This is true: through the first seven games, the Tennessee Titans have totaled a measly 11 sacks. That total is good for 30th in the NFL, 22 behind the league leader in Jacksonville. Its almost a full sack per game fewer than they average last year when they finished with 40 sacks (T-6th in NFL). The only teams that have gotten the quarterback on the ground less are the Jets and Bucs. That’s pretty awful, right?
This is also true: through the first seven games, the Tennessee Titans have gotten pressure on 34.1% of all opponent passing attempts per Football Outsiders. That is good for 5th in the NFL, just 2.3% behind league leader Jacksonville. Three Titans rank in the top 20 at their positions in PFF’s Pass Rusher Productivity Rating: Brian Orakpo (8th among edge rushers), Derrick Morgan (20th among edge rushers), and Jurrell Casey (11th among interior defenders).
So what, if anything, are we to make of this? The obvious answer is that the Titans have to do a better job of getting the quarterback on the ground when they get there. They have faced some of the more elusive quarterbacks in the NFL through the first 7 weeks, so seeing their sack-to-pressure rate being relatively low isn’t all that surprising. Russell Wilson and Deshaun Watson are two of the best at escaping pressure in the game. Even guys like Jacoby Brissett and Blake Bortles are relatively tough marks for sack artists. The good news is that the future schedule features more stationary targets than mobile ones, starting with whichever statue is behind center for the Ravens in Week 8.
PFF outlined some of the reasons that pressures themselves are valuable even if they aren’t necessarily resulting in sacks. While that is undoubtedly true, sacks are crucial for a successful defense. Derrik Klassen did a study this summer on the value of sacks that produced some interesting data. He found that sacks killed your opponent’s drive 83.99% of the time. That’s a pretty huge number. Furthermore, another study found that 8.5% of all sacks result in a turnover via a sack-fumble-recovery. Getting pressure is great, but sacks can change games.
The Titans currently have a sack conversion rate of 12.8%. League average in the past has generally been around 16-17% in years past according to a PFF study from 2013. Conversely, the Jaguars have somehow converted at a ridiculous 38.5% sack-to-pressure rate.
Translating pressures in to sacks is largely more luck than skill though. That is backed up by the fact that pressure rate has historically been a better predictor of future sacks than past sack output itself. For example, if a player (or set of players in this case) have an extremely high pressure rate but low sack totals, they are very likely to see an increase in their sack rate over future games/seasons. That’s good news if you’re a Titans fan.
Pass rush is still something the Titans need to focus on improving in the long term though. The team still relies heavily on blitzes to generate their good pressure numbers and that takes defenders out of passing lanes down field. However that’s a problem for another day. For now, some simple regression to the statistical mean would help this defense turn more of these near misses in to valuable sacks.