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Houston Texans dominating NFL in all-important sack differential

John Raoux/Associated Press
The Houston Texans boast the NFL's best sack differential in 2012, while the Jacksonville Jaguars own the worst.

The NFL is a big man's game. It's very tough to win in this league without getting good play up front.

Prior to the last few years, the key to winning in the NFL was two-fold: run the ball successfully on offense and find a way to stop the run on defense. Well, that is no longer the appropriate formula in today's pass-happy league.

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The New York Giants won Super Bowl XLVI in February with the NFL's 32nd-ranked rushing attack and 19th-ranked run defense. As the NFL has evolved into a passing league, the importance of line play hasn't exactly decreased, but the focus has been slightly altered. Protecting the quarterback is the No. 1 priority for the offensive line, while getting after the quarterback is the key to being a successful defensive front.

I first heard the term "sack differential" about five years ago. I'm sure the term had been used in NFL circles long before that, but it has really become a common phrase in recent years. Sack differential is the stat that NFL coaches and personnel types often cite when evaluating how their "bigs" are performing.

It's a very simple formula: Sacks produced by your defense minus sacks allowed by your offense. Obviously, the goal is to post as high a positive number as possible. For example, last season, the Giants produced 48 sacks (tied for third in the NFL) on defense and allowed 28 sacks (seventh-best in the NFL) on offense. Their final sack differential was +20.

It wasn't a coincidence that the Giants won the Super Bowl with a significant positive sack differential. As you can see by the following chart, the last 10 Super Bowl winners have all posted positive sack differentials during their championship seasons.

Year Super Bowl Champ Sacks Sacks Allowed Sack Differential
2011 New York Giants 48 28 +20
2010 Green Bay Packers 47 38 +9
2009 New Orleans Saints 35 20 +15
2008 Pittsburgh Steelers 51 49 +2
2007 New York Giants 53 28 +25
2006 Indianapolis Colts 25 15 +10
2005 Pittsburgh Steelers 47 32 +15
2004 New England Patriots 45 26 +19
2003 New England Patriots 41 32 +9
2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 43 41 +2
*Average sack differential: +12.6.

We are only five weeks into the 2012 campaign, but I thought it would be worthwhile to get an early gauge on where everyone stands in this important statistic. Here are all 32 teams, ranked from best sack differential to worst.

Team Sacks Sacks Allowed Sack Differential
Houston Texans 16 3 +13
Seattle Seahawks 16 10 +6
Buffalo Bills 10 5 +5
Miami Dolphins 15 10 +5
Minnesota Vikings 14 9 +5
Chicago Bears 18 14 +4
Cleveland Browns 13 9 +4
Denver Broncos 14 10 +4
Cincinnati Bengals 18 15 +3
Indianapolis Colts 12 9 +3
New York Giants 8 5 +3
Atlanta Falcons 13 12 +1
Carolina Panthers 14 13 +1
Dallas Cowboys 9 8 +1
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 8 7 +1
Detroit Lions 9 9 0
St. Louis Rams 15 15 0
Kansas City Chiefs 12 13 -1
New Orleans Saints 11 12 -1
Pittsburgh Steelers 8 9 -1
Tennessee Titans 7 8 -1
Green Bay Packers 18 21 -3
New England Patriots 9 12 -3
San Francisco 49ers 9 12 -3
Baltimore Ravens 9 13 -4
Oakland Raiders 3 7 -4
San Diego Chargers 10 14 -4
New York Jets 5 10 -5
Washington Redskins 8 12 -4
Arizona Cardinals 17 23 -6
Philadelphia Eagles 7 14 -7
Jacksonville Jaguars 3 15 -12

Here are a few observations after looking over these numbers:

» Most pundits agree that the Houston Texans have been the NFL's most dominant team this season. Fittingly, they are head-and-shoulders above every other team in this category.

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» Despite being the only team that is still without a victory, the Cleveland Browns have actually been solid up front on both sides of the ball.

» The San Francisco 49ers, New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens all have Super Bowl-caliber talent on their roster, but they are not getting after the quarterback as well as expected.

» The Arizona Cardinals have produced plenty of sacks on defense, but their offensive line has been atrocious.

» The Jacksonville Jaguars are in horrible shape on both sides of the line of scrimmage.

» Turnovers have plagued the Philadelphia Eagles this season, but they have also seen a huge drop-off in sack differential after finishing last season with a +18 mark.

Follow Daniel Jeremiah on Twitter @MoveTheSticks.

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