FOXBOROUGH — To paraphrase Mark Twain, there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and sack statistics.
Blowing up quarterbacks in the backfield gets a defense attention, but it doesn’t always paint an accurate picture of how good that unit is at bringing pressure. The Patriots defense is a good example, because right now, it can seem very effective or very ineffective at pressuring quarterbacks depending on which numbers you look at.
The Patriots have just seven sacks on the season, putting them in a three-way tie for last in the NFL with the Giants and Raiders. New England is also last in the NFL in sacks per passing play defended.
But that’s not the full picture.
The Patriots have registered 32 quarterback hits, which is middle of the pack. Through Week 5, ESPN calculated that they’d gotten pressure on 32.3 percent of dropbacks by opposing quarterbacks, second-best in the NFL behind the Rams.
“Sacks are great to get — don’t get me wrong,” said Patriots defensive end Deatrich Wise. “Everybody wants to get sacks, everybody who plays defense wants to get sacks. It’s like getting interceptions.
“But at the same time, to affect the quarterback is equally as great as a sack because you’re affecting the ball, the timing of the release, the timing of the route and everything. So hits, pressures, making him get off his rhythm is very important too.
“That’s one thing that’s not on the stat sheet but is on the hidden stat sheet.”
Though the Patriots have gotten just four sacks since Week 1, when they had three against the Texans, the pressure rate has been rising: New England pressured the Colts’ Andrew Luck 20 times and the Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes 17 times, according to Pro Football Focus. They got just eight pressures on Matthew Stafford in a loss to the Lions.
“I think anytime you can sack the quarterback, that’s great,” said Patriots linebackers coach Brian Flores, the team’s de facto defensive coordinator. “With that, when you’re sacking him, you’re pressuring him, and I think no quarterback likes having pressure on the edge or up the middle.
“So, yeah, I value pressures a lot.”
Flores brought up Adrian Clayborn, who doesn’t have a sack this season but leads the Patriots with 20 total pressures, per Pro Football Focus.
“He’s put a lot of pressure on the quarterback and that’s led to some mistakes,” Flores said. “He put some pressure on Mahomes that led to some mistakes from Mahomes last week.”
Pressure from Clayborn probably contributed to Mahomes overthrowing Travis Kelce on third-and-4 with 3:33 remaining in the first quarter. The Chiefs were on the Patriots’ 24-yard line, and Kelce likely would have scored a touchdown if he’d caught the ball.
Instead, Kansas City had to settle for a field goal. In easy field goal range, the result of pressure leading to a bad throw on third down isn’t all that different from a sack.
“I think that goes a long way toward marrying a rush and the coverage, and playing really good defense,” Flores said. “So getting pressure on the quarterback is, I would say, definitely something that we strive to do.”
Though it’s a bit academic, Pro Football Focus has analyzed the value of sacks and pressures and found that the average sack is 2.1 times more valuable than the average pressure, though on an individual basis, the value is dependent on the situation.
Along with Clayborn, Patriots defensive end Trey Flowers has been getting pressure every 5.6 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus. That would be a career best for him. Flowers, who missed the Lions game and part of the Jaguars game with a concussion, has two sacks this season.
Bears coach Matt Nagy said that when he watches the Patriots defense, he sees a unit that isn’t preoccupied with big, explosive plays. The emphasis is on containment, forcing opponents to execute long drives, and making the heavy hits in the red zone.
“That’s kind of what they do, though, and I don’t think that’s ever necessarily changed,” said Nagy. “Again, they have a belief in their system and how it goes and how it works and they’ve been successful.
“Whether there’s a game where they have a lot of pressure or there’s a game where there’s not much, you’ve got to be able to adapt to it.”
If the Patriots are successful in that Sunday, it won’t necessarily show up in a big sack total. The defense would certainly like to be bringing quarterbacks down more often, but it’s not the only way to bring pressure.