Strahan's Sack Record Stands: Smith & Watt Come Up Short

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Dec 31, 2012



By Shawn Maher (@ShawnBenMaher)
Cold, Hard Football Facts’ Secretary of Sacks

The great sack race of 2012 ended with a whimper, not a bang. The two contestants, the 49ers’ Aldon Smith and the Texans’ J.J. Watt, entered the week with 19.5 and 20.5 sacks, respectively. Only a short list of players entered the final week of the season at least 19 sacks.

Over 19 Sacks in 15 Games

1983

Mark Gastineau

19.0

1984

Mark Gastineau

22.0

1986

Lawrence Taylor

20.5

1987

Reggie White

21.0

1989

Tim Harris

19.5

1989

Chris Doleman

21.0

1990

Derrick Thomas

19.0

1990

Bruce Smith

19.0

2001

Michael Strahan

21.5

2008

DeMarcus Ware

20.0

2012

J.J. Watt

20.5

2012

Aldon Smith

19.5


Both Smith and Watt were easily within striking distance of Michael Strahan’s record of 22.5, but both were blanked in their season-ending games.

To go one step further with two seasons that will be forever linked, both ended their seasons with very similar contributions to their teams’ overall defensive NPP%.

  • San Francisco 49ers’ NPP%: 8.61
  • Aldon Smith’s personal NPP% with 19.5 sacks: 3.43
  • Houston Texans’ NPP%: 9.73
  • J.J. Watt’s personal NPP% with 20.5 sacks: 3.44

Texans' J.J. Watt attempts to sack Vikings' Christian PonderThat is an almost identical contribution to their team’s NPP%, although Smith arguably contributed more to his team’s overall pressure on the quarterback, considering that the 49ers’ NPP% is a whole percentage point lower.

On the other hand, Watt has tipped five passes at the line of scrimmage that led directly to passes being intercepted. If those five interceptions were counted, Watt would have a personal 4.28 NPP%.

Watt also put up four tackles for a loss and a pass defended (tipped) in Week 17, while Smith only had two tackles, one for a loss.

While Watt has redefined the way a defensive end in a 3-4 defense is expected to play the game, Smith’s sack drought for the past three weeks has exposed an element in Vic Fangio’s defensive scheme that fuels his sack fire. While Smith may rely on a 3-4 defensive end to help him to the quarterback, Watt is a 3-4 defensive end that has no trouble finding him on his own.

J.J. Watt: Rewriting the History Books from a Historically Unproductive Position

As stated in many of the Hog Report’s expressions of admiration for Watt, he has reinvented the wheel within the context of a three-down-lineman defense. While most great pass rushers fly around the edge, often reaching the quarterback unseen, Watt often takes on the passer head-on while still performing his block-soaking duties.

With a wingspan whose size is only rivaled by machines made by Boeing, finds himself tipping passes almost as often as he takes down the quarterback. With 20 sacks and 15 passes defended, Watt is the first player in history to rack up 20 sacks and 15 passes defended.

Unsurprisingly, Watt was the only non-defensive-back ranked amongst the league leaders for passes defended. In the top 20 players were 17 cornerbacks. There were only two safeties and one Watt.

2012 Passes Defended Leaders

CB

Keenan Lewis

23

CB

Richard Sherman

23

CB

Casey Hayward

20

CB

Tim Jennings

19

CB

Patrick Robinson

17

CB

Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie

17

CB

Cary Williams

17

CB

Stephon Gilmore

16

CB

Asante Samuel

16

DE

J.J. Watt

15

CB

Patrick Peterson

15

FS

Ed Reed

15

CB

Kareem Jackson

15

S

Glover Quin

14

CB

Charles Tillman

14


And even if he is not the first player ever with 20 sacks and four forced fumbles, he is rubbing shoulders with a pretty elite group of pass rushers.

20 Sacks and 4 Forced Fumbes

Year

Player

Sacks

FF

1987

Reggie White

21.0

4

1989

Charles Doleman

21.0

5

1990

Derrick Thomas

20.0

6

2001

Michael Strahan

22.5

6

2008

DeMarcus Ware

20.0

6

2011

Jared Allen

22.0

4

2012

J.J. Watt

20.5

4


And while the Texans do use multiple fronts, including an occasional four-man front, Watt often makes plays by the dint of his super-human efforts. And while Smith is an outstanding pass rusher in his own right, he gets by with a little help from his friends.

Aldon Smith: Pass Rushing in Tandem

In 2011, Smith was selected in the first round out of Missouri to rush the passer off the edge as an outside linebacker. Although he played a hand-in-the-dirt, 4-3 defensive end, he amassed 14 sacks as a rookie at outside linebacker as more of a finesse rusher that uses his speed and explosiveness to turn the edge.

He often finds himself lined up to another Smith out of Missouri, selected in the first round as a 4-3 defensive end who was selected to rush the passer out of his natural position as a defensive end in a 4-3. But Justin Smith never racked up more than 8.5 sacks in Cincinnati as a rookie. He moved to a 3-4 defensive end, where his high-motor, brute strength, low-finesse game was much better suited.

Justin Smith holds up Saints blockers while Aldon Smith sacks BreesUnder defensive coordinator Greg Manusky, Smith played a more penetrating role. But Vic Fangio arrived with Jim Harbaugh and Aldon Smith in 2011, and brought a more traditional 3-4 role for both DE Justin Smith and OLB Aldon Smith.

As Aldon has become a more prolific pass rusher, Justin has begun to embrace his role as Aldon’s bodyguard. Smith, who Giants’ defensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride says “gets away with murder,” takes pride in his ability to occupy two blockers as once.

Even if the man they call “Cowboy” has the blocker roped in with an illegal hold, as indicated in the circle. This allows Aldon a clean path to the quarterback, who never has a chance with Aldon’s unreal closing speed.

In fact, look no further than Smith’s sack totals with the 49ers, which decrease under Fangio.

Manusky Era

2008

7.0

2009

6.0

2010

8.5

Fangio Era

2011

7.5

2012

3.0


With the difference in scheme and Justin’s reinvention, Aldon has far and away been the most successful pass rusher that the 49ers have seen since Justin has been with the team.

Outside Linebackers - Manusky Era

2008

Parys Haralson

8.0

2008

Manny Lawson

3.0

2008

Roderick Green

3.5

2009

Parys Haralson

5.0

2009

Ahmad Brooks

6.0

2009

Manny Lawson

6.5

2010

Ahmad Brooks

6.0

2010

Travis LaBoy

5.0

2010

Parys Haralson

4.0

2010

Manny Lawson

2.5

Outside Linebackers - Fangio Era

2011

Aldon Smith

14.0

2011

Ahmad Brooks

7.0

2012

Aldon Smith

19.5

2012

Ahmad Brooks

5.5


49ers Aldon Smith attempts to tackle Seahawks Marshawn LynchUnsurprisingly, Aldon’s rush for the sack record was abruptly halted along with the triceps injury that has caused Justin to miss almost all of the past three weeks.

Aldon entered the game against the Patriots three weeks ago with 19.5 sacks, which would have put him on pace for 24. After Justin left the game early, Aldon has seen his sack total stagnate, as he has found blocking schemes better able to get a helmet on him.

Of course, as Aldon himself told Ian Rappaport after the game, “I’m 23 years old. I’m only getting better.” As Smith becomes more accustomed to learning the outside linebacker position, Watt will continue to expand the horizons of what his position can do. While the quarterback position’s revolution will be televised, the pass rushing revolution will not.

Comparatively, at least.

But as the hybrid quarterbacks continue to be celebrated on every waking minute during Sports Center, the pass rush revolution will stay underground.


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