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Sacking Cam Newton

Who? What? When? Where? Why?

Chris Graythen

Understandably, most fans cringe when they see their QB sacked; thrown to the ground by herculean attackers. The NFL QB is the most important player on the field. The loss of a franchise quarterback would be devastating to a club's chances at postseason success.

Last season Cam Newton was sacked 36 times, and hit 67 times, per the NFL's website. All things considered, those are pretty solid numbers. 36 sacks puts Newton at 16th in the NFL in 2012, while the 67 hits has the Panthers QB at 12th in the NFL (#1 being the least hit; #32 the most hit), both of those numbers putting the Panthers O-Line ahead of the vaunted 49ers line and the Kaepernick/Smith combo.

Losing All-Pro Center Ryan Kalil early in the season, and having to rely on the likes of Jeff Byers, Garry Williams, and Thomas Austin to protect Newton for much of the year, the Panthers still managed to land in the middle of the pack. Curiously, of the teams which finished in the top ten of sacks allowed, only four teams made the playoffs (Denver, Atlanta, New England, and Houston).

Before examining the data, it's important to realize that there are several different types of sacks; not all sacks are created equally.

The first category we'll examine is fairly straightforward: One defensive lineman beats one offensive lineman.


In this example, Carolina runs a play-action fake; RT Byron Bell is charged with blocking the eventual sacker, Tampa DE Michael Bennett.


Bell is too slow to reach Bennett's outside release, and is unable to get his hands on the rusher's torso.


Bennett completes a rip move to disengage from Bell just as Newton finishes his drop, and is completing a hitch-step.


The rusher is able to tee off on Newton, sacking the QB for an eight yard loss.

Sacks generally arise as a result of a failure in the protection scheme.


In this play versus San Diego, the Chargers defense opts to blitz, running a stunt with SS Eric Weddle, and OLB Shaun Phillips. Here the SS rushes outside, and the OLB works inside.


As Newton fakes the reverse to Steve Smith, Weddle and Phillips have begun their rushes, while LG Amini Silatolu engages the DE. LT Jordan Gross and RB Mike Tolbert both move to cover the edge from Weddle. Center Jeff Byers is waiting to pick up Phillips.

In this second, the protection scheme breaks down, as Silatolu leaves the DE for Phillips, who is already engaged with Byers. On the other hand, the fault may lie with Gross. If the Panthers are running a 3x3 protection scheme, one of the more popular in the NFL, Gross needs to leave the SS for Tolbert, and pick up the DE at the snap.


Just as Cam finishes his drop, he notes the Charger defender barreling down on him. Meanwhile, Weddle doesn't even attempt to rush the QB, instead biting on the fake reverse: the Panthers devoted two blockers to a player not even rushing the passer.


Newton is able to evade the Charger DE just in time for Antonio Garay to come clean off of Byron Bell's block, sacking the QB.

The next denomination is a sack coming from an unblocked, unaccounted for, defender, most usually spawning from a blitz.


Pre-snap, the Giants only show four rushers.


Right at the snap, LB Michael Boley appears in the box.


The Giants interior rushers coalesce inside, while the DE pulls RT Garry Williams outwards, forging a gaping hole for Boley. Meanwhile, DE Jason Pierre Paul is successfully bull rushing LT Jordan Gross.


Boley and Pierre Paul simultaneously hit Newton, splitting the sack.

Our next category is initiated from quarterback error; when the quarterback doesn't read the blitz, and is caught sitting in the pocket while the protection scheme crumbles.


Here, against Seattle, the Panthers are pinned in third-down and long, and aligned against an apparent Seahawk blitz. When faced with a potential blitz, Newton needs to keep his hot read in mind.


Seattle brings six rushers as Newton takes the snap.


With a depleted secondary, Newton needs to read the defense and find either his first read, or his hot read, all in the span of two seconds.


With the protection scheme crumbling, Newton flees the pocket.


The quarterback doesn't make it very far, and is taken down from behind, by a blitzing LB, for a two yard loss.

The last variety of sack we'll look at is also triggered by the quarterback; taking too much time to make a decision in the pocket.


This play occurs on a first down versus the Saints, Week 2. The Panthers have just crossed into New Orleans territory. Carolina is aligned in a 12 personnel look, which the Saints counter with a traditional 4-3 set.


As expected, New Orleans only rushes their front four. When Newton finishes his drop there is no ostensible sign of pressure from the defensive line.


Newton sits in the pocket and waits... Double clutching twice.


The Offense is running a flood concept, placing Newton's top reads all to one side of the field. A skillful passer, Cam could easily hit either TE, Barnidge or Olsen, on their 4 routes, or checkdown to RB DeAngelo Williams, without trouble. If he was feeling confident, Newton could have even tried to hit Steve Smith on the 7 route.


Cam instead waits, sitting in the pocket for roughly four seconds (practically an eternity) before being dragged down by DE Cam Jordan.

Of course, not all sacks fall exclusively into one of the above categories. More often than not, a sack is birthed from a combination of mistakes and/or misfortune.

The Numbers

Now we look at the personal responsibility of each sack, sans those in which a rusher was unblocked. I've accounted for each sack surrendered. For a more accurate interpretation of the data, I've divided the number of sacks each player surrendered by their total amount of offensive snaps played.

Byron Bell: 9 sacks (.95 sacks per hundred plays)

Garry Williams: 2 sacks (.33 sacks per hundred plays)

Jonathan Stewart: 1.5 sacks (.48 sacks per hundred plays)

Geoff Hangartner: 3 sacks (.40 sacks per hundred plays)

DeAngelo Williams= 0.5 sacks (.12 sacks per hundred plays)

Greg Olsen: 0.5 sacks (.05 sacks per hundred plays)

Amini Silatolu: 4.5 sacks (.51 sacks per hundred plays)

Mike Tolbert: sacks (.23 sacks per hundred plays)

Jordan Gross: 7 sacks (.68 sacks per hundred plays)

Jeff Byers: 2.5 sacks (.54 sacks per hundred plays)

Expectedly the two tackles, Bell and Gross, have higher rates, as they typically face the opposition's best pass rushers. The second year pro out of New Mexico, Bell surrendered the most sacks of all pass blockers, ceding nearly one sack for every 100 plays. Meanwhile, of the interior linemen, Jeff Byers gave up the highest rate of sacks, with Amini Silatolu just a heartbeat behind him.

Greg Olsen, one of the Panthers top receiving targets, rarely stays in to pass block, which accounts for his paltry sum. And going off of memory, Jonathan Stewart was called upon to pass block more often than his counterparts, Williams and Tolbert. One thing I would like to see more of next year: the running backs receiving more free-releases out of the backfield, serving as a receiver, or hot route, than being assigned to stay in and block. But, if the tackles need help with pass rushers, that isn't much of an option.

The next few categories proved too ambivalent to analyze independently, so for the sake of comparison, I also gathered the data on Peyton Manning's 21 sacks (the archetype) and Tony Romo's 36 sacks (the control) from the 2012 season. Also of note, I've removed two sacks from the sum, both of which were attempted, last play of the game, desperation, hail-maries.

Sacks by number of rushers:

3-4 5+
Cam Newton 21 13
Tony Romo 23 13
Peyton Manning 11 10

When first presented with Newton's final numbers, I wasn't exactly sure how to interpret them. Naturally, teams face exponentially more standard rushes of three or four defenders, than they do blitzes. But on the other hand, if a quarterback is being sacked in greater quantity via the blitz, does that intimate that he is poor at handling blitzes?

Apparently not.

Nearly 50% of Peyton Manning's sacks from 2012 came from the blitz. Comparatively, Newton and Romo are at 38% and 36% respectively. However, when breaking Cam's season into halves, it is visible that the Panthers quarterback is trending upwards. Of the 19 second half sacks (Games 10-17), 10 came on rushes with 3-4 rushers, 9 on blitzes (47%).

The distribution of sacks by quarter is fairly ambiguous.

1st quarter 2nd quarter 3rd quarter 4th quarter/OT
Cam Newton 10 8 7 9
Tony Romo 5 9 11 11
Peyton Manning 7 6 3 5

Newton's sacks were allotted fairly normally over the course of the game, while Romo was sacked much more often in the second half versus the first, and Manning his antipode, being sacked more regularly in the first half.

Departing from the analogs of Manning and Romo, the next category is the breakdown of sacks by down.

First down Second down Third down
10 9 15

Unsurprisingly, Newton was sacked more often on third down, which, more often than not, was a passing down for Carolina.

Sacks by field position:

Inside the 20 Own 20-40 40-40 Opp.'s 20-40 Red Zone
4 14 10 6 0

For one, the Panthers did a fantastic job of avoiding sacks inside the red zone, although, we would like to decrease the number of sacks surrendered in field goal range (inside the opponent's 20-40 yard lines), which oftentimes resulted in leaving three points on the field. Similarly, the majority of Carolina's surrendered sacks occurred inside their own 20-40 yard lines, as well as between the forty-yard lines, most of which represent stunted drives and three-and-outs.

Despite the fact that there has been no (so far, at least) addition of starting caliber talent on the offensive line, the acquisition of hog-mollies that we've seen on the defensive line this offseason, I remain cautiously optimistic that the Panthers will at least be able to improve on their marks from 2012, in terms of sacks/hits surrendered. With the growth of Cam Newton as a quarterback, and the return of Ryan Kalil (who did not surrender a sack in the 400-odd snaps he played in 2012), not to mention the maturation of Amini Silatolu, Carolina should rebound nicely next year.