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In the NFL it’s hit the quarterback and win the game

Wink Martindale told us this when he first arrived. Can the Giants do it out west?

Dallas Cowboys v New York Giants Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Hand-wringing over the state of the New York Giants reached epic proportions this week after they laid an egg in their opening game against the Dallas Cowboys. Most of it focused on the sorry state of the offensive line, but some of it was directed at quarterback Daniel Jones, the $40M per year man who could not put a point on the board.

If you watched the game, though, you knew that Jones had no chance. He was under constant pressure from the Cowboys (66.7% of dropbacks) and had no time to get the Giants’ passing game going. Jones wasn’t completely blameless - he missed several reads, as Nick Falato showed, including on the ill-fated pass to Saquon Barkley that was jarred loose by Trevon Diggs and returned for a touchdown that basically ended the game before the first half was even over. Overall, though, the loss can be pinned on the right side of the Giants’ offensive line.

Still, there is sentiment out there that the great quarterbacks can overcome this type of adversity. Maybe that is true occasionally (think Eli Manning’s heroic effort against San Francisco in the 2011 playoffs, more on that in a moment), but it sure wasn’t the case in Week 1 of the 2023 season.

Here are the Pro Football Focus quarterback passing grades for Week 1 for all quarterbacks with at least 20 dropbacks, plotted as a function of sacks + QB hits:

Data from Pro Football Focus

Most people focus on sacks alone, but hitting the quarterback, whether he is sacked or not, is what matters most to Giants’ defensive coordinator Wink Martindale. Here’s what he said in his first Giants’ training camp:

“When you pressure a quarterback, you want to change the picture,” Martindale said. “I always say, ‘Pressure breaks pipes.’ You want to make him think fast. You want to hit the quarterback or make him make a quick decision that he doesn’t want to make.

The Week 1 results, though admittedly a small sample, would seem to bear him out. A sack is always the best, since it guarantees that the play was a success for the defense, but QB hits help, a lot more than just pressures do. Here are the correlations between PFF passing grade and various types of pressure for Week 1:

Data from Pro Football Focus

Any kind of pressure on a quarterback helps, and sacks help the most, but the quarterback’s passing grade suffers the most when the quarterback gets hit, whether or not it results in a sack.

Going beyond just the correlation, one of the interesting things in the figure above is that you can almost draw a straight line between the highest PFF grades for each number of QB hits + sacks. Again, this is only a one-week sample, but it suggests that QB hits + sacks produces an approximate upper limit on how well any quarterback can perform in a given week most of the time. It doesn’t completely predict quarterback success, because some QBs just don’t play well, regardless of how often the defense hits them.

For example, eight QBs were hit or sacked three times last week. They range from Bryce Young’s 36.3 grade in his first NFL game to Mac Jones’ 76.9. Josh Dobbs, whom the Giants will see on Sunday, graded only 50.9, while Brock Purdy, who faces the Giants four days later, graded 70.6. Meanwhile, the three highest graded QBs in Week 1 all didn’t have a hand laid on them by the opposing defense. None of them are among the highest paid in the NFL. Joe Burrow, who is the highest paid, was hit four times last Sunday and had a PFF grade about as poor as Daniel Jones’. Pressure breaks pipes, indeed.

Poor Jones stands alone (or lies alone on the turf) with eight QB hits + pressures, two more than any other QB faced in Week 1. If we take seriously the idea that the chart above defines a kind of upper limit on how well a QB can play as a function of how often he’s hit, it suggests that Jones couldn’t have done much better than about a 50 PFF grade no matter what he did.

Dak Prescott, on the other hand, was not sacked at all and was only hit once. That wasn’t all the fault of the defensive line, according to Martindale:

We saw during the game when, early in the second quarter, they weren’t going to let (Cowboys quarterback) Dak (Prescott) get hit. They were getting rid of the ball fast. I don’t know the exact number on the opportunities of just straight drop-back passes. There’s a lot of play action, a lot of boots, and he got rid of the ball quick. So, you have to adjust your game plan as well. I think that’s the fewest amount of times we’ve blitzed them since through the third game that we’ve played them, because I saw that they were getting rid of the ball so quick, that they weren’t going to let him get hit.

That allowed Prescott to compile a 70.5 passing grade, which the chart suggests was about 15 points lower than the best he might have hoped for. So the Giants’ defense was doing something right.

I briefly alluded to Eli Manning’s 2011 playoff game in San Francisco above. Here are his stats for the 2011 postseason:

Data from Pro Football Focus

In three of the four playoff games, the Giants’ OL protected Eli well, giving up a total of only 10, 13, and 17 total pressures (DPR in the chart), only 0, 1, and 1 QB hits (HAT in the chart), and only 1, 1, and 3 sacks (SK in the chart). Manning responded with PFF grades of 90.9, 87.0, and 91.5 and had 7 TDs and only 1 INT in those three games. In San Francisco, though, he was sacked 6 times and hit 2 other times, almost identical to what Jones experienced last Sunday. He still managed two TD passes but his PFF grade dropped to 65.8. Indeed, outside the fourth quarter he didn’t do all that much except survive. If you were to add a point for that game to the chart above, though, he would stand alone, his grade being comparable to the best one might expect when a QB is hit 4-5 times. A superhuman effort.

So we can mostly absolve Daniel Jones of blame for the debacle last Sunday. This Sunday, hit Dobbs a few times and the defense should be able to control the game. The following Thursday, though, the Giants may have to abuse Purdy more than he is used to if they are going to have a chance to come away with a win.