In 2011, all four NFC East teams were in the top 10 in the league in terms of sacks and sack percentage. In 2012, all four plummeted to the bottom 12 in sacks and bottom 16 in sack percentage.
It's hard to explain what exactly happened to the Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles, which is also why it's hard to predict that any of those teams' pass rushes will get back on track in 2013.
But many forget that the Washington Redskins suffered an extremely harmful and tangible loss when top pass-rusher Brian Orakpo went down with a season-ending pectoral injury in Week 2.
Earlier on Monday, Grantland's Robert Mays listed Orakpo as a back-from-injury star not to forget in 2013. That's because Orakpo was rated by Pro Football Focus (subscription required) as the fourth-best pass-rushing outside linebacker in football in 2011, and his presence combined with the emergence of rookie edge-rusher Ryan Kerrigan resulted in the Redskins posting 41 sacks and the sixth-best sack percentage in the league.
"With Kerrigan coming from the left side and a healthy Orakpo from the right," wrote Mays, "the Redskins have a chance to put together a pass rush that rivals any in the NFL."
And he's right. One guy can make that big of a difference.
Because without Orakpo's support, and the secondary banged up and struggling in 2012, the Redskins' sack total dropped from 41 to 32. Rob Jackson and Perry Riley had a combined eight sacks, a total which would have been lower if not for increased opportunities in Orakpo's stead, but I'd still imagine Orakpo has the ability to add 10 or more sacks to that total.
After recording at least 8.5 sacks in each of his first three seasons in the league, it looked as though Orakpo was ready to break out and put up a double-digit sack total before his 2012 season was derailed. Even if we assume he'd only add 10 sacks to the Redskins' total, that would increase their sack percentage from 4.8 (28th in the league) to 6.3 (13th in the league). And that's without adding to Kerrigan's total, which I believe would have been higher than 8.5 with a healthy Orakpo gobbling up attention.
One good thing Orakpo's injury did do is give Kerrigan a chance to grow while giving longtime backup Rob Jackson an opportunity to prove his worth. Jackson delivered in Orakpo's place, picking up four sacks in the final seven games of the season. He'll be suspended for the first four games of 2013, but expect the five-year veteran to play a key complementary role when he returns. Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett will inevitably find ways to utilize his talents, regardless of how often Orakpo and Kerrigan are on the field.
So with the Eagles likely to experience the growing pains associated with the transition from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defense, the Giants still looking for answers after losing Osi Umenyiora in free agency, and the Cowboys maintaining a personnel status quo while also changing their scheme, it's possible the 'Skins could leap ahead of all three of their division rivals when it comes to registering sacks and applying pressure next season.
And when you consider how integral that is to winning in this league, and that the Redskins took the NFC East last year despite having the lowest sack percentage in the division, that has to scare the hell out of Dallas, New York, Philly and the rest of the NFL.
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