselbeck Seahawks 27 33 60
Damon Huard Chiefs 26 33 59
Philip Rivers Chargers 38 17 55
Tarvaris Jackson Vikings 36 19 55

One of the things you will notice is that the quarterbacks who get hit a lot aren't necessarily the quarterbacks who get sacked a lot. Many of these quarterbacks are known for standing tall in the pocket and delivering the ball with the pass rush bearing down on them. They often are quarterbacks who know to throw away the ball instead of taking a sack when there's nothing open. Carson Palmer (38 hits, 14 sacks), Drew Brees (34 hits, nine sacks) and Peyton Manning (32 hits, 19 sacks) also fall into this category. Interestingly, so does Buffalo rookie Trent Edwards (30 hits, nine sacks).

Mobile quarterbacks are a mixed bag, because there are two kinds of scrambling quarterbacks. The ones who tend to take off and run (Garcia, Jackson, David Garrard) have more hits than sacks, because when they choose to run, they usually get tackled beyond the line of scrimmage, and we aren't counting scrambles here.

On the other hand, some quarterbacks use their legs to try to extend the play until they find a receiver -- with no intention of trying to gain yardage with a run. Nobody epitomizes this more than Ben Roethlisberger.

However, just because the quarterback hits the ground a lot, this does not mean the pass protection is bad. You give up a quarterback hit only when you pass the ball, and some teams pass more than others.

Here are the teams that gave up the most and fewest quarterback hits as a percentage of all pass plays. Since we're including plays cancelled by penalty for hits and sacks, we'll include them for total pass plays as well.

Most Quarterback Hits
Team Hits Sacks Passes Total
Minnesota 46 37 484 17.2%
N.Y. Jets 43 50 582 16.0%
Tampa Bay 49 35 542 15.4%
Baltimore 57 32 610 14.6%
Pittsburgh 27 42 502 13.7%
Buffalo 44 21 482 13.5%
San Francisco 30 49 587 13.5%
Atlanta 41 42 624 13.4%
Detroit 41 48 669 13.3%
Arizona 63 22 644 13.2%

Fewest Quarterback Hits
Team Hits Sacks Passes Total
New Orleans 34 9 699 6.1%
Cleveland 25 17 584 7.1%
Dallas 24 19 580 7.4%
Green Bay 34 15 629 7.7%
Cincinnati 38 14 618 8.4%
Houston 36 14 564 8.8%
Carolina 22 29 564 9.0%
N.Y. Giants 33 22 597 9.2%
Indianapolis 35 21 593 9.5%
Seattle 27 35 640 9.7%
New England 46 23 637 10.9%

We extended our top 10 a little bit to show you where New England falls (11th) when it comes to quarterback abuse per pass. The Patriots' pass protection was pretty good, although nowhere near as good as the pass protection for some of the league's other great offenses, such as Dallas and Green Bay.

These numbers also help show how the New Orleans offensive line, which was terrible in the Saints' 0-4 start, got its act together later, and how a great offensive line was a big reason for Cleveland's success in 2007. We can see that Minnesota's line was nowhere near as good at pass blocking as it was at run blocking, and that the Texans' offensive line looks a lot better now that they've gotten David Carr out of town.

However, perhaps the best lesson here is the one New England learned. Even if you have above-average pass protection, throwing the ball all the time is going to land your quarterback on the ground quite often.

Every one of those hits is an opportunity for injury, and then it will be Matt Cassel time. If they want to get back to the Super Bowl, perhaps the Patriots should consider throwing the ball a bit less … or signing a quality veteran backup.

Aaron Schatz is president of Football Outsiders Inc. and the lead author of Pro Football Prospectus 2007 and 2008.