The New Season Series: The Big Need


This is the Offseason, and during it, our number one job is to think forward to the New Season.  The acquiring-players phase of the offseason is more or less over, and so outside of signing a couple players that other teams cut, the team’s 2012-2013 performance will be wholly determined by the players that are out there on the field right now.  As such, this is the first segment of The New Season Series – where we look back at the Jaguars’ performance during 2011-2012 and try to assess and predict how the Jaguars’ changes will influence their play.

Although most people in the Jaguars organization, along with the media and the Jaguars’ fans, would agree that Blaine Gabbert’s growth is the biggest need for the Jaguars this year, I decided to start with the longest need we’ve had in recent history: a pass rush.  Getting a pass rush has been The Big Need for the last four years or so.  Since the infamous draft of 2008, the Jagaurs have swung and missed on defensive ends, which undoubtedly played a role in the Jaguars’ decision to draft DE Andre Branch and spend $27 million re-signing Jeremy Mincey, who’s never had more than last season’s eight sacks in his six year career.

Last year, the Jaguars’ pass rush had been more productive than it had in recent years, but the 31 sacks they accumulated still left them tied for 25th in the league, along with defensive bottom dwellers like Carolina and Indianapolis.  A team that ended up ranked 5th in defensive efficiency has no business being so far down the rankings in such an important defensive statistic.   Even though sack numbers don’t tell the whole story about effective a team’s pass rush is, as the Jaguars’ GM, staff, and even fans have pointed out at various times the last couple seasons, it seemed pretty curious to me that a team that improved so much (32nd in defensive efficiency in 2010 to 5th in 2011; 5th in both pass and rush defense efficiency!!!) showed such little relative improvement in the sack department.  Just like any other defensive play, sacks are nowhere near isolated.  They depend on the run-stopping, coverage, sub-packaging, etc. that form the foundation of any great defense.  Don’t they?

As it turns out, seemingly they do.  And while statistics don’t always flat out lie, in cases like this they can be very misleading.  While the Jaguars were by no means an elite pass-rushing group (as any tuned-in Jaguars fan could tell you), the “Rushmen” were certainly better than a simple sack number can give them credit for.  Football Outsiders (compilers of the defensive efficiency rankings hyperlinked above) dug deeper to produce a statistic that represented a team’s pass rush more accurately: adjusted sack rate.

What is the sack rate adjusted for, you may ask.  Pretty important things actually.  How about strength of schedule – strength of an opponent’s ability to pass protect?  Playing Tennessee twice a year, the best pass-protecting team in 2011, probably turned a few would-be-sacks into pressures.  What else does it account for?  Intentional grounding penalties, pass attempts, down, and distance.  As you might imagine, sacks go up on 3rd downs, especially on 3rd and longs.  Thus, an accurate statistic needs to adjust for the number of 3rd downs a team faces, as well as the distance before a first down.

How do the Jaguars fare in adjusted sack rate?  Not too badly actually.  Our adjusted sack rate was 7.2%, 13th in the league, and 0.4% higher than the next team on the list, the concussion-specialist Steelers (comparatively, we were only 0.4% lower than the 7th ranked team, suggesting we probably held up the end of the second tier of teams with regards to sack-rate.  For more details, click the second hyperlink.).  This is up from our 22nd ranking last year at 5.8% – that rate would’ve left us at 26th this year.  So yeah, the Jaguars didn’t get better in every single defensive category except sacks; they got better with regards to sacks too.  Much better.  And considering the injuries we faced on the defensive line (Roth, Chick, Alualu, Lane…) and in the secondary (Mathis, Cox, etc. etc. etc.), that is a pretty impressive improvement.

How come we ended up ranked 25th in sacks last year?  One major component was the pass protecting quality of the opponents we faced.  I took the relative pass protection rankings of the opponents we faced in 2011-2012 and their average rank came out to 12.9; so, instead of rushing the 16th ranked team in terms of pass protection (if our schedule was “average”), our defensive line was rushing against the 13th ranked team in terms of pass protection.  But this is still an overestimate, because it uses relative ranks instead of absolute numbers.  So I recalculated using adjusted-sack rates.  And you know what?  It turns out our D-lines schedule was even more difficult.         The average adjusted-sacks-allowed rates of our opponents last year was 5.78%, a number which fits squarely between the 9th and 10th best pass protecting teams.  So it’s like our D-line was facing the 9.5th best pass protecting team all year (as opposed to the 16th, if they  had an “average” schedule).

Given these numbers, and the players we’ve acquired and gotten back from injury, let’s look towards 2012-2013 and try to find a realistic goal might be.  If we stay healthy this year, I think we can reach the top of the second tier of adjusted sack rates (7.6-7.8%), which would represent a healthy jump (0.4-0.6%) in pass rush.  A 0.4% to 0.6% boost in sacks would give us between 32 and 33 sacks on the year next year – which would allow us to jump from 25th in the sack rankings to 24th.  Clearly not impressive.  But remember, a 0.4-0.6% boost would be applied to adjusted sack rate, not total sack numbers.  This boost should increase our total sack numbers, but may not depending upon the opponents we face and the other such variables it takes into account.  Just for fun, let’s try to calculate what the Jaguars’ sack number would look like if our adjusted sack rate remained constant (7.2%).  If the adjusted sack rate remains constant and if there’s an inverse linear relationship between opponent pass protection (as a function of adjust-sacks-allowed rate) and total number of sacks a D-line will produce, the number of sacks the Jaguars should produce next year can be estimated by the pass protecting abilities of their opponents, assuming all other variables like intentional grounding penalties and total number of pass plays run are relatively constant.  A quick calculation of our 2012-2013 opponents’ adjust-sacks-allowed rates and relative ranks shows that next year, the average team we’ll face will have a relative rank of 15.3, and an adjusted-sacks-allowed rate of 6.5, which corresponds to a team ranked just between 16th and 17th in terms of pass-protecting abilities.  Using that in conjunction with our adjusted-sack rate, as a function of opponent adjusted-sacks-allowed rate in 2011-2012, our sack rate would be 8.15% – top 5 in the league and just at the bottom of the first tier of defensive behemoths that include the Eagles, the Ravens, and the Vikings!  Obviously, this makes a number of assumptions, but it shows two things: 1. Our defense rushed the passer (in terms of sack production) at a way better rate than what we may have thought… and 2. With a slightly easier to rush schedule next season, we may see another boost in sack  numbers!

Watch out world – Here come the Jaguar Rushmen!

— Zain Gowani