Frank Clark and Jarran Reed each have 21 quarterbacks hits, tied for tenth overall in the NFL. Ok, cool stat, right? And maybe not all that meaningful. Maybe no more meaningful than a Lonzo Ball assist, I thought to myself. Like many subjectively awarded stats, certain weird deviations feel a bit too weird. Did J.J. Watt, for instance, really compile seasons of 43, 46, 51 and 50 quarterback hits, when no other player in the 13-year history of the stat ever even reach 40? His 2014 total of 51 is one shy of what the San Diego Chargers achieved as a team. This sent me a-sleuthing, not into Watt’s totals, which are either Babe Ruth-like in their hyper dominance or bullshit, but into Reed’s.
Quarterback hit is a narrative statistic. It says: This is what happened. But it is also a pretty spare statistic. It doesn’t answer: What does this mean? And so I went through the NFL Game Books, which contain detailed information including snap counts and quarterback hits, and cross referenced that with Pro Football Reference’s play-by-play, which includes extra points added or lost for every play. PFR play-by-play is less detailed and less accurate but combining the two I was able to calculate an old favorite statistic of mine, lost when Brian Burke of Advanced NFL Analytics joined ESPN.
The stat works like this. If a defender makes a play and that play costs the opposing offense EPA, that defender is credited with the value of the play. But if the play does not cost the opposing offense EPA, if Earl Thomas runs down a receiver in the open field after a 20 yard gain on third and 15, for instance, Thomas is not debited for the EPA lost on that play. Otherwise a potentially good play made bad by the overall performance of the defense would be charged against one player, which player may not have done anything wrong. Now, I do not think a player’s value is merely the total of all the good plays that player made. But most football fans have a certain tolerance for individual stats awarded within a team sport, however misleading, and this stat translates relatively abstracted information like “quarterback hit” or “tackle after a gain of two,” into something meaty, into points.
Here are Reed’s week-to-week performances split into pass defense and run defense.
Despite a reputation as an elite run stuffer, Reed has been much more valuable as a pass rusher this season. Some of that is the capacity of pass plays to “blow up.” Reed’s most valuable tackle of a rusher was a split tackle of Cam Newton in Week 12. I split the value between Reed and Bobby Wagner, and did likewise on all assisted tackles or sacks, and any quarterback hit which also included a pass defended. That tackle of Newton only netted Reed 0.65 EPA. 16 of Reed’s 20 total plays against the pass were worth more than that play. Reed overall has earned 21.6 points as a pass defender compared to only 7.7 points as a run defender.
We no longer have access to the EPA leaderboards, but in order to provide some kind of context, I endured the horror of reading something I wrote a very long time ago. In 2008, Brandon Mebane finished eighth overall among defensive tackles, adding 34.4 points. Reed currently has 29.3 and that could be prorated to 33.0 over a 16-game season. Pretty similar contributions tho’ Mebane and Reed are not very similar players.
Let us look at Reed rush the passer. Specifically let us look at this drive.
Reed recorded a quarterback hit and two sacks with the game very much on the line. And while the 49ers have allowed a lot of sacks overall, ranking 24th in Football Outsiders adjusted sack rate, C.J. Beathard and especially Jimmy Garoppolo own a good a percentage of those. Nick Mullens ranks 15th overall in sack percentage, getting sacked on just 6% of plays. There is ample evidence that quarterbacks bear much of the responsibility for getting sacked.
Seahawks break in a single-high safety look.
Mullens is not noted for this arm strength, has only completed two passes in eight attempts of 21 yards or more, and has completed zero passes of 31 yards or more. While talent evaluators often uber-emphasize arm strength, that emphasis is not without merit. A weak-armed quarterback doesn’t just fail to make deep throws. A weak-armed quarterback shrinks the usable playing field, creating a tight compacted defense not unlike a red zone defense.
Reed is quick off the snap.
This quickness allows him to dictate where he will contact opposing right guard Michael Person.
To Reed’s right is a gap which he will exploit. None of the available video has a very good look at Reed’s pass rush move, but he uses it again in a later play. Basically he takes both hands and places those on the opposing blockers shoulder pads, and then uses both arms to push the blocker down and in this case left, while moving right.
Reed’s interior pressure forces this funky looking pass.
Dig both 49ers tackles just standing there. Note also Barkevious Mingo and Bobby Wagner patrolling the void. Wagner is covering the shallow middle, but Mingo is ...
preparing for an illegal outlet pass to Joe Staley? Whatever the case, a very good play by Reed is squandered. 49ers get nine, creating second and 1—an advantageous down and distance—with time on the clock before the two minute warning.
Seahawks never get set, creating this novel attempt at pass rush.
Luckily Kyle Shanahan called a play consisting of all short routes.
What looks like a disaster for Seattle turns out to be a simple nine yard gain—probably not worth the time it took to run the play. We’ll never know because the win probability graph craps out at this point. The next discernible datum point is the two-minute warning. Which robs us of fully appreciating this.
1st & 10 at SF 37
(2:00 - 4th) N.Mullens sacked at SF 28 for -9 yards (J.Reed).
Reed once again gets a good jump. He attacks Laken Tomlinson’s outside shoulder. Now we can see Reed’s particular specialty, a two-handed pull/swipe which launches him toward the quarterback.
Which turns into a garden variety swim move.
The relative speed of this pass rush is obvious if we look at the 49ers’ receivers. Only #84 Kendrick Bourne is out of his break.
Another way to think of it is Reed is arriving just as Mullens completes his five-step drop.
2nd & 19 at SF 28
(1:55 - 4th) (Shotgun) N.Mullens pass incomplete short left to T.Taylor.
Trent Taylor simply drops the pass. It is ever so slightly late.
Tre Flowers and Delano Hill do not get credit for the pass broken up through intimidation.
3rd & 19 at SF 28
(1:49 - 4th) (Shotgun) N.Mullens sacked at SF 19 for -9 yards (J.Reed).
With this sack, Reed and the Seahawks have moved win probability from 61.6% in favor of San Francisco following the Matt Breida completion to 66.1% in favor of Seattle, a 27.7% change—which is over half a win’s worth of win probability. It’s an incredible series for the third-year player, and it’s capped with a fittingly incredible move.
Quick off the snap:
Reed moves assertively up field while Quinton Jefferson slashes almost horizontally. This aligns San Francisco’s interior blockers allowing Reed to circle back into the space created by Jefferson. Reed plants.
Jacob Martin, Reed and Clark are all double teamed. San Francisco assigns seven blockers to stop Seattle’s four-man pass rush. It sure as shit doesn’t work.
Jefferson is creating a kind of pick. Despite appearances, he’s about to be washed out and away from Mullens. People just don’t have much explosive power moving toward their flank. But his job is done.
Reed cuts right and loops around the blockers, causing the center and left guard to collide. He changes direction smoothly and accelerates, but rather than as quickly as he can, Reed slow plays his initial move, ensuring the collision. He is in control, of the situation, of his opponent, and of his own talent.