Now's the time to get handle on pass protection
By Pat Kirwan | NFL.com
Preseason games can be very misleading to the casual observer who looks at the box score. A preseason win or loss isn't a great indicator of what the season has in store for a team.
Most coaches don't bother to game plan the first two games, and the fourth game is designed for survival while the coaches finalize their plans for the season opener. It's the third game when the starters tend to play at least one half and there will be some principles of the game plan -- but nothing like the real games. So, what are the coaches and personnel people looking for as they labor over the game tapes?
Preseason is critical to determine the right 53 men for the opening-day roster, keep the top 22 players healthy, and get the rookies and newcomers in a position to help the team win games. The final outcome is of little importance but there are certain areas that can send up a yellow caution flag to the coaches and management. For example, kicking and punting in August are as close to real season standards as anything. Sure, there are rookies on coverage units who break down and give up big returns, but the punter and kicker can be evaluated. The Patriots already cut punter Josh Miller, who received a $100,000 bonus in the spring. Football people look inside other numbers to get a gauge on the progress of a team and where some adjustments must be made.
David Maxwell / Getty Images
With a year under their belts, it's clear Jon Kitna and the Lions have made great strides in their pass protection schemes.
One of the areas that can send a message to the franchise on a number of levels is the number of sacks a team gives up in the preseason. Some of the sacks are late in games when the third-team players are just finishing up the game, but there are many other things to be learned.
Are the protection schemes sound? Can the quarterbacks get the ball out of their hands on time? Do the backup o-linemen have a chance of keeping a QB out of the hospital? Is it safe to let your starting quarterback play with backup linemen and backs who may not be able to stop a pass rush or even recognize a pressure scheme?
Here's a breakdown of the sacks given up in the first two weeks of the preseason. A GM and head coach will put all of these sacks on a DVD and study the problems that the protection schemes face. If a sack came from a blitz that hasn't been practiced, it will drive the coaches to alter the practice plans. If the linemen are just breaking down, then there will be discussions about personnel changes. If the quarterback is holding the ball too long, it may be time to create competition with a backup or change the passing package to more quick passes or bootlegs.
I'm fairly sure a few clubs are looking for answers as they review the protection production with less than three weeks to the opening game. Keep in mind any ratio close to one sack per 20 passes is safe for the time being, but there are 12 teams giving up at least a sack every 10 passes or less.
Team Pass plays Sacks Sacks/Att
Arizona 72 4 1/18
Atlanta 67 1 1/67
Baltimore 69 4 1/17.2
Buffalo 53 6 1/8.88
Carolina 62 8 1/7.7
Chicago 42 1 1/42
Cincinnati 80 5 1/16
Cleveland 87 4 1/21.7
Dallas 51 4 1/12.7
Denver 51 2 1/25.5
Detroit 75 2 1/37.5
Green Bay 74 3 1/24.6
Houston 67 3 1/22.3
Jacksonville 66 7 1/9.4
Kansas City 55 5 1/11
Miami 50 7 1/7
Minnesota 41 5 1/8.2
New Orleans 109 7 1/15.5
New England 64 4 1/16
New York Giants 54 8 1/6.7
New York Jets 58 3 1/19.3
Oakland 73 3 1/24.3
Philadelphia 71 7 1/10
Pittsburgh 80 9 1/9
San Diego 71 8 1/9
San Francisco 64 7 1/9
Seattle 62 8 1/7.7
Tampa Bay 52 4 1/13
Tennessee 74 4 1/18.5
Washington 61 8 1/7.6
In no way do I believe there is enough information from two preseason games to make a determination about a team's protection, but there are a number if interesting issues that emerge from looking at teams this way.
The Raiders were the worst team in the NFL last year, surrendering a sack once every 6.5 pass attempts. They are clearly on the road to improvement. If the line was playing like it did last year and the quarterback was a different decision maker, Oakland would have 11 sacks allowed, as opposed to three.
The Steelers are working hard to open up their passing attack and it is starting to look great. The deep vertical attack has already produced seven completions of more than 25 yards and two more short passes that have gone for 24 yards or more -- but at what price? The pass protection/QB decision-making and route running has also generated one sack every nine attempts. In the regular season, when an average of 27 pass plays are called per contest, it equates to three sacks per game. Last year the Steelers gave up three sacks a game and the Ravens alone had 13 sacks in two games against their archrival. Pittsburgh still has work to do if they want to increase the passing this year.
Up in Detroit, Jon Kitna and the rest of the offense appears to have benefited from a year of experience. Last year, the Lions quarterback was sacked 63 times -- or one every 9.4 pass attempts. After watching practice and talking with players and coaches in Detroit, it's no surprise they are improving in this area of the game.
The risk of injury for the starting quarterback in preseason games will keep general managers and head coaches awake at night. The injury to Jason Campbell of the Redskins will act as a reminder of the issues during the preseason. With starters playing extended periods of time this week, there has to be improvement -- especially in San Diego, where Philip Rivers has been sacked four times already in just 20 pass attempts; Carolina, where Jake Delhomme was dropped three times in 26 pass plays; and down in Jacksonville, where Byron Leftwich was sacked three times in 22 pass attempts.
Replacing a good quarterback this time of year is next to impossible. So an injury from a few sacks while attempting 25 passes in the name of getting ready for the season can obviously be counterproductive. On the other hand, for a young quarterback like Tarvaris Jackson in Minnesota, who has only attempted 15 passes all summer and is on a team that has been giving up a sack every 8.2 passes, it's worth the risk if he wants to be ready for the season opener.