We’re back with another look at 2019 data from Football Outsiders Almanac 2020 (now available!). Today we’re going to look at quarterbacks and pressure — who faced pressure most often; who played best and worst under pressure; and who succeed or failed from a clean pocket. Our pass-rush numbers revealed a lot of change last season, both from 2018, and in longer-term trends. We shall explain.
Let’s not waste any time. Here’s our big table full of pressure numbers from last season, analysis to follow.
Not a lot went right for the Cincinnati Bengals last season, but they did do a fine job of giving Andy Dalton time to throw — he only faced pressure on 131 of his 570 dropbacks, a pressure rate of 22.6% that was the lowest of any qualifying quarterback in 2019. Dalton also missed three games, and in his absence Ryan Finley was pressured on 36.8% of his 106 dropbacks. That rate is terrible — only one full-time passer was pressured more often — which suggests that Dalton’s low pressure rate said more about his veteran savvy than it did about Cincinnati’s offensive line. Mind you, that veteran savvy didn’t actually help Dalton deliver passes to teammates — he was 28th in DVOA when under pressure, and next to last without it. That’s why Dalton is now in Dallas backing up Dak Prescott and the Bengals drafted Joe Burrow.
While Dalton’s pressure rate was radically different from that of his backup, New Orleans Saints teammates Drew Brees and Teddy Bridgewater’s pressure rates were very similar — and very good, as they ranked second and third in pressure rate behind Dalton. In related news, Bridgewater’s average depth of target was 6.3 yards, shortest of any qualifying passer; Brees was second at 6.6. They were followed by Derek Carr and Jimmy Garoppolo (both at 6.7), who were both also near the top of the pressure rate list. There are exceptions to this rule — Dalton was in the middle of the pack in aDOT, just to name one — but there is definitely a relationship between short passes and low pressure rates. The correlation coefficient between the two was 0.295. Correlation is not the same as causation, but in this case, it certainly seems that quarterbacks who look for dumpoffs and checkdowns can make things easier on offensive lines — and themselves.
The highest pressure rate belonged to Sam Darnold of the New York Jets at 39.6% — or, more accurately, 39.59%, just barely surpassing the 39.55% of Daniel Jones of the New York Giants. The Big Apple youngsters were followed by a trio of veterans: Russell Wilson, Ryan Fitzpatrick, and Deshaun Watson. For Wilson and Watson, this is nothing new. Wilson has never finished outside the bottom four, while Watson was last in this category in both 2017 and 2018. Fitzpatrick has usually been fairly average in this department, but when you trade away your best offensive lineman right before the season, pressures are going to happen.
Performance Under Pressure
It’s important to note that the DVOA listed here is team DVOA on this player’s dropbacks, including scrambles, and not individual passing DVOA. Because of this, the average in neutral situations is higher than zero, because there are no handoffs or penalties included.
Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson won the MVP award in large part because of his performance under pressure, where he was just the fifth quarterback on record to post a positive DVOA. Of the four others, two are MVPs and Super Bowl winners (Tom Brady in 2017 and Patrick Mahomes in 2018), while two are journeymen and fringe starters at best (Josh McCown in 2013 and Case Keenum in 2017). You’ll note that four of the top five DVOAs under pressure have come in the last three seasons, while only one came from 2010 (when our data starts) to 2016. These are only five of the hundreds of quarterback-seasons we have on record, but they are indicative of a long-term trend: quarterbacks these days are under more pressure than ever before, but they are also playing better under pressure than ever before.
|Year-by-Year NFL Average Pressure Stats, 2010-2019|
For the first seven years of our records, the average pressure rate was never any higher than 27.1%, but it has been north of 30.0% in each of three years since. However, the average DVOA under pressure in those first seven years was -75.6%, an average that has climbed to -59.1% in the last three seasons. That’s a difference of 16.6% — about the same as the difference between league-leader Drew Brees and seventh-ranked Russell Wilson on last season’s overall leaderboard. The average DVOA on passes without pressure has also risen, but not nearly as much as DVOA with pressure, only about 5.0%.
Mahomes was in second place behind Jackson; he barely missed having a positive DVOA under pressure for the second straight season. In third place we have Dak Prescott, followed by Drew Brees, Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers, and Deshaun Watson. With the notable exception of Brees, that’s a full list of quarterbacks who have typically faced more pressure than average, so it makes sense they would have more practice performing in those conditions. It also raises something of a chicken-or-egg question — as this new breed of hyper-athletic quarterback takes over the league, are coaches more willing to expose them to pressure, knowing they are more likely to escape? Some of these passers, for sure, bring more pressure on themselves by holding onto the ball in search of big plays downfield. It may be the kind of thing that teams will just have to live with in some circumstances.
Mind, you, not every quarterback was so effective under pressure. Take Mason Rudolph, for example. The Steelers quarterback’s DVOA under pressure of -143.6% was the worst in the NFL — not just last season, but since 2015, when Brian Hoyer posted a -144.9% with the Houston Texans. Rudolph took over for an injured Ben Roethlisberger in Week 2, but eventually lost the starting job to Devlin Hodges. (Hodges didn’t qualify for the main tables, but he was hardly any better — his DVOA on 67 pressure plays was -107.7%.) Rudolph only started eight games; Dwayne Haskins, who had the second-worst DVOA under pressure, only started seven for Washington. Kyle Allen, third from the bottom, started a dozen for Carolina; he’s followed by Joe Flacco and Case Keenum, a pair of opening day starters who lost their jobs due to injuries, giving way to rookies in Denver and Washington.
Performance without Pressure
Ryan Tannehill finds himself first in DVOA from a clean pocket, a category in which he has yo-yo’d up and down for his entire career. In his seven healthy seasons, starting as a rookie with the Dolphins in 2012, Tannehill has gone from 28th in this category to 15th, to eighth, to 27th, back to eighth, to 23rd, and now to the top of the heap.
Tannehill led the NFL with 9.6 yards per pass last season, so his presence at the top of the list is no surprise. There are no surprises in the five names that follow him either. Russell Wilson, Lamar Jackson, Patrick Mahomes, and Drew Brees were the top four MVP candidates last season, and Matthew Stafford might have joined them if he had stayed healthy.
At the bottom of the list we have Dwayne Haskins, who is just the seventh quarterback to post a negative DVOA from a clean pocket. Five of those were rookies, so Haskins is very likely to improve in this category in 2020. (The worst of those rookies — or anyone else — was Jared Goff, whose DVOA from a clean pocket in his first season was -45.2%. And that’s just when he wasn’t pressured — he was under pressure more than 40% of the time! If we end up losing NFL weekends this fall, I am absolutely going to pour myself some strong bourbon and re-watch some 2016 Rams games.)
Haskins is followed by Andy Dalton and Joe Flacco, a pair of longtime starters who will be backups this season in Dallas and New York. Then we have a pair of Heisman Trophy winners from the University of Oklahoma, Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray. Each of the ex-Sooners stars was about average in DVOA under pressure — perhaps there’s something about Lincoln Riley’s version of the Air Raid that doesn’t prepare quarterbacks to play within the structure of NFL offenses? That’s a question that could merit further study.
Dak Prescott led all quarterbacks in passing DYAR last season largely because the gap between his performance with and without pressure was so small. From a clean pocket, his DVOA was 62.5%; under pressure, it was -8.2%. That’s a difference of 70.7%, the smallest drop-off in the league. He is followed in that category by Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, and Deshaun Watson.
No quarterback saw a greater drop-off under pressure than Mason Rudolph … and again, it was the most notable since Brian Hoyer in 2015. Rudolph was followed by Kyle Allen, Kirk Cousins, Jimmy Garoppolo, and Ryan Tannehill.
For a long time now, we have said that DVOA from a clean pocket was more stable and reliable than DVOA under pressure. More often than not, that is still the case, but the gap between the two has shrunken, and neither has been very stable from one year to the next recently. For example, among the 24 qualifying quarterbacks last season who also qualified in 2018, the year-to-year correlation of DVOA under pressure was 0.090, while the correlation of DVOA from a clean pocket was 0.166. That’s not a record low in either statistic, but it’s much lower than what we saw at the start of the decade, and also much lower than pressure rate. (Drop-off from clean-pocket DVOA to DVOA under pressure has pretty much always been noise.)
|Year-to-Year Correlation in Pressure Stats, 2010-2019|
Why were results in 2019 so different from 2018, at least compared to prior seasons? It may be because we’re in the middle of a transition from one generation of quarterbacks to the next. This can really be seen when looking at quarterbacks whose performance from a clean pocket declined the most. Six quarterbacks saw their DVOAs without pressure drop by at least 18.0%. One of those was Patrick Mahomes, who basically had nowhere to go but down after a league-best 92.9% unpressured DVOA in 2018. The others, from biggest decline to smallest, were Aaron Rodgers, Joe Flacco, Andy Dalton, Philip Rivers, and Tom Brady. That’s four veterans who changed teams after the season and one who is living on borrowed time after his replacement was drafted in the first round.
Only five quarterbacks improved in a clean pocket as much as those others regressed: Ryan Tannehill, Matthew Stafford, Kirk Cousins, Josh Allen, and Dak Prescott. As we have seen, however, these numbers can be volatile from season to season. Odds are some of those names will decline back to prior levels this fall.