As great NFL quarterbacks aim for the record books, sometimes they get knocked into them.
The distinction of the most-sacked quarterback ever will soon belong to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Tom Brady or the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger, who’ve gone down behind the line of scrimmage a combined 1,017 times over 38 regular seasons.
The record belongs to Brett Favre, who surpassed John Elway (516) in his final NFL season in 2010 and finished with 525. A decade later, Favre can pass on the badge of honor.
But with Roethlisberger and Brady sitting at 511 and 508, respectively, the next-closest active quarterback is Aaron Rodgers with 455. Whoever survives this two-man battle of durability could hold the record for a while.
“It’s unbelievable durability to take those (hundreds of) sacks and keep producing like these guys have,” said Sebastian Vollmer, Brady’s right tackle with the New England Patriots from 2009 to 2016. “They get hit extra hard sometimes. It’s a beating. They fight through injuries. Some people think quarterbacks are soft, but man they are tough.”
Clearly this is a longevity stat. Elite quarterbacks who play more than 15 years and thrive in the pocket will take their shots.
And these future Hall of Famers aren’t exactly sack magnets. Based on pure dropbacks (not scrambles), Roethlisberger gets sacked 6.4% of the time compared to 4.7% for Brady; those figures are not even close to cracking the top 10 for quarterbacks with 200-plus sacks since Elias Sports Bureau started tracking in 1963.
Greg Landry tops that list at 12.1%, and not far behind are David Carr (10.5%), Randall Cunningham (10.1%) and Roger Staubach (9.6%).
Brady and Roethlisberger got here with vastly different styles. Brady has never been sacked more than 41 times in a season, making quick decisions at the line and navigating the pocket with a few shuffles of his feet.
Roethlisberger took at least 46 annually from 2006 to 2009 due to his willingness to improvise and hang around the pocket for six, seven, eight seconds to find the open man. Over time, he has developed into a potent quick-strike passer to protect his body.
This season, Brady is getting the ball out of his hands in 2.60 seconds per dropback compared to 2.27 for Roethlisberger. Since 2016, the averages are 2.66 and 2.54, respectively. Their evasive ways in 2020 are impressive, with Brady recording zero sacks in four of his seven games and Roethlisberger taking no more than two sacks in a game.
Even so, they’ve dominated for the better part of two decades, winning a combined eight Super Bowls and counting.
With the help of several pass-rushers who have sacked both quarterbacks and offensive linemen who have blocked for them, here’s how these quarterbacks ended up here.
Tom Brady: The ‘trophy sack’
He waited 10 seasons to sack Brady, and after the Cincinnati Bengals defensive end finally made it happen — beating the left tackle off the edge to wrap Brady up from behind in Week 15 last year — he approached the quarterback a second time.
“I told him [after the game] I finally got him on my résumé, so I need something to remember it by,” Dunlap said. “It was super rewarding. I’m sure a lot of people ask him. That’s why I don’t want to. But he seemed to respect the play I made.”
Days later, Dunlap got the package in the mail: Brady’s game jersey with a note encouraging him to “keep it going.”
Sacking Brady is like receiving a trophy for pass-rushers, who often get flustered by his decision-making and a Patriots scheme designed to protect him.
In just six games with Brady in Tampa Bay, guard Ali Marpet has noticed defensive linemen feeling “defeated” going up against Brady because “he’s got a really good sense of where pressure is coming from and has an answer to that pressure,” thanks in part to a level of commitment with his wide receivers.
Why it’s surprising Brady has 500-plus sacks: He averages 1.75 sacks per game for his career, which is lower than every current starting NFL quarterback above 30 years old except for Drew Brees (1.48), according to ESPN Stats & Information. Brady has simply outlasted everyone. He’s set to hit 301 career regular-season games by year’s end, one short of Favre’s 302.
Former Indianapolis Colts star Dwight Freeney is 18th on the all-time sacks list with 125.5, three of those on Brady, but the quarterback was one of his greatest challenges, even if Brady dreaded playing him.
Freeney sacked Brady the first time he played him, on Nov. 30, 2003, and faced Brady’s Patriots 11 times in his career. But the Patriots constantly switched up protections on Freeney, prompting him to watch years-old film to pick up tendencies.
Freeney still cringes at the time Brady — while Freeney was a Charger late in his career — made a pre-snap adjustment that put him in man coverage on Rob Gronkowski for an easy score.
“Once you get there you can blow on him and he falls,” Freeney said. “But it’s harder to get there because of his intelligence, the way [his teams] play the game. I loved playing him. [Brady] wants to win so badly, he doesn’t care if he gets hit.”
Sure, Brady’s 225-pound frame isn’t exactly imposing. The 2000 NFL combine taught us that. But not everyone shares Freeney’s feather-like experiences.
Colts defensive end Justin Houston — who sacked Brady three times in three games while with the Chiefs — said Brady has sneaky strength when he wants to use it.
“He’s stronger than you think. It’s not expected,” he said. “I thought he would go down easier when I hit him. … I got a hold of him pretty good and it took an extra effort to pull him down.”
Brady’s general indifference to contact helps him keep an edge on pass-rushers who think they’ve rattled him.
Cleveland Browns defensive end Olivier Vernon said he once “nailed [Brady] pretty good” when he played for the Miami Dolphins. He thought Brady would leave the game, and this is coming from a guy who sacked Brady 4.5 times in nine career games against him, the first in 2013.
“All he did was get up and pat me on the back and said, ‘good hit,'” Vernon recalled. “I was like, what? I literally put all 260 pounds of weight on you. Before I could say anything back, he was already going with the no-huddle.”
Ben Roethlisberger: ‘The Gladiator’
Ramon Foster saw Roethlisberger take hundreds of hits when blocking for him for 10 seasons. Never once did he hear Roethlisberger complain about a protection or a sack allowed.
“He would just say [before a game], ‘Hey guys, try to get me a couple more seconds on it’ — because we knew he was going to make a play,” Foster said. “We were made to feel like rock stars because we were blocking for Ben.”
Roethlisberger’s game is symbolic with artistry; while Brady is a rhythm passer, Roethlisberger is a creator. He’ll turn the pocket into a personal maze while keeping his eyes downfield for the sake of positive yardage, even if it leads to more sacks.
Roethlisberger’s 223 career games fall well short of Brady and Favre, and he’s third on the all-time sacks list despite missing 14 games last season with an elbow injury that required surgery.
“He’s a gladiator — his mentality is, ‘I’m gonna make a play for my team,'” said Freeney of Roethlisberger. “That’s why I loved playing Pittsburgh, because Ben didn’t care if you got to the backfield, he was going to shrug you off. [Back then] you could hit a quarterback.”
Despite the possibility of a few vintage Big Ben moments each Sunday, Roethlisberger has altered his game to preserve his health. Likely realizing Roethlisberger was pacing for the all-time sack record far too early, the Steelers prioritized keeping him clean. Bruce Arians, who now coaches Brady in Tampa Bay, had Super Bowl success as Roethlisberger’s offensive coordinator, but it was known at the time that his offenses asked quarterbacks to stand tall in the pocket for as long as it took to manufacture big plays.
The Steelers eventually moved on from Arians and hired Todd Haley in 2013.
Since 2015, Roethlisberger has taken 92 sacks in 64 games, equating to a 1.43 per-game average (better than Lamar Jackson’s 1.46), according to ESPN Stats & Information. Roethlisberger’s passing attempts are down to 33 per game this year, nine short of his 2018 pace.
Roethlisberger still can use his 6-foot-5, 241-pound frame to wiggle out of jams, so pass-rushers must strategize.
One plan: Attack the limbs of the tree.
“You’re better off grabbing his arms,” said Dunlap, who has played Roethlisberger’s Steelers 18 times and has 3.5 sacks on Roethlisberger, his first half-sack coming Dec. 12, 2010. “He’ll let you hang on his legs while he can throw it. I’ve seen him try to throw with his left hand, too. Try to get him with both arms. If you go low, he’s just too big.”
Roethlisberger’s bio has listed him at 241 pounds for years, but he’s been known to play bigger than that at times in his career. Vollmer says Roethlisberger is “as big and strong as most defensive ends.”
Every defensive line meeting starts Pittsburgh week the same way, Houston says, with coaches stressing “how strong Roethlisberger is. They make it known off the top.”
Roethlisberger mostly operates in traditional dropbacks, minimal bootlegs, lots of no-huddle. He never changed the formula, even as Terrell Suggs — who sacked Big Ben 17 times while a Baltimore Raven, more than anyone — was ready to pounce. Foster recalled Suggs’ favorite line pre-snap — “Big boy, coming for you” — which would sometimes cause Roethlisberger to joke, ‘Who’s that guy again?” from the huddle. Suggs even broke Roethlisberger’s nose from a hit in 2010. But the two hold a mutual respect, and exchanged jerseys after a game in 2018.
Foster has seen pass-rushers sack Big Ben early and then shut it down the rest of the game, because they got what they wanted.
“You don’t think about it too much until after [the game], like ‘Damn, I got Big Ben down,'” said Vernon, who has three sacks in three games against Roethlisberger, the first coming with the Miami Dolphins on Dec. 8, 2013.
Houston was so pumped to sack Roethlisberger back in 2012 that he got fined for a tandem celebration with Tamba Hali in the backfield. “It felt great — until I looked at my paycheck,” said Houston, who has sacked Big Ben twice in five games.
Who is next in line?
That Roethlisberger and Brady surpassed 500 sacks and still produce is a nod to their rare consistency. Most quarterbacks don’t last this long, with Roethlisberger leading the Steelers to a 6-0 start in his 17th season and Brady improving to 5-2 with a new team at age 43.
Just look at Roethlisberger’s 2004 draft class: No. 1 pick Eli Manning retired in January, just after his 39th birthday, and Philip Rivers, 38, is on a one-year deal with the Indianapolis Colts after the Los Angeles Chargers moved on. Brady’s entire quarterback class from the 2000 draft retired by 2010.
Peyton Manning retired at 39, John Elway at 38, Steve Young at 37 and Troy Aikman at 34. Despite 40-something anomalies Brees and Brady, playing forever is mostly a dream.
Some of the game’s brightest playmakers from inside and outside the pocket will take enough hits to challenge that dream in a big way. There’s a common thread between quarterbacks who create their own shot, and pain.
Deshaun Watson, 25, averages 3.27 sacks per game for his career, tops among active starters, and he’s on pace for 51 sacks this season. (His offensive line is a big culprit here.) Russell Wilson, 31, a master of avoiding the big hit because of his sliding ability, took 99 sacks from 2018 to ’19, pumping his career average to 2.72 sacks per game. At this pace, Wilson will hit the 525-sack milestone in approximately 60 games.
Rodgers can get there in less time, roughly 29 games, because of his 2.45 sack average over 16 years. He turns 37 in December. (Roethlisberger and Brady could keep playing and extend the sack records — especially if Roethlisberger goes another three years.)
All three quarterbacks are elite at throwing on the run. For contrast, the man atop the quarterback pantheon, Patrick Mahomes, has the rare ability to evade sacks, averaging 1.45 per game through three-plus seasons.
“Creators [at quarterback] are going to live and die by it, and it leads to big plays but sacks, too,” Foster said. “It’s all situational.”
Pass-rushers, in theory, get more sack chances due to inflated passing numbers. Twenty-seven NFL teams are averaging at least 33 passing attempts per game, compared to 17 in 2010.
But as Marpet pointed out, many offenses treat passes like short runs with screen passes and bootlegs, minimizing the threat of a sack.
Pass-rushers believe it’s harder than ever to get sacks because of the league’s protection of quarterbacks. Pass-rushers struggled adjusting to narrowing strike zones and the body-weight rule implemented in 2018 to help defenseless quarterbacks.
The NFL recorded an average of 56 roughing-the-passer penalties through the first six weeks of 2018 and 2019, a stark jump from the past 20 years, though the number dipped to 44 through six weeks this year.
Freeney believes there should be “more of a focus on intent [to harm]” with officials than policing a strike zone that quarterbacks can manipulate by sliding their body to get calls, similar to a charge in basketball.
“The rules have changed so much that it’s more about disruption, how they feel their presence,” Houston said. “Back then you could get them to the ground, and now you have to just grab them pretty much and hopefully the ref blows the whistle dead. You have to try to make adjustments on the way to the ground.”
Linebackers will still get shots on Brady and Roethlisberger, because they stand tall in the pocket and deliver.
And they keep getting up.
“Maybe it’s the age, the combination of having the awareness, but players like [Brady] have a feel for taking those big hits, how to avoid them, and how to counterattack before they get there,” Marpet said.