There is great skill and satisfaction in finding your way through to drop a quarterback. We take a look at who has the most sacks in an NFL season.
It must be one of the most frightening moments on a football field for a quarterback.
You take the ball at the snap and look around at your options, only to see a hulking opponent get free of your blocking and charge at you. Before you can throw the ball away, down you go.
On the other hand, nothing can be more satisfying for those whose job it is to take down said quarterback. That’s why you often see players celebrating a sack with as much enthusiasm as they would a touchdown.
But who are the best at getting through and dashing quarterback dreams/ribs?
We go through those sack leaders in a single NFL regular season, though it should be noted that sacks did not become an official statistic in the NFL until 1982.
Most Sacks in an NFL Season (since 1982)
T-1. 22.5 sacks – T.J. Watt, Pittsburgh Steelers (2021)
Watt’s sack numbers had been steady in his first few years in the NFL. In his second, third and fourth seasons he had recorded 13.0, 14.5 and 15.0, respectively. It was therefore somewhat of a surprise when that rocketed up to 22.5 in 2021 to match the single-season sack record.
He actually made fewer solo tackles that year (48) than he had in 2018 (50), but he made them count when he did. Watt had three standout games in 2021, recording 3.0 sacks against the Chicago Bears in Week 9, 3.5 against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 13 and 4.0 in the Week 17 victory over the Cleveland Browns. He totaled 111.5 sack yards overall that year.
T-1. 22.5 sacks – Michael Strahan, New York Giants (2001)
Watt equalled the record of Strahan, which had stood for 20 years. Arguably Watt stands outright as he achieved his in 15 games, whereas Strahan played all 16 of the Giants’ games in 2001, but that’s not to take anything away from the man who would go on to host Good Morning America.
Strahan thrived in particular in the 2001 season, recording 4.0 sacks in a Week 5 loss to the St Louis Rams and 3.5 against the Philadelphia Eagles in another defeat in Week 16. In total, he made 177.5 sack yards for the campaign.
That the Giants finished 7-9 despite Strahan’s efforts meant they failed to make it to the playoffs, but that was insignificant compared to what was a harrowing year for New York and the entire country. Strahan would go on to help the Giants to victory against the New England Patriots at Super Bowl XLII in what was his final year before retirement.
T-3. 22.0 sacks – Mark Gastineau, New York Jets (1984)
Prior to the turn of the millennium, Gastineau was the man who held the record, and did so for 17 years. The former Jets defensive end produced 22.0 sacks in the 1984 season, starting out with 4.0 in a Week 1 win over the Indianapolis Colts.
Gastineau would remain fairly consistent during the season, only failing to mark a game with at least 0.5 of a sack in three of his 16 appearances.
T-3. 22.0 sacks – Jared Allen, Minnesota Vikings (2011)
Coming off a 2010 season in which he only managed to sack a quarterback 11 times, having averaged just under 15 in his previous three years, Allen doubled it by totaling 22.0 in 2011.
In 16 games, Allen managed 47 tackles overall, totaled 150.5 sack yards and added 32 quarterback hits. Like Gastineau, he only failed to register a sack in three of his 16 games, and saved his best for last as he made 3.5 sacks in the Week 17 loss to the Chicago Bears. His efforts did little to help the Vikings, though, who ended the season with a record of 3-13.
T-3. 22.0 sacks – Justin Houston, Kansas City Chiefs (2014)
It may sound like a backhanded compliment, but Houston’s 2014 season really sticks out. In his 12 full seasons in the NFL so far, he has only achieved double figures for sacks in four, and outside of 2014, his best return has been 11.0.
However, Houston found his groove in that one season as he produced 22.0 sacks for the Chiefs, for a total of 99 sack yards. Houston saw his best outing that year come in a 4.0-sack performance in a Week 17 win over the San Diego Chargers.
T-5. 21.0 sacks – Reggie White, Philadelphia Eagles (1987)
As the man with the second-most total sacks in NFL history, it was always likely we’d see White in this list. In 15 years in the NFL, White totaled 198.0 sacks (behind only Bruce Smith – 200.0) and reached double figures in 12 of those seasons.
In only his third year in 1987, White was at his best. He made 21.0 sacks for the Eagles from 62 tackles in just 12 games. He only failed to record a sack in one game that year, and he produced at least a couple in eight of those games.
T-5. 21.0 sacks – Chris Doleman, Minnesota Vikings (1989)
Just three places down from White in the NFL-record rankings for sacks is Chris Doleman (150.5 career sacks, fifth overall), but one season stands out for him. In his first seven seasons with the Vikings, Doleman only once bettered more than 11.0 sacks – in 1989 when he racked up a whopping 21.0.
He would go on to record 14.5 sacks for the Vikings in 1992, and 15 in 1998 with the San Francisco 49ers, but 1989 was his finest showing in a stellar career. Like others in this list, his best showing came in the final week of the regular season as he produced 4.0 sacks against the Cincinnati Bengals.
T-8. 20.5 sacks – Lawrence Taylor, New York Giants (1986)
He may have had his problems off the field, but on it, Taylor has always been in the conversation for the best defensive player in NFL history.
The Giants linebacker had 20.5 sacks from 79 overall tackles in the 1986 season, including 4.0 in the Week 6 win over the Philadelphia Eagles. The Giants went 14-2 in the regular season before going on to beat the Denver Broncos at Super Bowl XXI.
T-8. 20.5 sacks – J.J. Watt, Houston Texans (2012 and 2014)
The only man to be featured twice on this list, Watt produced two separate seasons in which he made 20.5 sacks for the Texans. In 2012, following a debut year when he only recorded 5.5 sacks, Watt almost quadrupled it. Among his 20.5 sacks that season were 3.0 against each of the Detroit Lions and Indianapolis Colts, ending with a total of 138.5 sack yards.
He managed to slightly increase that to 140 sack yards two years later, and after a 2013 season when he made 10.5 sacks, he was back up to 20.5 again in 2014. Watt again had another two games with 3.0 sacks, both against the Jacksonville Jaguars in Weeks 14 and 17.
T-8. 20.5 sacks – Aaron Donald, Los Angeles Rams (2018)
The 2021 season was probably Donald’s most memorable, but his best individual campaign in terms of sacks came three years prior. He was an absolute nightmare for quarterbacks that year, as his total of 20.5 sacks suggests.
Donald ended the 2018 regular season with 183.5 sack yards and 41 quarterback hits, with his most productive performance coming against the San Francisco 49ers. He recorded 4.0 sacks in the Week 7 win as the Rams eased to the postseason at 13-3, ultimately losing Super Bowl LIII to the New England Patriots. They made up for it three years later, though, with Donald starring again.
T-12. 20.0 sacks – Derrick Thomas, Kansas City Chiefs (1990)
Following an impressive rookie season in which he had 10.0 sacks, Thomas doubled it in his second. The Chiefs linebacker only played 15 games that year but was still able to reach 20.0 sacks.
His best day was undoubtedly against the Seattle Seahawks when he racked up the most sacks in a game in NFL history with 7.0 – a record that still stands today. It must have been incredibly frustrating for Thomas that the Chiefs still managed to lose 17-16. Thomas is also tied for second on the list for most sacks in a game with 6.0 against the Oakland Raiders in 1998.
T-12. 20.0 sacks – DeMarcus Ware, Dallas Cowboys (2008)
Ware, another player who regularly produced the goods, reached 20.0 sacks for the Cowboys in the 2008 season. Consistency was the key for Ware, who spread his out over more games than Thomas had. He produced at least 1.0 sack in 14 of his 16 games, managing 3.0 against the Rams, Seahawks and Giants.
His overall sack yards were 113.0, which he improved to 124.5 three years later, though that came from a total of 19.5 sacks that season.