Pressure on the quarterback is often a determining factor in which team wins the Super Bowl. However, pressure does not only mean sacks. Just forcing a quarterback to release a ball sooner than he wants or hitting him as he’s releasing it can sometimes be even more advantageous than a sack.
In Super Bowl XLVIII, two quick pressures by Seattle on Peyton Manning led to two interceptions, including one returned for a touchdown after Manning’s arm was hit as he threw. That led to a 22-0 lead and the rout was on. Two years later in Super Bowl 50, Manning had the great defense on his side, and Von Miller forced two strip-sacks of Cam Newton that ultimately decided that game for Denver. In New England’s comeback win over Atlanta in Super Bowl LI, the turning point was when Dont’a Hightower strip-sacked Matt Ryan on a 3rd-and-1 with the Falcons up 28-12. That set up the offense on a short field and the comeback was on.
It’s not so much about the volume of pressure put on a quarterback, but it’s how he handles it in the big moments on third down, in the red zone, and with the game on the line. Fortunately, that type of context is what an advanced metric such as ESPN’s QBR is able to adjust for.
In 2017, Minnesota’s Case Keenum (58.5) and New England’s Tom Brady (54.0) led all quarterbacks in QBR under pressure with marks that rank among the top 10 in all seasons tracked since 2009. Brady’s placement may not come as a big surprise, but Keenum’s breakout season in Minnesota continues to be one of the wildest success stories since Kurt Warner went from bagging groceries to Super Bowl MVP in 1999.
Keenum also led all quarterbacks in Football Outsiders’ passing Defense-adjusted Value Over Average metric, which measures efficiency, and he may just be the least likely quarterback to do so since 1986. A big part of Keenum’s success has been his improvement at handling pressure. When we first saw Keenum with the 2013 Houston Texans, he held the ball a long time as an inexperienced second-year player. Keenum’s pressure rate in 2013 was 38.7 percent, the second-highest season among all quarterbacks since 2009. With the Rams in 2016, Keenum ranked dead last in QBR under pressure (6.5). He took a sack on 26.7 percent of the plays he was pressured on.
In Minnesota this year, Keenum has cut that mark in half, taking a sack on 13.3 percent of his pressures. Keenum has taken multiple sacks in each of his last seven games, but he was sacked just one time total from Week 5 to Week 11. A big help to Keenum has been wide receiver Adam Thielen, who led the NFL with 40 targets while his quarterback was under pressure — seven more than any other player. Thielen’s 397 receiving yards while targeted under pressure also led the NFL.
Thielen is a great security blanket for Keenum, but Stefon Diggs has also been helpful in these moments. The game-winning touchdown pass to Diggs against New Orleans technically wasn’t a play under pressure, but it was a pressure-packed moment of desperation for the duo. Keenum’s QBR under pressure against New Orleans was just 26.4; he completed 4 of 10 passes for 53 yards with a bad interception that got the Saints back in the game. He’ll have to be much better against a Philadelphia defense that got after Matt Ryan often last week. For the season, Philadelphia allowed a 4.7 QBR when getting pressure on the quarterback, which ranked third among all defenses. Keenum can’t force things this week or create turnovers in what should be a low-scoring battle.
Speaking of defense, the Jaguars ranked No. 1 in QBR when getting pressure (2.8). This is often a product of the Jaguars being able to get at the quarterback without sacrificing defenders in pass coverage: no defense blitzed less than Jacksonville at just 17.8 percent of its pass plays. That’s probably the right strategy against Tom Brady and the Patriots. You especially don’t want to send a big blitz of six-plus pass rushers at Brady. Since 2006 (including playoffs), Brady has 71 touchdowns to one interception against big blitzes (six-plus pass rushers).
Still, at 40 years old, Brady has managed to improve in this area, posting a phenomenal season against pass pressure. His average yards per pass attempt under pressure was 8.76, the highest of any of the 277 qualified seasons since 2009. He also had the second-highest completion rate (59.0 percent) and second-highest passer rating (109.1) under pressure since 2009. The only real issue was that Brady still took 35 sacks this year, but sometimes that’s just the smart play instead of forcing a pass into coverage.
Rob Gronkowski and his large catch radius are obviously a big help to Brady when he’s under pressure. Gronkowski led the Patriots with 226 receiving yards when his quarterback was pressured, but Danny Amendola also has a tendency toward clutch catches. Filling in for Julian Edelman in the slot, Amendola caught 14 of 21 targets for 186 yards when Brady was pressured this year. Throw in Brandin Cooks’ 215 receiving yards in these scenarios and the Patriots have a lot of formidable weapons for defenses to worry about even when Brady is pressured. They’ll need all this playmaking ability against a tough Jacksonville defense. While the Jaguars didn’t pressure Ben Roethlisberger often last week, they did hold him to just 1-of-10 passing for 43 yards (including a brilliant touchdown to Antonio Brown) under pressure, and had a huge strip-sack returned for a touchdown in the second quarter.
The Jaguars will need to do that to Brady to have a good chance at another upset, but Brady’s seen just about everything from defenses in his career. Against the Titans last week, Brady’s QBR under pressure was 87.6, including a touchdown pass to Chris Hogan and a soft toss to Amendola after heavy pressure.
Even if Brady and Keenum aren’t at their best in tough matchups this weekend, they should still have a decisive advantage over the other quarterbacks. Blake Bortles finished 14th in QBR under pressure (21.2), but the strength in his game is really his scrambling ability. According to Sports Info Solutions, Bortles avoided 21 sacks this year, the second most by any quarterback (Matthew Stafford had 22). Bortles will have to use his legs against a New England defense that likes to make quarterbacks hold the ball —a unit that took down Marcus Mariota for eight sacks last week.
As for the Eagles, Carson Wentz ranked third in QBR under pressure (52.7), so the offense has been missing that element since his injury. Nick Foles, in a limited sample of games, only has a 7.6 QBR under pressure this season. He’s always a hard one to predict with his unusual career path. Foles actually led all quarterbacks in QBR under pressure in 2014 with a mark of 48.2, but he was dreadful with the Rams (2.3 QBR under pressure in 2015).
Then again, as Keenum has shown, stats collected in a Jeff Fisher offense may not be all that telling. If head coach Doug Pederson can devise another good game plan for Foles to implement this week, there’s no reason he can’t get this team to the Super Bowl.
Then a whole new level of pressure begins.