The 2009 Cowboys O-Line: Inside The Pass Protection Game (Part II)

Tony Romo needs time to get through his reads, Miles Austin and Jason Witten need time to get down the field and get open, and the running backs need holes to charge through. Without an efficient offensive line, it becomes very difficult to move the football, and even the best offensive players can struggle to produce without effective pass protection or holes to run through.

The offensive line is key to moving the ball, yet evaluating the performance of an offensive line in pass protection is not an easy undertaking, simply because success is mostly only measured by what didn't happen: the quarterback was not sacked.

Traditionally, the O-Line's pass protection performance is measured by number of sacks given up. The Cowboys allowed 34 last season and ranked a joint 14th in the NFL. Today we look at how (FO) evaluate the O-Line performance and look the effect that blitzes have had on the sack rate last season.

Football Outsiders Sack Rank:

FO have some of the most advanced football metrics publicly available. Perhaps their O-Line rankings can shed a little more light on how well the Cowboys O-Line performed. FO have developed their own metric to evaluate an O-Line:

Adjusted Sack Rate (ASR)/Sack Rate: Sack Rate represents sacks divided by pass plays, which include passes, sacks, and aborted snaps. It is a better measure of pass blocking than total sacks because it takes into account how often an offense passes the ball. Adjusted Sack Rate adds adjustments for opponent quality, as well as down and distance (sacks are more common on third down, especially third-and-long)

What this means is that the Sack Rank percentage will give us the adjusted percentage of how often a sack occurs. To better understand this, let's look at the two New York teams: The Giants gave up 32 sacks, the Jets only 30. Sound pretty much the same, right? Well, consider that the Giants had 574 drop backs (pass attempts + sacks) and got sacked on 5.6% of those dropbacks, while the Jets had 423 drop backs and got sacked on 7.1% of those dropbacks.

These numbers make a pretty compelling case that while the absolute number of sacks given up slightly favors the Jets, there is little doubt that the Giants O-Line performed much better. The number of drop backs is just one factor to consider as you look at sacks, but you can easily see that number of sacks by itself is not a truly meaningful measure.

Using the FO Sack Rank, this is how the Cowboys offensive line performed in 2009:

Rank Sacks Adj. Sack Rate NFL Avg
2009 16 34 6.2% 6.4%

Ok, so the Cowboys O-line ranks 16th according to FO. That's not too far off the 14th rank in terms of absolute sacks allowed. But as we saw in the first post in this pass protection series, adding the context of 'sacks by direction' already added a level of detail to these absolute numbers that helped form a much clearer picture of the performance of the Cowboys' O-Line in pass protection. Now let's look at blitzes.

Blitzes and pass protection

We had some great discussion in the comments section of the first pass protection post about the effect of blitzing on the amount of sacks given up, so I'll use quotes by BTB members to lead into the analysis of blitzes and pass protection.

"We faced a lot of heavy blitzing teams. We all know Philly is one of the most blitz happy teams in the league and we see them twice (sometimes 3 times) a year. Riding a 3-game win streak, Denver was completely unafraid to send the house against Romo in Week 4. Even more so, Green Bay came at us with all the firepower they had in their arsenal and came away with 5 sacks. That Packers game was just insane, it seemed like they used every blitz in the playbook." (Blue Eyed Devil)

For each QB in the league, ESPN splits the pass attempts by defensive formation. Tony Romo's stat splits show that he was blitzed on 213 of 550 pass attempts. A little reverse engineering of the QB data for each team allows us to look at how many blitzes each team faced in passing situations, and how that compares to the Cowboys.

The 213 blitzes were the second most in the league after the Giants, who were blitzed on 219 pass attempts. In relation to dropbacks (pass attempts + sacks) the Cowboys were blitzed (blitz pass attempts + blitz sacks) on 40% of all pass plays, the third highest rate in the league, after the Browns and the Giants.

Ok, so opposing defensive coordinators were all students at the Sir-Blitz-A-Lot Football Academy. Surely there are strategies to counter being blitzed at such a high rate?

"There are only 2 ways to get teams to stop blitzing, one is to pick them up with regularity and the other is to burn them when they do. Since the line will not really change this year we will have to work on the burning part." (I'm a Cowboy)

"The delayed blitz pick ups have three responsibilities: the line needs to adjust for them first, by not accidentally doubling one guy while another loops past. The RB has second responsibility and can’t commit to soon to a help block and not be in position for the delayed rush. And the QB has third. My non-scientific view after watching games over and over is that Romo does OK eluding one delayed blitzer, but teams get to him when they can get two and three players free". (dunkman)

Well, something seems to have gone wrong. 23 of the 34 sacks allowed by the Cowboys were given up when the defense was blitzing. Only three teams gave up more sacks when blitzed: the Seahawks (28), Steelers (27) and Rams (25).

What makes these numbers all the more worrying is that at the opposite end of the spectrum, the Colts and Patriots gave up only three sacks when blitzed, so it's pretty clear that the Cowboys were susceptible to being sacked on blitzes.

On the other hand, the Cowboys gave up only 11 sacks in non-blitzing situations, fourth best in the league behind the Saints (9), Titans (9) and Colts (10). The Cowboys O-line did a pretty good job in pass protection when faced with five or six rushers: they won more of their blocks than most other teams - or at least didn't get beat easily.

But the Cowboys struggled mightily when blitzed:

"The receivers often didn’t break off their routes on CB/safety blitzes. I remember watching Tony speak in a very stern manner to Roy on more than one occassion after a sack." Blue Eyed Devil

"The way you beat an all-out blitz is by hitting the open receiver quickly. Too often last year, routes took too long to develop and/or receivers didn’t get open quickly enough. This was especially true in the latter part of the season when Defenses figured out they didn’t have to respect Roy Williams at all – and could concentrate on covering Miles and Witten". (JimmyJohnson)

For the Cowboys, the issue with blitzing pass rushers was more than just the inability of receivers to get open.

The delayed blitz was something like the Achilles heel of the offense last season. A defender would simply delay the blitz for a moment until all of the Cowboys were engaged in a block, and then shoot the gaps with relative impunity. Romo hardly stood a chance.

Identifying the correct blocks. Generally, the rules of the blitz suggest that at the line of scrimmage, the QB calls out who needs to be blocked and sets the protection against what he sees. The QB also has to account for the outside blitzer, and get rid of the ball fast enough to avoid the sack. I have no statistical evidence for this but some of the issues must stem from not identifying and then blocking the blitzing defender successfully.

Blocking the right guy. Bringing more rushers than blockers always means the linemen, RBs, TEs and whoever else is left in to block need to identify the right guy to block. As a rule, you block from the inside out. Where that didn't happen, bad things followed.

In all situations, Romo has to get the ball out, and quickly. But if nobody is open, Romo's uncanny elusiveness notwithstanding, at the end of the day it may be better to take the sack than to give up a fumble or an interception.

In fact, an argument can be made that the overall number of sacks is slightly inflated by Tony Romo making just that choice. BTB member ImpactNate argued the point convincingly in a fanpost last year (Way To Take That Sack, Tony Romo):

Romo did the smart thing last night...he took the sack, protected the ball, minimized the damage and came back for another play or series.

O-Line: Te absolvo

In part one of this series, we saw that the Cowboys allowed a disproportionate amount of 'long sacks'. Today we saw that the 'Boys were particularly susceptible to sacks on blitzes. In both cases, the sacks incurred are more indicative of a team-wide issue than of a specific O-line issue, and the 34 sack tally is an inaccurate reflection of how the O-line performed in 2009. In the next and final installment of this series, we'll look at individual players.

The good, the bad and the ugly: Sacks by defensive formation, 2009 (click column header to sort)

Team Total Blitz Non-Blitz Blitz in % of dropbacks
ATT Sacks Sk% ATT Sacks Sk% ATT Sacks Sk%
CLE 443 30 6.3 191 17 8.2 252 13 4.9 44.0
NYG 542 32 5.6 219 15 6.4 323 17 5.0 40.8
DAL 550 34 5.8 213 23 9.7 337 11 3.2 40.4
TB 524 33 5.9 209 13 5.9 315 20 6.0 39.9
OAK 485 49 9.2 190 17 8.2 295 32 9.8 38.8
NYJ 393 30 7.1 148 15 9.2 245 15 5.8 38.5
JAC 519 44 7.8 198 19 8.8 321 25 7.2 38.5
SF 528 40 7.0 200 18 8.3 328 22 6.3 38.4
PIT 536 50 8.5 187 27 12.6 349 23 6.2 36.5
KC 536 45 7.7 187 22 10.5 349 23 6.2 36.0
CHI 563 35 5.9 196 16 7.5 367 19 4.9 35.5
DET 585 43 6.8 202 20 9.0 383 23 5.7 35.4
STL 543 44 7.5 182 25 12.1 361 19 5.0 35.3
ATL 570 27 4.5 198 9 4.3 372 18 4.6 34.7
SD 519 26 4.8 176 11 5.9 343 15 4.2 34.3
WAS 533 46 7.9 182 16 8.1 351 30 7.9 34.2
CAR 465 33 6.6 159 11 6.5 306 22 6.7 34.1
TEN 476 15 3.1 160 6 3.6 316 9 2.8 33.8
SEA 609 41 6.3 192 28 12.7 417 13 3.0 33.8
BAL 510 36 6.6 166 17 9.3 344 19 5.2 33.5
DEN 558 34 5.7 182 15 7.6 376 19 4.8 33.3
BUF 441 46 9.4 143 16 10.1 298 30 9.1 32.6
GB 553 51 8.4 176 19 9.7 377 32 7.8 32.3
NE 592 18 3.0 190 3 1.6 402 15 3.6 31.6
CIN 477 29 5.7 145 14 8.8 332 15 4.3 31.4
MIA 545 34 5.9 165 13 7.3 380 21 5.2 30.7
MIN 553 34 5.8 168 12 6.7 385 22 5.4 30.7
HOU 593 25 4.0 176 9 4.9 417 16 3.7 29.9
PHI 553 38 6.4 150 20 11.8 403 18 4.3 28.8
ARI 594 26 4.2 168 9 5.1 426 17 3.8 28.5
NO 544 20 3.5 128 11 7.9 416 9 2.1 24.6
IND 601 13 2.1 133 3 2.2 468 10 2.1 22.1
NFL Avg 532 34.4 6.1 177 15.3 7.9 355 19.1 5.4 34.0
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