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Strip sacks: the sackers and the sacked 1994-2021

Which defenders are great at this? What quarterbacks are prone? Which QBs can avoid this?

NFL: Denver Broncos at Arizona Cardinals Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Last month I did a study looking at the propensity of quarterbacks to fumble based on two things, hand size and how often they run. However, I was not able to separate fumbles on runs from fumbles on sacks. This study will correct that; in it we will look at data from 1994 onward to see

  1. The defenders who have mastered the strip sack
  2. The quarterbacks who are prone to fumbling when sacked
  3. The quarterbacks who mostly fumble when running
  4. The quarterbacks who take a lot of sacks, but don’t fumble when being sacked

According to a study that I was reading, from 2009-2015, 5.1 percent of all sacks resulted in a turnover (strip sack recovered by the defense). This number sounded low to me, because another study showed that 14.1 percent of sacks result in a fumble from 2009-2017 with about half of those fumbles being recovered by the defense. So I used stathead.com to look at the total number of sacks that resulted in a fumble/turnover for their entire database (1994-2021). Their were 2657 strip sacks during this timespan and 32660 sacks. So for these 28 seasons, 8.1 percent of sacks resulted in fumbles that the defense recovered. The time window of the first study appears to be “down era” for strip sack fumble turnovers (see chart below).

With that in mind, I looked at sacks that resulted in a fumble - all 2657 of them from 1994 to 2021. I then looked at who was getting this strip sacks.

I should note at the outset that with stathead.com there is no way to search for plays that resulted in a sack fumble that the offense recovered. Sack and turnover by fumble are both play result criteria, but sack and fumble are not. Mores the pity.

Masters of the Strip Sack

Guys like Lawrence Taylor, who played all of his career before 1994, and Derrick Thomas who played played half his, are either not in this or underrepresented. Taylor popularized the arm chop that often leads to a sack-fumble.

The king of the “modern” strip sack is Robert Mathis. Twenty Eight of his 123 career sacks resulted in a fumble turnover (23 percent).

Player Strip Sacks (1994-)
Robert Mathis 28.0
John Abraham 23.0
Julius Peppers 20.0
Terrell Suggs 17.5
Dwight Freeney 17.5
Jason Taylor 17.0
Jared Allen 16.5
Chandler Jones 16.0
Osi Umenyiora 16.0
Simeon Rice 15.0
Leonard Little 13.5
Shaquil Barrett 13.0
Robert Quinn 13.0
Tamba Hali 13.0
James Harrison 13.0
Joey Porter 13.0
Bruce Smith 13.0
John Randle 12.5
Chris Clemons 12.0
DeMarcus Ware 11.5
Cameron Wake 11.5
Aaron Donald 11.0
J.J. Watt 11.0
Ryan Kerrigan 11.0
Von Miller 11.0
Warren Sapp 11.0
Cliff Avril 11.0
Khalil Mack 10.0
Willie McGinest 10.0
Elvis Dumervil 10.0
Mike Vrabel 10.0
Trent Cole 10.0

Four former Broncos have more than ten career strip sack turnovers: Shaq Barrett, DeMarcus Ware, Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller. Other than Elvis, they were all playing for the Broncos the last time we beat the Chiefs. Speaking of the Chiefs, former Chief Tamba Hali is on the career leaders list above as is current Raider, Chandler Jones. It will be interesting to see how many of those guys above make it into the Hall of Fame (those that are not in yet). Julius Peppers, Terrell Suggs, James Harrison and Von Miller are locks as is Aaron Donald IMO. There will be some interesting debates around plenty of the other guys who are on the fringe: John Abraham and Jared Allen probably won’t get in the Hall. DeMarcus Ware and J.J. Watt could.

There are only two current Broncos who have had a strip sack for the Broncos; Malik Reed has one, as does Bradley Chubb. Chubb’s was in 2018 (sacked Jeff Driskel, who was playing for the Bengals) and Reed’s was in 2021 against the Steelers. Over the last four seasons, the Broncos have eight strip sacks. Two by Von Miller and Shelby Harris; one by: Reed, Chubb, Adam Gotsis, and Derek Wolfe.

There were 76 strip sacks in the league in 2021. The Cardinals defense had the most with six and current Raider, Chandler Jones, had three of those - two on current Bronco, Russell Wilson (who rarely gets strip sacked as you will see later). Two other edge defenders had three last season - Joey Bosa and Shaq Barrett.

Neither Bronco quarterback in 2021 was strip sacked.

With 2657 strip sacks over 28 seasons that averages to 95 per season so 2021 was a “down” season for strip sacks. There were almost twice as many in 2005 as there were in 2021.

I should also note here that the NCAA does not credit the defender with a sack on a strip sack while the NFL does. This is strange, but there are a number of odd statistical differences between the NCAA and the NFL like sacks counting as negative rushing plays for QBs in college, but not in the NFL.

Separating the Quarterback from the Ball

There have been 218 quarterbacks who have been strip sacked leading to turnovers in the last 28 regular seasons. They have been sacked 30940 times and 2657 of those resulted in fumbles recovered by the defense (8.6 percent). The quarterback with the highest fumble-sack-turnover rate is Scott Zolak who fumbled on four of the eight times he was sacked during this timespan. His career goes back to before 1994. The best guys in the study lost fumbles on four percent or less of the instances when they are sacked.

We will start by looking at the guys who are prone to fumbling when sacked. Remember that about half of all strip sacks get recovered by the defense.

Rank Quarterback Strip Sack Fumble Turnovers Total sacks (1994-) SSFT%
1 Scott Zolak 4 8 50.0%
2 Cody Carlson 5 15 33.3%
3 Matt Barkley 4 13 30.8%
4 Todd Bouman 5 17 29.4%
5 Ben DiNucci 2 7 28.6%
6 Tom Savage 7 27 25.9%
7 Steve Bono 12 50 24.0%
8 Mike Tomczak 9 43 20.9%
9 David Klingler 6 29 20.7%
10 JaMarcus Russell 14 70 20.0%
11 Vince Evans 4 20 20.0%
12 Chad Hutchinson 11 57 19.3%
13 John Beck 5 26 19.2%
14 J.T. O'Sullivan 7 38 18.4%
15 Bucky Richardson 4 23 17.4%
16 Spergon Wynn 4 23 17.4%
17 Craig Krenzel 4 23 17.4%
18 Rex Grossman 15 92 16.3%
19 Jake Delhomme 27 168 16.1%
20 Ken Dorsey 4 25 16.0%

None of the “bottom” 20 is still playing in the NFL. Matt Barkley last appeared in a game in 2020. J.T. O’Sullivan is now a QB guru. Most of the guys above were (are) pocket passers with the exceptions of Scott Zolak (6.9 runs per pass), Caody Carlson (8.1), Ben DiNucci (7.2), Vince Evans (6.6), J.T. O’Sullivan (8.9), and Bucky Richardson (5.6).

Contrast the above list with the list below of the guys who are really good at not fumbling when getting sacked. Even a casual fan should be able to see that the majority of the QBs on this “good” list are “running” quarterbacks. It’s almost easier to list the guys who were/are NOT “dual-threat” QBs: Chad Hutchinson (15.9 throws per run), Teddy Bridgewater (12.2), Justin Herbert (13.3), Shaun Hill (20.1), and Brock Osweiler (19.4). The rest have fewer than ten throws per actual rushing attempt (kneeldowns have been removed when they could be).

Rank Quarterback Fumbles Lost on Sacks Total sacks SS% Kneeldowns Rushing Attempts Actual runs Career Throws Throws/Run
1 Chad Henne 3 151 2.0% 35 138 103 2013 19.5
2 Tua Tagovailoa 1 40 2.5% 20 78 58 678 11.7
3 Teddy Bridgewater 4 159 2.5% 52 216 164 1988 12.1
4 Tyrod Taylor 4 157 2.5% 49 361 312 1542 4.9
5 Jalen Hurts 1 39 2.6% 14 202 188 580 3.1
6 Cam Newton 10 332 3.0% 92 1118 1026 4474 4.4
7 Justin Herbert 2 63 3.2% 23 118 95 1267 13.3
8 Josh Johnson 1 29 3.4% 5 76 71 353 5.0
9 Shaun Hill 3 84 3.6% 30 91 61 1225 20.1
10 Kyler Murray 4 106 3.8% 25 314 289 1581 5.5
11 Brock Osweiler 3 79 3.8% 32 92 60 1165 19.4
12 Robert Griffin 5 131 3.8% 24 307 283 1268 4.5
13 Russell Wilson 17 427 4.0% 137 846 709 4735 6.7
14 Colt McCoy 4 100 4.0% 42 161 119 1088 9.1
15 Rick Mirer 8 199 4.0% 9 242 233 2043 8.8
16 Deshaun Watson 7 174 4.0% 31 307 276 1748 6.3
17 Colin Kaepernick 7 171 4.1% 42 375 333 1692 5.1
18 Kordell Stewart 7 170 4.1% 11 560 549 2358 4.3
19 Randall Cunningham 5 118 4.2% ? 775 775 4289 5.5

Two of the three quarterbacks currently on the Broncos are on the good list above - Russell Wilson only lost fumbles 4.0 percent of the time when was sacked. Josh Johnson only lost fumbles 3.4 percent of the time when he was sacked. Note that I did not look for QBs with zero strip sack fumbles lost to the defense. I’m sure that there are some, but with roughly fourteen percent of all sacks leading to a fumble, most starting QBs are going to get strip sacked at least once a year.

Tom Brady was the least sacked starting QB in the league in 2021. He was sacked on 3.0 percent of his dropbacks (22 sacks). If he fumbled on 14 percent of those sacks he would have fumbled on three sacks. He actually did fumble on three sacks during the 2021 regular season. Two of those were recovered by the defense.

For what it’s worth, Russell Wilson fumbled on four sacks during 2021. He recovered two of them. His center recovered one and the defense recovered the other. So while Russ fumbled on four of 33 sacks in 2021 (12.1 percent), only one resulted in a turnover. That one was one of the two that Chandler Jones got on him and it was returned by the Cardinal’s defense for a touchdown.