The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have one of the lowest sack rates in the NFL, but why is that?
Despite losing two Pro Bowl offensive linemen and starting backups at almost every position along the offensive line, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are among the best teams at avoiding sacks in the NFL. Their sack rate of 4.2% is ranked sixth in the NFL. JoeBucsFan would give full credit to the offensive line, but that's a little too simple for my tastes. In fact, I would say that an offensive line has very little to do with the number of sacks given up.
The main determining factor in sacks allowed is not the offensive line, as counter-intuitive as that may seem, but it's the quarterback. Peyton Manning, for instance, was the least sacked quarterback in the NFL for the final two years of his Indianapolis tenure, despite the simple fact that his offensive line was one of the worst in the NFL. Drew Brees has been above average at avoiding sacks since 2003, despite playing with one of the worst pairs of starting offensive tackles in the NFL over the past years. Over his 11-year career, Tom Brady has always been better than average at avoiding sacks, despite plenty of fluctuations along his offensive line. Similarly, Eli Manning has always been better than average at avoiding sacks, even in seasons when he was below average at everything else.
Meanwhile, Aaron Rodgers has had a decent (but not dominant) offensive line throughout his career -- and yet he's been among the league leaders in sack rate throughout his career. Alex Smith played behind one of the best offensive lines in the NFL the past two years, and yet had sack rates of 9% and 10% -- astonishingly high numbers. Kevin Kolb has been below average at avoiding sacks since 2010 (when he was still with the Eagles), with only 2009 as an outlier, a year in which he played sparingly. Michael Vick has always taken more sacks than the average quarterback, despite his 'mobility' -- because he does not know how to manipulate a pocket and use his blockers to his advantage.
That's not to say that quarterback play is entirely irrelevant. Certain levels of incompetence simply cannot be compensated for, but there are a lot of things quarterbacks can do to avoid sacks. The easiest method is obvious: just throw the ball away. How many ill-advised balls have you seen Freeman throw under pressure this season? Avoiding sacks isn't always a good thing, after all. But stepping up in the pocket and moving around to create some functional space are two more things Freeman actually does pretty well to help out his blockers. And Freeman has gotten better at avoiding sacks in every season, going from a sack rate of 6.5% in 2009 to 5.6%, 5.0% and 4.3% in the following three seasons.
And, of course, the scheme matters. Running the ball and running a lot of play-action passes slows down pass-rushers, while keeping in extra blockers certainly helps as well. Moving the pocket, running bootlegs, quick passes -- all of these things help lower sack rates.
So are the Bucs among the best pass-protecting units in the NFL, despite starting Jamon Meredith and Ted Larsen for almost the entire season at both guard positions? Or is it just that they've done certain things with the scheme to help avoid sacks, while Freeman himself is actually pretty good at avoiding sacks himself? If you ask me, it's the latter.