For the fourth straight season, the Pittsburgh Steelers led the NFL in sacks and eclipsed the 50 mark each season. With the Steelers holding their opponents to under 20 points a game in 2020, how much did sacking the quarterback directly lead to a reduction in points?
In order to answer this question, I looked at every drive during the 2020 season in which the Steelers sacked the quarterback at least once. Interestingly enough, with 56 sacks the Steelers only had two drives on the season where they sacked the quarterback multiple times. Therefore, there were a total of 54 drives out of the 188 the Steelers defense faced in 2020 in which the quarterback was sacked.
Since two drives the Steelers defense faced in 2020 consisted of only quarterback kneel downs, I’m taking them out of the equation simply because it makes sense. So for the 2020 season, the Steelers had 54 defensive drives Where they achieved at least one sack and 132 drives where they did not. This means 29.0% of the drives the Steelers defended they got to the quarterback at least once where 71.0% of the drives they did not.
On the season the Steelers surrendered 312 points as a team. Six of those points directly came by the offense against the Buffalo Bills (which they subsequently missed the PAT) so they will not be counted against the Steelers defense. This leaves the Steelers surrendering 306 points on the season. With 29% of the total drives having a sack, it would make sense for the Steelers to have surrendered about 90 points on these drives. This was not the case. The Steelers actually surrendered 52 points on drives in which they had at least one sack.
If you’re looking at it from a points per drive breakdown, the Steelers only surrendered 0.96 points per drive when they had a sack and exactly twice as many at 1.92 points per drive when they did not.
When looking strictly at the outcome of drives the Steelers had a sack, the end result was as follows:
Punt: 28 (51.9%)
Turnover: 6 (11.1%)
Downs: 3 (5.56%)
End of Half: 3 (5.56%)
Missed FG: 2 (3.70%)
Field Goal: 8 (14.8%)
Touchdown: 4 (7.41%)
NOTE: The two drives which ended the half were actually fourth down plays as time expired so they could have been in either category.
As you can see, the Steelers only gave up four touchdowns in 2020 on drives where they had a sack. Interesting enough, two of those four touchdowns were against the Baltimore ravens in Week 8. The other two touchdowns came against the Cleveland Browns in Week 6 (their only touchdown of the game), and the Indianapolis Colts in Week 16. Also, the 2 drives on the season which had multiple sacks each ended with a successful field goal in Week 10 against Cincinnati and Week 13 against Washington.
Rather than do a complete breakdown of all Steelers drives, I’ll highlight some of the main numbers. While the Steelers forced a punt on 51.9% of drives where they had a sack, their season average of all drives was 43.1% because when the Steelers did not get a sack they forced a punt on 40.2% of those drives. When it came to scoring points, the Steelers only gave up a field goal or touchdown on 22.2% of drivers were they had a sack where their total average was 29.6% with an average on the drives where no sack was achieved was 32.6%.
Obviously, The Steelers gave up less points on drives where they had at least one sack. But there’s still more to the story…
Out of all drives on the season, the Steelers surrendered a successful field goal on 10.8% of drives. What’s interesting is that drives that ended with the successful field goal where the Steelers had a sack were 14.8% of the time. So the Steelers were more likely to give up a field goal on a drive where they got a sack than on ones were they did not.
Why would this be the case? Actually, it’s quite obvious when looking at all scoring drives. Looking at touchdowns, the Steelers opponents reached the end zone on 18.8% of drives in 2020. But when the Steelers got a sack, their opponents only scored a touchdown on 7.41% of drives. With the Steelers giving up less points on drives than their season average when they had a sack, and giving up much less of a percentage (less than half) when it came to teams scoring touchdowns, it goes to show that sacks helped keep opponents scoring drives to 3 points rather than 7 points.
Ultimately, it would be great if the Steelers never surrendered points at any time. But that’s not how the NFL works. It would also be great if every time the Steelers got a sack it resulted in their opponent being unable to score. That’s a bit of an unrealistic goal as well. But even though the Steelers allowed their opponents to score less often on drives where they had a sack, they also overwhelmingly had those drives end in field goals rather than touchdowns.
As expected, sacking the quarterback has a direct result on teams ability to keep points off the board. When a sack kills a drive, or turn 7 points into only 3, getting even just one at the right time can make a huge difference in a game.