Quick, off the top of your head, which units on the 2010 Cowboys do you think have underperformed most this year? Chances are you’re thinking either O-Line or secondary. And for good reason.
The Cowboys rank 30th in the league with a 101.4 defensive passer rating. Opposing quarterbacks are regularly picking apart the Cowboys secondary. Cutler, Favre, Garrard and Rodgers all had either their best or second best season passer rating against the Cowboys.
And the O-line, while ranked a surprising 8th in sacks allowed (19), is ranked 23rd in rushing yards per attempt (3.8). A convincing argument can be made that Garrett’s extensive use of heavy formations is just a ruse designed to hide the pass blocking deficiencies of this line by forcing opposing defenses to play the run honestly.
After the break, we look at which unit may have had the biggest statistical drop-off in production, and it’s neither the O-line nor the secondary.
Wade Phillips’ Cowboys played what many consider a bend-but-don't-break style of defense. For the previous three seasons, what has kept those bends from becoming breaks has been the defense’s ability to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks. And the number of sacks generated by Wade's defenses seems to bear this out:
|Cowboys Sacks 2007-2010
||59 (1st)||42 (7th)||22 (13th)|
Well, this season, the defense broke. The Cowboys’ 22 sacks so far this season somewhat obscure the fact that Dallas was largely incapable of generating pressure on the opposing QB under Phillips this season. Wade’s answer, and his ultimate downfall, was to rush more people, more often, in a desperate attempt to get any kind of pressure. When that didn’t work, the results were often devastating and left the secondary looking like a bunch of second class high school players.
The need for pressure
The talking heads can say all they want about how 'stopping the run' is the key to a successful defense. That may have been true twenty or thirty years ago, but repeating yesteryear’s mantras ad nauseam doesn’t make them any truer are any more relevant. The key to slowing down modern offenses is to get pressure on the passer.
If the quarterback is pressured or hurried, he's much more prone to make a mistake and turn the ball over or make enough bad passes to make the offense one dimensional. If you give any NFL quarterback enough time, he’s going to pick you apart. Pressure him, force him into making a decision and the chances of the QB making a mistake go way up.
Quarterbacks in the NFL today get rid of the ball in 2.7 seconds on average. If you’re not in the quarterback’s face by that time, chances are he’s just completed a pass on your secondary. Give him more time and he's just lobbed a 60-yard bomb past your safety and into the arms of a streaking receiver.
Traditionally, the success of a team's pass rush has been measured by sacks. But considering the limited time the ball is in the quarterback's hands in modern offenses these days, just penetrating the pocket and pressuring the QB to throw early must be considered a success for the defense. So to get a true feel for the effectiveness of the pass rush, you’ve got to measure a defense’s ability to pressure the quarterback, either in form of hits, hurries or other pressures.
In addition to sacks, the NFL record keepers also measure quarterback hits, which is one way to approximate how much pressure a defense is bringing. Here are the official NFL numbers through week twelve for each of the last three seasons:
|Sacks & QB Hits through week 12, 2008-2010
Okay, so the number of sacks drops by a third, or about one per game, and the number of hits is down by a little over one per game. Doesn't seem like all that much of a drop-off, right? Particularly given that the Cowboys are 3-8 this season and were 8-3 last season at the same time. So let's dig a little deeper.
The absence of pressure in 2010
The Cowboys keep their own statistics based on the coaching film that they review. These statistics usually differ slightly from the official NFL records, but importantly for our purposes, these records include a stat-line called 'QB Pressures'. Where the NFL's QB hits are a pretty objective measure (the QB either got hit or he didn't) 'QB Pressures' are a bit more subjective, but I'll assume the Cowboys staff are consistent in applying this measure. Here's how the first twelve weeks of each of the last three seasons look like on the coaching film:
|Sacks & Pressures through wk 11, 2008-2010
(*Note: I only have the data from the coaching film through week 10 of 2009, '08 and '10 are through week 11). What we see here is a significant drop off in pressures. Consider that this is data for 10 games: This year the Cowboys have averaged six pressures and two sacks per game. Last year that number was at about 12 pressures and two sacks. Six more uncontested throws this year versus last year per game will make any defense look bad. The inability of the Cowboys defense to generate pressure on the opposing QB is a significant reason for this year's awful record.
In the next and final step, we look at the position groups to understand where the pressure is still coming from, and where it's mysteriously gone missing:
|Sacks & Pressures through wk 11, 2008-2010
The defensive line combined for 69 pressures through nine games last year. This year, the Cowboys' defensive line has accumulated just 20 pressures through ten games. That is a meltdown of gigantic proportions. The Cowboys need more pressure from the defensive linemen, especially in the middle. If they can't get a sack, at least provide some pressure and make the quarterback step up in the pocket, move or hurry his throw.
I don't know how the coaches are going to evaluate this performance, and the reasons behind it. But I do know that players - not schemes - make a defense go. Spears, Bowen and Hatcher are all free agents next year and Olshansky has a cap salary of $5.1 M next season that could possible be reinvested better elsewhere. Based on the numbers above, I wouldn't be surprised at all if the Cowboys decided go for a defensive lineman with their first pick in the draft and shore up the O-line in later rounds and via free agency.
The defensive line has to be the secondary’s best friend. If the Cowboys’ defensive line can't put pressure on opposing quarterbacks, the secondary is going to go chasing after opposing receivers all day and end up looking stupid and incompetent in the process. If receivers are running around all day, it doesn’t matter if you have two Pro Bowl corners, you won't be able to cover anybody. Even a Patrick Peterson wouldn't help one little bit if the line doesn't bring the pressure.