5 NFL Teams in Need of Pass-Rushing Improvements for 2016
The Denver Broncos made two things abundantly clear during Super Bowl 50: the crying Jordan face still makes me laugh, and an elite pass rush can make all of the difference in the world.
Even with Cam Newton's scrambling abilities, Von Miller and company were up in his grill the whole night. The Broncos bullied their way past the New England Patriots, and they polished it off by pummeling the Carolina Panthers into submission.
You know teams are going to try to mimic that.
Whenever a strength like that comes through on such a large stage, it's impossible not to notice. It's not as if this is some new epiphany, but the degree of the importance may be even more evident now than it was in the past.
Not every team is blessed with a pass rush as stingy as Denver's, though. In fact, if we're basing this on numberFire's Net Expected Points (NEP), no team was in 2015.
Here's how NEP works. Prior to each play, an offense has an expected number of points it will score on its current drive. A positive play (such as a three-yard completion on 3rd and 2) will increase that, while a negative play (such as a sack) will decrease it. NEP tracks these fluctuations on every play throughout the year and then adjusts based on strength of opponent for teams.
For each defense, we looked at the expected points their opponents lost on sacks this year (the average was -61.45 NEP per team). That number was then divided by the total number of drop backs (pass attempts plus sacks) to produce a number that showed the effectiveness of each defense's pass rush.
For the regular season, the Broncos had the best mark in the league at -0.152 Sack NEP per drop back (the league-average was -0.108), followed by the Patriots, Houston Texans, New York Jets, and Minnesota Vikings.
The following five teams weren't on that list. In fact, they were the five worst pass-rushing teams in the league according to this metric, and they should be looking to address this need in the offseason.
1. Buffalo Bills
Sack NEP: -25.92 | Sack NEP per drop back: -0.043
I had to recalculate this number a couple of times to make sure it was correct just because it seemed like such a heavy outlier. Turns out, though, that the Buffalo Bills were just exceptionally inept at getting to the quarterback.
The Bills' numbers look even worse when you break them down on a game-by-game basis. They racked up -8.26 Sack NEP in two games against the Miami Dolphins (the third-worst team on the offensive side of Sack NEP per drop back), meaning they only generated -17.66 Sack NEP in their other 14 games. That's a glaring need.
This being the first year under head coach Rex Ryan's new schemes, maybe struggles shouldn't be too shocking. However, when you toss in the fact that the Bills led the league in sacks last year, that's going to raise some eyebrows.
Despite this, the Bills still managed to finish 12th in Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play. That speaks highly of what happens when the team can't sack the quarterback. They'll likely experience some natural regression toward the mean in 2016, and if they can improve their personnel up front, the pass defense could quickly become a strength. That should make the incentive to improve one of the league's worst pass rushes even greater.
2. New York Giants
Sack NEP: -36.95 | Sack NEP per drop back: -0.058
It was once the New York Giants who were flashing their pass-rushing prowess on the biggest stage. Now, they find themselves near the bottom of the barrel. What happened?
Clearly, the injury to Jason Pierre-Paul had at least some effect. In the eight games before Pierre-Paul returned, the Giants averaged only -0.044 Sack NEP per drop back, a mark just slightly higher than the Bills' end-of-season mark. Things got better, though not drastically so.
In Pierre-Paul's eight games, that number improved to -0.073, a number that still would have been the fourth worst in the league. Pierre-Paul only recorded one sack, but it does at least seem as if his presence made a slight difference.
Regardless, this is an issue defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo will have to address in his return to the Big Apple. Pierre-Paul could be out the door, but the team does control the 10th overall pick in the upcoming draft, so they'll have a chance to improve either there or via free agency.
3. Atlanta Falcons
Sack NEP: -33.49 | Sack NEP per drop back: -0.060
This is not a new problem for the Atlanta Falcons. They haven't finished higher than 28th in the league in sacks since 2011, and even then they were only 19th. It's time to fix that.
The team did get four sacks out of 2015 first-round pick Vic Beasley, though his five games with the highest snap percentages all came in the first seven weeks. They've also tried to address the need through free agency in the past; it hasn't worked out yet.
Like the Bills, the Falcons really weren't terrible against the pass last year, ranking 18th in Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play. This likely means the secondary wasn't as big of an issue as it was in recent years. It's just hard to see the Falcons taking the defense to the next level without improving things up front.
4. San Francisco 49ers
Sack NEP: -39.33 | Sack NEP per drop back: -0.072
After the exodus of talent the San Francisco 49ers saw last year, this is to be expected. That doesn't make fixing it any easier.
The 49ers racked up most of their Sack NEP stats in their contests against the Minnesota Vikings and the Green Bay Packers, the fourth- and fifth-worst offenses in the league in Sack NEP per drop back. They had -15.12 Sack NEP there, leaving them at -24.21 Sack NEP over the other 14 games (-0.050 Sack NEP per drop back). When you're facing the Seattle Seahawks and the Arizona Cardinals twice a year, that's going to be an issue.
The positive here is that new head coach Chip Kelly built a defense with the Philadelphia Eagles that was able to get to the quarterback. They finished 10th in Sack NEP per drop back this year, and they were second in the league in raw sacks in 2014. He may not be in control of personnel, but this is at least encouraging.
One of the 49ers' most productive pass rushers the past two years has been 2014 fifth-round pick Aaron Lynch. He missed a pair of games last year, but he was effective early in the season prior to the injury. If they can give him some help, maybe the outlook won't be as grim as it appeared last spring.
5. Oakland Raiders
Sack NEP: -49.32 | Sack NEP per drop back: -0.077
Khalil Mack can't do it all by himself, dudes. Okay, he probably can, but you should still at least try to get him some help.
The Oakland Raiders' need to address this position may not be as great as it is for the other teams on this list. Over their final eight games, they posted a -0.101 Sack NEP per drop back, which would have placed them 22nd as opposed to 28th. As Mack caught fire, they started to look a lot better in this department, but it could still clearly use a bit of maintenance.
If the team were to find another pass rusher to pair with Mack, they could find themselves on the other end of the pass-rushing spectrum for a long time to come. Right now, though, they don't quite have that. Until they do, this is still going to be an area of need for the Raiders despite Mack's utter dominance.