Sacks are hurting NFL offenses more than interceptions

For decades, interceptions were considered the bane of an NFL quarterback’s existence, lethal mistakes to be avoided at all costs. An intercepted pass often leads to a sudden shift in momentum and, in some cases, instant points for the opposing team, and quarterbacks with an interception problem found themselves benched, or out of the league.

But a fundamental shift in the game should challenge this conventional wisdom in judging NFL quarterbacks. While interceptions are undoubtedly still harmful, the negative consequences of a sack are often underestimated. And as pass rushing improves and quarterbacks often opt for safer throws, sacks — in aggregate — have been more damaging to NFL offenses this season than even the dreaded interception. That’s because sacks have been three times as common as interceptions in 2023, the highest sack-to-interception ratio since at least 1963, the first year data is available. (Sacks didn’t become an official NFL statistic until 1982.)

Pass rushing once was a skill. In today’s NFL, it has become a position.

You can thank both better pass rushing and a more conservative approach to the passing game for that. Teams are averaging 7.8 air yards per attempt this season, one of the lowest figures since 2006, the first year data is available from TruMedia. Fewer big throws downfield means fewer opportunities for ball-hawking defenses to make big plays. Instead, it’s the guys up front getting to the quarterback in ever more ingenious ways that is causing the most disruption to offenses and, subsequently, siphoning potential points from the scoreboard.

An interception leads to a change in possession, but the field position after an interception is not always advantageous. The average starting field position for a drive immediately following an interception is a team’s own 47-yard line. Sacks result in a loss of yards and, more often than not, these yards are not easily regained in a single play. Plus, sacks often result in fumbles — one out of every eight sacks this season has been a strip sack, per data from TruMedia, another high-risk scenario for an offense. These fumbles can be just as detrimental as interceptions, especially since they are recovered with an average field position just shy of the red zone at the 21-yard line.

An interception this season has cost an offense around four expected points after taking into account the down, distance and field position of each mistake. The average sack costs an offense around 1.5 expected points, but because they are more common, they actually do more damage in aggregate to an offense’s scoring potential. There have been 2.6 sacks per team per game, on average, in 2023, costing offenses 4.2 points per game. With less than one interception per team per game (0.8 through 10 weeks), the loss to the offense is approximately 3.3 points per game. As a result, 21 of 32 teams have lost more expected points per game due to sacks than interceptions in 2023, according to data from TruMedia.

Chicago Bears quarterback Justin Fields is estimated to have lost the most expected points per game to sacks this season (7.4), about twice as much as he has due to interceptions (3.6 points per game). Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert has one of the lowest interception rates in the league this season (five in 322 attempts) yet he and his team have lost an estimated three expected points per game due to sacks.

On Sunday, to give one example, New England Patriots quarterback Mac Jones had an untimely interception late in the fourth quarter, costing the team around four expected points in a 10-6 loss to the Indianapolis Colts in Germany. The pick — on a second-and-12 play from the Colts’ 15-yard-line, in which a touchdown would have put the Patriots ahead — was one of the lingering memories of another disappointing performance from Jones. Yet you could argue the five sacks he took were more impactful, even if they weren’t as memorable. Among those sacks: a third and three in the red zone that led to a field goal; a third and four near midfield that led to a punt; a first and 10 that led to a three-and-out; a third and two that led to a punt and a third and three that led to a punt. In total, the sacks had an estimated cost to the Patriots of nearly eight points, even if none had the visceral impact of that goal-line interception.

If sacks are, in total, more costly than interceptions — or even if they’re in the same ballpark — then the well-known passer rating is nearly obsolete as a way to judge quarterbacks. Passer rating is calculated using a player’s passing attempts, completions, yards, touchdowns and interceptions. Sacks are not part of the equation, and since we know sacks are impacting NFL offenses more than interceptions, we should look for other ways to assess quarterback performance, such as expected points added, ESPN’s Total Quarterback Rating or the grades handed out by the game charters at Pro Football Focus.

Russell Wilson, for example, has thrown just four interceptions in eight games entering Monday Night’s meeting with the Bills, boosting his passer rating to fifth among qualified quarterbacks. But that doesn’t account for the 26 times he’s been sacked. (He has the fifth-highest sack percentage in the league, a year after getting sacked more than any quarterback.)

So, should NFL defenses focus more on generating sacks than interceptions? It’s obviously not that simple, and interceptions will remain game-changing plays that can swing a game’s flow in clear ways. Still, sacks, with their hidden consequences and far-reaching effects on offensive performance, deserve more recognition for the pivotal role they play in determining the outcome of NFL games — and in determining which quarterbacks and which negative plays cost NFL offenses most.

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