Oliver Vernon signed with the New York Giants last off-season for a massive deal. As a free agent, Vernon received $85 million for five years with $52.5 million of that guaranteed. He was a constant presence on the field last season as he played 93.6 percent of the team’s defensive snaps. That was the highest percentage for any defensive lineman in the league. Only two others -- Khalil Mack of Oakland and Cameron Jordan of New Orleans -- were above 90 percent and just eight others were above 80 percent.
But to some, Vernon’s debut season with the Giants was a disappointment. He ended the year with just 8.5 sacks, 21st-most in the league. But that doesn’t tell the whole story. Vernon led the league in individual pass pressures -- 61 per Sports Info Solutions charting per Football Outsiders. The next-closest defender, Philadelphia’s Brandon Graham, had 48. There was a bigger pressure gap between Vernon and Graham than there was between Graham and the 12th-best defender, Atlanta’s Vic Beasley. Getting into the backfield isn’t new for Vernon, either. He was fourth among defenders in 2015.
No, not all of these pressures result in sacks, but they still matter quite a bit. Let’s try to debunk this myth that pressures don’t matter with a quick example from the other side of the ball. It’s hard to find a Giants fan who is currently in favor of the team’s offensive line. The passing game was thrown off last season in part because the line in front of Eli Manning struggled to block competently. But Manning was only sacked on 3.4 percent of his drop backs in 2016, which tied for the second-lowest rate of his career. That tied with Tom Brady for the third-lowest sack rate in the league and was 22 percent better than the league average in 2016. If Eli isn’t getting sacked, why should we really care that much about the pass protection?
The goal of an edge rusher like Vernon is to disrupt the quarterback in some way. Sacks are great, but throwing the quarterback and offense off in any way can be just as good. This is because every quarterback is worse when under pressure. Per Football Outsiders’ DVOA, every quarterback in the league last season was a below average passer when under pressure.
Last year, the best quarterback under pressure was Aaron Rodgers, who had a minus-3.3 percent DVOA, meaning he was 3.3 percent worse than the expected league average. Overall, a minus-3.3 percent DVOA would be between the 19th and 20th best quarterbacks overall in the league last season. Just with the ability to add pressure, Aaron Rodgers turns into the equivalent of the 19th best quarterback and that was with Rodgers could be looked at as an exception.
Tyrod Taylor had the second-best DVOA on plays under pressure last season, but that was at a much worse minus-21.3 percent. That would place him between the 31st and 32nd ranked overall quarterbacks in 2016 -- Case Keenum and Ryan Fitzpatrick. Pressure clearly makes a difference.
Take the below play from Week 2 against the New Orleans Saints. It was third-and-7 with the Saints just over midfield. Vernon lined up on the left side of the offense. On the play, he was supposed to get chipped by tight end Coby Fleener at the line and running back Mark Ingram in the backfield. Neither does his job efficiently, Vernon closed in on Brees, and forced an unbalanced throw off the quarterback’s back foot. Fleener, the intended target, eventually fell down on the route, but it wouldn’t have mattered. The pass was going to sail over his head regardless and the Saints were forced to punt.
On a play like this in that area of the field, there’s little difference between a sack and a forced incompletion. The result got the defense off the field. And while Vernon wasn’t able to get a hit on Brees, one of the best at maneuvering in the pocket, he was able to make the quarterback uncomfortable on the throw. Take a closer look at how Brees had to release the ball:
Pressures don’t even have to force incompletions to help the defense. In Week 15 against the Cowboys, Vernon had a play where he was unblocked off the line on second-and-7. Dak Prescott had little time to set his feet and no time to step up in the pocket. While he quickly got a pass off to Jason Witten, it was shallow enough that Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie was immediately able to make a tackle to set up third down.
As far as Jason Witten receptions against the Giants go, this could have been much worse with more time to develop. The Giants also stopped the Cowboys on third down and forced a punt. Again, look at the position the quarterback had to release the ball from:
Sometimes pressures can lead to better things than sacks. Against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 5, Vernon helped force a turnover after he got in the face of Carson Wentz. On this play, Vernon was lined up on the right side of the offense. Wentz left the pocket to his right and Vernon shed the block of the right tackle. As he closed in on Wentz, the quarterback sailed an off balance throw over the head of his receiver and into the arms of Landon Collins for an interception. The Giants scored on a pass to Odell Beckham two plays later.
Again, take a look at how the quarterback had to release the ball:
All three of these plays could have been sacks. That would have equaled 11.5 sacks for Vernon on the year, which would have tied for the sixth-most in the league. In reality, would Vernon’s season have been that much better if these plays resulted in sacks instead of how they did? Probably not. Sacks are great and often it’s hard for offenses to recover, but they’re not the bottom line when it comes to pass rush productivity. Olivier Vernon had a stellar season for the Giants in 2016 and there’s little reason to believe he won’t have just as much impact on the game in 2017, sacks or not.