Before last season, in a piece about the relative importance of a pass rush, I took a closer look at the degree to which pass rushing proficiency versus pass blocking proficiency was a predictor of team success:
Another 2019 study, this time by analysts at ESPN, looked at the importance of pass blocking versus pass rushing, utilizing 2.5 seconds as the threshold for either pass blocking success or failure. Using the “pass block win rate” (PBWR) and “pass rush win rate” (PRWR) metrics they had developed from NFL NextGen Stats, derived via player tracking data, they looked at the winning percentages for teams that excelled in each.
During the period studied (2016-2018), what they found was that teams with the better PBWR won 60% of their games, whereas teams with the better PRWR only won 52% of their games. In 2018, for instance, none of the bottom 12 PBWR teams made the playoffs (8 of the top 12 PBWR teams did), but the Patriots, with a bottom 5 PRWR, ended up winning the Super Bowl. Additional data is presented, but their conclusion is concise: “it’s more important to have the best offensive line in the NFL than it is to have the best defensive line.” An accompanying corollary was that it’s important to invest in the offensive line as a group, and it’s better to avoid having a particularly weak blocker than it is to strive for having an elite one. If you’re sensing a pattern at this point, you’re not alone.
Looking at the 2019 data, 3 of the top 12 PRWR made the playoffs (4 of the bottom 12 did), while 5 of the top 12 PBWR made the playoffs (4 of the bottom 12 did).
The 2020 data tells a similar story – and remember, 14 teams made the playoffs last year – with 8 of the top 14 PRWR teams making the playoffs. Only 4 teams in the bottom 14 of PRWR made the playoffs. On the offensive side of the ball, 10 of the top 14 teams in PBWR made the playoffs. Only 2 of the bottom 14 teams in PBWR made the playoffs, and those two teams, Pittsburgh and Tennessee, lost in the first round.
Looking back at Washington’s performance on those metrics in 2019, the team had enormous room for improvement. The defense finished 25th in PRWR that season, even after having added Montez Sweat in the draft. The offensive line was a bit better, finishing 17th in PBWR, but had just lost Ereck Flowers to Miami at that point.
Making a Quantum Leap
Last season, the team added Jack Del Rio, Chase Young, and several other, key, defensive pieces and the pass rush improved dramatically. In 2020, the team’s PRWR rocketed to third in the league, behind just the Steelers and Bills. Young had the 7th best PRWR among EDGE defenders and Jon Allen had the 7th best PRWR among defensive tackles.
As Bill explored in his recent piece, there isn’t much room – at least from a ranking perspective – for the pass rush to improve, though the upgrading of the secondary and linebacking corps, through the free agency and the draft, could make it possible. As an aside, Washington’s coverage grade improved from 23rd in the league in 2019 to 6th in 2020.
Last year, Washington improved on the offensive side of the ball as well, bumping from 17th to 14th in the league. Brandon Scherff was tied for the 6th highest PBWR among guards in the league and Chase Roullier was tied for 6th among centers. Both guards (Scherff and Schweitzer) and Roullier were top 10 in the league in run blocking as well.
“It’s more important to have the best offensive line in the NFL than it is to have the best defensive line.”
So, as of 2020, Washington had one of the best defensive lines in the NFL, even without Matt Ioannidis for most of the season, but its offensive line – in terms of pass blocking – was still very middling (though its run blocking was amazing, finishing third in the league).
This season, the team has the potential bring back 80% of the end-of-year OL starters – with only Morgan Moses no longer on the team – and has three, new, starting caliber offensive linemen in the wings: free agent Charles Leno, rookie Sam Cosmi, and Saahdiq Charles, who was out injured most of last season.
To top it all off, pass blocking and quarterback sacks are more complicated than just offensive line play. I’ve posted it before, but there’s convincing evidence that sacks are, in fact, a QB stat.
Completion percentage and the percentage of time a quarterback takes a sack are the two most consistent things over a career. Completion percentage can be influenced by scheme, philosophy on types of routes, teammates and opponents, but it also has a lot of accuracy baked in. Sack rate can be influenced by those things as well but has a lot of pocket awareness and ability to read defenses pre-snap and post-snap built in.
Looking back at the sack rates of Washington’s 2020 and, likely, 2021 quarterbacks, provides some encouraging data on that front. In 2020, Alex Smith’s “true sack rate” was 7.2%. That is, he was sacked on over 7% of the plays where he either attempted a pass or scrambled. Ryan Fitzpatrick’s “true sack rate” was 4.7% (Tua’s “true sack rate” behind the same line was 6.1%).
As a point of comparison, Aaron Rodgers, who most people think of as great at avoiding pressure, had a “true sack rate” of 3.5% last year. For those curious, the Packers’ PBWR was, by far, the best in the league last season. Miami’s was 27th in the league. With a better offensive line, and a less sack prone QB behind it, expect that Washington’s PBWR could make a significant jump in 2021.