Quarterbacks at Risk Against Unrelenting Defenses

So what's goin' down, man, in the first month of the NFL season?

Quarterbacks.

And they're hitting the deck at an alarming rate.

Through the first three weeks of the 2006 campaign, defenses have stormed the pocket mercilessly, pillaging punch-drunk passers at a near-record pace.

And while the savage sack attack hasn't knocked out many quarterbacks -- the severe concussion sustained by Kansas City's Trent Green came while he was out of the pocket, and no one can really identify the precise hit that left Tampa Bay's Chris Simms with a ruptured spleen -- some league observers fear that the bludgeoning, if unabated, will eventually take its toll on the game's highest-profile position.

"Guys are definitely getting sacked at a pretty scary rate," conceded Detroit quarterback Jon Kitna, who had been sacked an average of 30.2 times in his five previous seasons as a starter, but who is now on pace to go down 48 times in 2006.

How scary? Through three weeks, a stretch that includes 46 games, defenses have rung up 227 sacks, or an average of 4.93 sacks per contest. That's a 7.6 percent increase over the first three weeks of the 2005 season. Project those numbers over the course of the '06 season, and it would total 1,263 sacks, or 67 more than the highest number recorded since the league adopted a 256-game schedule in 2002.

Fittingly, that was the season in which the expansion Houston Texans, a franchise that has surrendered a mind-blowing 2.91 sacks per game in its brief but badly bruised history, entered the league. The Texans list their official colors as "deep steel blue, battle red and liberty white," but try convincing an embattled David Carr, who has been sacked 10 times in three games, that they aren't simply black and blue.

"If we can't [protect Charlie Frye] any better," acknowledged Cleveland Browns coach Romeo Crennel, whose young starter has been sacked a dozen times in three outings, "we will be talking about another quarterback [soon]."

At least in the second game of the season, a Sept. 17 defeat at Cincinnati, Frye got a break, as the Bengals failed to sack the second-year veteran even once. But sandwiched around that one-week respite were games in which Frye was sacked five times (versus New Orleans) and seven times (against Baltimore). Dating back to 2005, Frye has been sacked 34 times in the first eight starts of his career.

His tough hide aside, that's not the kind of "Survivor" game in which Frye, or any other quarterback for that matter, wants to be an unwitting and unprotected contestant. But unless offensive coordinators soon devise a way to staunch the pass-rush schemes their units have faced in the first three weeks, there might not be many able-bodied guys left on the NFL island to play quarterback.

Take that many hits, and bloodied eventually leads to bowed, and bowed translates into substandard play at a position whose performance is generally the most essential component to success. Historically, in most wars of attrition, it is characteristically the party under siege that runs up the white flag. The banner for NFL quarterbacks in 2006 might be a white flag with a red cross sewn on it.

Embroidered with the exacting handiwork of surgical stitches.

At the current pace, this will be the most sack-happy season since 2000, when the league averaged 4.97 sacks per contest.

Think about this: In just two of 46 games, Tennessee-San Diego on Sept. 17 and Denver-New England last Sunday night, have there been no sacks. On the flip side, 22 games, or nearly half the contests played in the first three weeks of the season, featured six sacks or more. There were 13 games with seven sacks, nine with eight sacks and five games in which defenses recorded nine sacks.

Individual quarterbacks have been sacked five times or more on 15 occasions. That's a five-sack game against some poor, badly cocooned human piñata every three outings to this juncture of the season. Even some quarterbacks who are supposed to be elusive have been unable to avoid heavy pass-rushes. Daunte Culpepper of Miami, who clearly isn't all the way back from the severe knee injury that he sustained last October, has been sacked a league-high 15 times. Atlanta's Michael Vick has been sacked once every 8.6 "dropbacks," an incredibly high ratio for a player with his "escapability" skills.

One positive might be that the Week 3 schedule averaged only 4.07 sacks per game, down from 5.56 sacks per contest in the second week of the season, which perhaps indicates that offensive line units are starting to meld. Still, a lot of folks in the league feel the pressure on quarterbacks will be unrelenting throughout the year, with defensive coordinators hell-bent on bringing the heat.

"It's become a 'get the quarterback' game now, and [coordinators] are selling out to the pass-rush," said former NFL quarterback Bobby Hebert. "Offensive lines just aren't as good, because they aren't able to stay together as long, and everybody seems to have one or two great pass-rushers. It's like a perfect storm that kind of [converges] at the quarterback. I think we're going to continue to see a lot of sacks."

The sack-craze pace almost certainly won't hold for individual defenders, but through three weeks, there are 29 players on pace for double-digit sack seasons in 2006. Seventeen players are on pace for 15 sacks or more and Baltimore linebacker Bart Scott and Philadelphia end Trent Cole, the league leaders with five sacks, are on pace to smash the NFL's single-season record of 22½. Last season, just 16 players recorded 10 sacks or more and league sack champion Derrick Burgess of Oakland was the lone player with more than 15.

So why the sudden rash of ruthless rushers? Offensive lines, on average, replaced 2.16 starters in their lineups for 2006. The offenses that have permitted the most sacks at 15 each, Miami and Oakland (in just two games), have made sweeping line changes, altered their protections and have new coordinators and new quarterbacks. Cincinnati, which allowed only 21 sacks for all of 2005, has been forced because of injuries to employ three different starting line combinations in three games, and has already surrendered 11 sacks.

"One of the things you have to be able to do in this league is [pass] protect," said Oakland coach Art Shell, a Hall of Fame offensive tackle who might be the best pass-blocker currently drawing a Raiders' paycheck. "And we haven't done a good job for any number of reasons."

Teams certainly can't count on the league to provide any relief. League officials have legislated about as much quarterback protection as possible. Game officials seem to be reaching for their flags if defenders so much as breathe on a quarterback after he has released the ball. It's going to be necessary for offenses to adjust and adapt and, to this point at least, they haven't demonstrated the ability to keep pass-rushers from breaching the pocket.

Blitz quotients leaguewide are elevated slightly from the levels at the corresponding point of last season. Offensive coordinators continue to spread the field more, with four-wide receiver formations, and are relying more on quarterbacks to get the ball out quickly than on protection schemes. And in a bit of de-evolution, a few teams are using more seven-step drops, a surprising element in a league where three- and five-step pass drops have been in vogue for years.

It's all become a sore point, actually more like a painful welt, for quarterbacks to this point. And while there is hope that offenses will catch up to the defensive tactics being used, there are no guarantees right now that quarterbacks will be better insulated over the final three months of the season.

The Seattle Seahawks led the league in sacks in 2005, with 50, and there are currently seven defenses on pace to top that number.

"We just feel like, if you play us, you're going to get hit," said Eagles tackle Mike Patterson, referring to a Philadelphia defense that registered just 29 sacks last season but already has 16 in 2006. "After last year, we made a commitment to getting to the quarterback again. And we're not going to slow down until we knock [the quarterback] down a bunch of times."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.