Can a defense succeed despite a poor pass rush? Today I set out to answer that. Here’s how we’re gonna do this: starting with 2019 and working backward, I am going to look for the intersection of two stats: Top ten defensive performance as measured by DVOA and bottom ten pass rush performance as measured by adjusted sack rate. I will go year-by-year until I have found at least five teams which meet these criteria.
DVOA: -6.0 (9th)
Pass: 3.3% (9th)
Run: -20.1% (6th)
ASR: 6.5% (27th)
Sacks: 39 (15th)
Top Pass Rusher: DeMarcus Lawrence 10.5 sacks
Notable stat: Dallas finished 5th in QB Knockdown percentage, 9.2%.
Analysis: Despite Dallas’s poor finish in adjusted sack rate, this was probably a pretty good pass rush. The poor finish in adjusted sack rate is probably indicative of Rod Marinelli’s system which emphasizes disruption over sacks, a just okay secondary, and the inherently volatile nature of a small sample.
DVOA: -15.4% (3rd)
Pass: -8.6% (6th)
Run: -25.5% (2nd)
ASR: 5.9% (24th)
Sacks: 37 (17th)
Top Pass Rusher: Chandler Jones 17 sacks
Notable stat: Arizona’s next two top pass rushers were Olsen Pierre with 5.5 and Haason Reddick with 2.5.
Analysis: By all indications, the 2017 Cardinals truly were not a great pass rushing team, but unlike the 2020 Seahawks, they did have a Hall of Fame caliber pass rusher in Jones. He led the league in sacks and tackles for a loss. Arizona had a sack in every game. The 2019 Seahawks, by contrast, had five games without recording a sack. Tyrann Mathieu and Patrick Peterson both started 16 games, playing in 99% and 96% of possible defensive snaps, respectively. The 2017 Cardinals are proof that a defense can be great without a great pass rush, but they’re a poor comparison for the 2020 Seahawks.
DVOA: -13.9% (3rd)
Pass: -4.7% (5th)
Rush: -27.2% (2nd)
ASR: 5.5% (23rd)
Sacks: 35 (14th)
Top Pass Rusher: Olivier Vernon 8.5 sacks
Notable stat: New York finished 27th in 2015 and 25th in 2017 in defensive DVOA.
Analysis: This is the best fit so far. New York had no true elite pass rusher but a deep group of decent pass rushers and a very good secondary. Strong safety Landon Collins finished third on the team earning four sacks. Despite finishing fifth, the pass defense was a very large step down from the tier of truly elite pass defenses. Denver, the reigning Super Bowl champs and best overall pass defense, was roughly five times more effective.
DVOA: -18.1% (2nd)
Pass: -11.3% (3rd)
Run: -29.0% (2nd)
ASR: 5.7% (27th)
Sacks: 36 (20th)
Top Pass Rusher: Dwight Freeney (!?) 8.0 sacks
Notable stat: Arizona forced 33 turnovers, second in the NFL.
Analysis: While not a great pass rush this was likely a good pass rush which just didn’t convert too much of that disruption into sacks. Four players finished with ten or more quarterback hits. One of those players, Markus Golden, had 12.5 sacks the next season. Another, Calais Campbell, is making slow but steady progress toward enshrinement in Canton. Another possible indication of consistent pressure is that despite finishing tied for 19th in passes defended Arizona finished 7th in opposing quarterback completion percentage. The stars of the 2017 secondary, Mathieu and Peterson, were both first-team All-Pro in 2015.
DVOA: -12.3% (4th), -9.3% (9.3%), -8.8% (7th)
Pass: -4.0% (7th), -8.4% (2nd), 0.7% (9th)
Run: -28.3% (2nd), -10.8% (16th), -24.3% (4th)
ASR: 6.3% (23rd), 6.2% (24th), 5.3% (28th)
Sacks: 41 (9th), 38 (19th), 35 (24th)
Top Pass Rusher(s): Von Miller 14, J.J. Watt 20.5, Alex Okafor 8.0
Analysis: See below.
Even accounting for the relative bonanza of good defenses with only so-so pass rushes found in 2014, there seems to be about one defense per year which succeeds while fielding a poor pass rush. That isn’t good news for the 2020 Seahawks. Most of those teams still started a very good or even Hall of Fame caliber pass rusher. Despite their ranking in Adjusted Sack Rate, most of those teams probably did not field a bad pass rush, either. Among our 2014 group, Denver finished 9th in quarterback hits. Houston finished third.
The one team that stands out as truly different from the others is the 2016 Giants. That team could offer something in the way of a hopeful model for the 2020 Seahawks except for two factors: 1.) Jason Pierre-Paul and Olivier Vernon were both arguably better than any pass rusher currently on the Seahawks roster and 2.) New York’s defense collapsed in the Wild Card round of the playoffs, losing 38-13 to the Packers while allowing 406 total yards of offense.
I am not going to suggest that this proves the 2020 Seahawks cannot field a good defense. Each defense forges its own path, but some common features of the above teams are instructive. Nearly all had a dominant run defense. Among those teams which did not have a single dominant pass rusher, a very good or even great secondary picked up much of the slack. Seattle would seemingly have the potential to field a great run defense and a great secondary.
Perhaps the truest source of hope is this though. Many great pass rushes feature no star players. Washington finished 4th in Adjusted Sack Rate in 2019. None of its pass rushers made the Pro Bowl. The same can be said of Carolina, who finished third. In 2018, Tampa and Detroit did more or less likewise. Etc. Seattle entrusted its pass rush to a star player last season and that pass rush turned out to be a terrible disappointment, very likely costing the Seahawks a meaningful shot at contention. This year it’s up to everybody.