Duke's high sack total may not be a bad thing

Talking with David Cutcliffe last week about Duke’s defensive line, he made a noteworthy transition. The pass rush, he said, looked great this spring, but that could also be a factor of the offensive line looking worse. That’s a chief concern for the Blue Devils’ coach.

“One thing this team has to do is, we gave up more sacks than we have in a long time, and we have to protect the QB better,” Cutcliffe said.

Indeed, the numbers make that case abundantly clear.

Last year’s total, which came in just 12 games, was the most since Cutcliffe became Duke’s head coach. Overall, Duke QBs were pressured on 21 percent of dropbacks, the most since ESPN started tracking it in 2011.

Cutcliffe’s concerns seem well founded then, but the knock on the offensive line isn’t quite so simple.

Yes, the line allowed more pressure. But Daniel Jones, Duke’s first-year starting QB, also didn’t help the numbers a great deal.

While Duke’s sack rate nearly doubled, its pressure rate increased only about 36 percent. Two years ago, Thomas Sirk and Parker Boehme allowed a sack once every 4.6 times they were pressured. Jones went down once every three times.

It’s not surprising that a young QB would hold onto the ball a bit too long, and that was clearly an issue for Jones at times last season. On the other hand, that willingness to stay in the pocket under pressure also resulted in a much better performance overall.

Jones threw 56 passes under pressure — one fewer than Sirk last year, six fewer than Anthony Boone in 2014. Four of those passes went for touchdowns. Since 2011, Duke’s other starting QBs had just five passing TDs total when under pressure. During that span, Boone, Sirk and Sean Renfree threw 15 interceptions when under pressure. Jones threw just two. His predecessors had a miserable 29-percent completion rate when under pressure. Jones completed 46 percent of such passes last year.

Jones had seven completions of 20 yards or more when under pressure, averaged 6 yards per attempts (ahead of NFL hopefuls Mitch Trubisky and Deshone Kizer) and had 13 completions under pressure on third or fourth down.

None of this is to suggest that Cutcliffe is wrong to be concerned about the offensive line. The unit had a down year. Jones, too, can learn to get rid of the football more often when a play breaks down, a skill that’s often among the last to develop for a QB. But the bigger issue may be that Jones simply changes the offense for Duke — makes it more of a downfield threat, takes more chances, keeps more plays alive from the pocket. That is a good thing, even if it means the sack numbers go up a bit while the line develops and Jones gets comfortable as the starting QB.