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Third-down sacks: Seeking biggest stops a defense can get

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Osi Umenyiora and the Giants pass-rushed their way to another title. (Getty Images)  
Osi Umenyiora and the Giants pass-rushed their way to another title. (Getty Images)  

It is the offseason, the draft is over and it's a good time for teams to dig deep into last season to find improvement for 2012. My first stop in mining for answers is one of the most critical situations for any defense -- third-down situations.

Most acknowledge the NFL is a passing league, and if you can't stop a passing game, you are in trouble. No greater time to stop a passing attack than on third down, or as some players like to refer to it, "the money down."

Sacks are important in any passing situation, but a sack on third down ends a drive and forces a team to punt or settle for a field goal. Granted some teams went for it on fourth down (430 times to be exact in 2011) and converted 186 times, but when you compare that to 5,303 third-down passing plays and 1,292 run plays for a third-down total of 6.595 third-down plays, there's only a six percent chance a team will go for it on fourth down rather than punt or attempt a field goal.

It is clear that teams only run the ball 19.5 percent of the time on third down and they pass it 81.5 percent of the time, so sacking the QB in this situation is critical. I recognize that an incomplete pass in this situation is also a good thing, but my experience years ago against Dan Marino, Jim Kelly, Steve Young, Warren Moon and others was if we don't get them to the ground on third downs, they beat us most of the time.

Here's a look at all 32 teams sacks to pass attempts on third down last year from the best in the league Baltimore down to Tennessee. The NFL average for sacking a QB in third down situations last year was one sack every 12 attempts. If the Ravens don't drop a pass in the end zone, they were heading to the Super Bowl, and it's no surprise the top two defenses to get a sack on third downs were the Giants and Ravens.

Team sacks vs. pass attempts on 3rd down
TEAMPASS PLAYSSACKSRATIOCOMMENT
Baltimore 179 24 1:7 No Terrell Suggs hurts
NY Giants176 21 1:8 Umenyiora led the team with 5 sacks
Miami 171 20 1:9 The defense is not that far off
Philadelphia 171 19 1:9 They are loaded with rushers
Cincinnati 169 18 1:9 Geno Atkins led with 7 sacks
San Francisco 182 181:10 Aldon Smith & Justin Smith wow!
Oakland 173 17 1:10 Loss of Wimbley (4 sacks) hurts
Houston175 17 1:10 Amazing with no Mario Williams
Denver 159 15 1:11 Von Miller & Dumervil 6 sacks
New England 157 14 1:11 Pats got sacks when it counted
St. Louis 163 15 1:11 Long had 4, bring back Hall 3 sacks
Chicago185 16 1:12 Peppers had 5 and was double teamed
Arizona 167 14 1:12 Got 5 from Dockett & Campbell
Cleveland 166 14 1:12 Jabaal Sheard tied for No. 2 in NFL w/6.5
Detroit163 14 1:12 Avril 4, Suh 2, KVB 0, Fairley 0
Jacksonville 170 14 1:12 Mincey had 5; no wonder they paid him
Indianapolis154 13 1:12Freeney & Mathis had 9, 4 for the rest
Kansas City 152 13 1:12 Hali & Houston had 8; good young players
Buffalo 143 12 1:12 With Mario & Anderson they go way up
NY Jets 180 14 1:13 Maybin delivered (5), now Coples has to
Seattle 169 12 1:14 Clemons had 4 but expect Irvin to help
Carolina 151 11 1:14 C. Johnson had 3.5 but needs help
Tampa Bay 138 10 1:14 Lowest number of third downs and too young
San Diego143 9 1:16 Antwan Barnes had 6 sacks, the rest had 3

I love to hear the trade rumors about Osi Umenyiora. In 123 games Osi has 36.5 sacks in third-down situations for his career. That's a third down sack 1:3.3 games. Julius Peppers has 34.5 in 164 games or 1:4.7 games. The great Reggie White had 47.5 sacks on third downs in 251 games or 1:5.2 games. The Giants aren't giving Umenyiora away and probably shouldn't trade him at all. Reggie White played until he was 39, and Osi is just 31.

Finally, there must be something about the fourth-round and guys who can sack quarterbacks on the money down. Jared Allen was a fourth-round pick, and he has 41.5 sacks on third down or 1:3 games. This past season a young 2010 fourth-round player tied for the lead the NFL in third down sacks when Geno Atkins had 7. Antwan Barnes of the Chargers was a fourth in 2007 and he led the team with 6. Also keep an eye on Jabaal Sheard, a fifth-rounder in 2011 for the Browns. Sheard wound up with 6.5 and 4 forced fumbles on the money down.


Pat Kirwan has been around the league since 1972, serving in a variety of roles. He was a scout for the Cardinals and Buccaneers, a coach for the Jets as well as the team's Director of Player Administration where he negotiated contracts and managed the team's salary cap. He is the author of Take Your Eye Off the Ball: How to Watch Football by Knowing Where to Look, and the host of Sirius NFL Radio's Moving the Chains.
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