On the whole, sack rates are on a steady, if inconsistent decline. Since the sack became an official NFL statistic in 1982, the sack rate peaked in 1984, with one every 11.91 pass plays. Undulations followed over the years, but the sack rate has been one every 15 or more pass plays every year since 2006, and has not been more frequent than one every 14.0 pass plays since 1998.
The gradual drop-off is not because the pass rushers are worse or the offensive linemen are better. It's because of myriad other factors, including the increased effectiveness of mobile quarterbacks, the prominence of quick timing offenses, the increased penalties for late or helmet-to-helmet hits that force defenders to throttle back, and the overall empahsis on passing which changes how teams utilize this aspect of their offenses, and ensures that pass rushing is not just about "pinning the ears back" and attacking.
Through six weeks, the NFL is on pace for its lowest sack rate: one every 17.7 pass plays. Just 5.65 percent of all pass plays this season end in sacks. The effect on other passing metrics is clear: league-wide completion percentage (63.3 percent) and yards per pass play (6.51) have never been better in the sack-as-official-stat era.
That makes the Broncos' recent pass-rush performance all the more notable. After a slow start in the first two weeks -- five sacks, giving the Broncos one every 20.0 pass plays -- the Broncos have improved to one every 12.2 pass plays in the last three games, two of which were against mobile quarterbacks: Seattle's Russell Wilson and the Jets' Geno Smith.
Sunday, the Broncos averaged one sack every 10.75 pass plays, and they were the product of complementary football.
On the first, with 7:35 left in the second quarter, good downfield coverage prevented Smith from having any target beyond an underneath option, and he didn't look in that direction. Contact from DeMarcus Ware did not arrive until four seconds after the shotgun snap, which put Smith in the danger zone; he is least effective when he holds the football for longer than 2.6 seconds on a drop-back.
The next two sacks came on consecutive plays midway through the third quarter. The first was again the result of good man-to-man coverage; no separation existed for any target. This time, pressure arrives 3.4 seconds after the snap, and Quanterus Smith deserves credit for the play, as he had the first pressure when he worked inside and guided the Jets quarterback to Von Miller.
On the following play, it's all about disguised intention. The Broncos show a standard four-man rush, but drop Miller back in a short zone to handle the running back and defuse the possibility of a wheel route. As Miller drops, Brandon Marshall attacks from the inside, while cornerback Bradley Roby sprints from the slot. There is a single receiver (Jeremy Kerley) free down the middle, but Geno Smith does not locate him, and Roby chases the quarterback down for the sack.
The final sack, by Miller with 50 seconds remaining, proved crucial in clinching the game, but was the most non-descript sack of all, because it was a result of the Jets needing a large chunk of yardage, which means that four receiving targets streaked upfield before making their cuts 15 or more yards beyond the line of scrimmage. The first contact is at 3.4 seconds.
Just one of four sacks required a blitz. And one of the three sacks between Ware and Miller was set up by Quanterus Smith, who for the first time in the regular season showed the promise that often earned him plaudits on the practice field.
These Broncos are not on a franchise-record sack pace, because they had five in the first two games, dragging their numbers down. But they have returned the pass rush to the NFL's elite in the last three games -- two of which they played without Danny Trevathan for extended periods, a condition to which they must become accustomed. Sacks are at a premium, but the Broncos have the premium pass rushers to get them.
VON-DERFUL: Miller's splendid Sunday was not limited to the pass rush; it might have been the best game as a run defender he's enjoyed as a pro, and certainly since his return from a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
It's the steady work against the run that separates apart from "pure" pass rushers. On this play, Miller is aligned opposite two tight ends. The outside one, Jace Amaro, moves to the inside, under Miller. Fullback John Conner moves from his offset, strong-side position outside, and heads for the second level. Miller is patient and allows the traffic to pass by, leaving him in perfect position to engulf Chris Ivory for a 1-yard loss.
Among all players, Miller has the second-highest grade on ProFootballFocus.com's rankings, trailing only Houston's J.J. Watt. Plays like this are why. When you meld the spectacular with the savvy, you've got something special, and moments like this reveal Miller to be back to form -- and perhaps better than ever.
READING AND REACTING: As quarterback Peyton Manning noted Sunday, the Broncos' emphasis on the run was a reaction to the Jets' defensive formations, which left territory open in the box.
One example of this came with 8:44 remaining in the second quarter and the Broncos facing second-and-10 at the Jets' 28-yard-line. New York had just four men in the box, and one linebacker, Quinton Coples, aligned himself across from wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders.
Even with the Jets' four box defenders stacked over center Manny Ramirez and the left flank, the Broncos had the numbers they wanted, and Ronnie Hillman ran through a hole Ramirez helped create for an 11-yard gain in which he was barely touched until he had the first down.
The Jets presented myriad looks to Manning before the snap, and challenges after, which forced him to extend plays with his footwork. One example came on the Broncos' third touchdown drive, which was resuscitated by his 8-yard completion to Demaryius Thomas on third-and-7 from the Jets 23.
Althout the Jets rush three men, they get pressure when Jason Babin moves inside of Ryan Clady, which forces Manning left, where Muhammad Wilkerson has worked free of Ramirez. Manning releases the football 3.8 seconds after the snap, and finds Thomas under the heavy rush.
For Manning, the big moments are the beginning. It's on plays like these where he shows his mastery.