How Did The Cowboys Battered O-Line Hold Up In Pass Protection?

The NFL these days is all about pass protection and pass defense, about keeping your guy standing and knocking the other teams' guy down. Offensive and defensive coordinators scheme 24/7 about new ways to protect, or get to, the quarterback.

And like we've seen in previous posts on the 2010 O-Line's run blocking, it's not that easy to assess the performance of an offensive line if you're trying to find some other metrics than just the raw number of sacks allowed. But that's what we have to work with as we kick off part three of our look at the Cowboys O-Line.

The Cowboys quarterbacks were sacked 31 times last season. Those 31 sacks allowed rank the Cowboys 11th in the league. On the face of it, that isn't all that bad. Sure it could be better, but 11th? I'll take that, especially considering the criticism that has been heaped on the O-Line this season. But wait, are those sacks all on the linemen?

If you only have a few stats to start with, putting these into the proper context becomes imperative.

1. Sacks allowed by the O-Line

Advancednflstats.com lists all the sacks allowed by a team's front seven. Of the Cowboys' 31 total sacks, Brian Burke 'credits' the O-line with 22 sacks which ranks the Cowboys O-line tied for 4th best in the league. Here's an overview of how many sacks were 'credited' to the linemen of each NFL team by the advancednflstat.com.:

Top 11

Middle 11
Bottom 10
Rank Team O-Line sacks Rank Team
O-Line Sacks Rank Team O-Line sacks
1
NYG 16 12T STL
29
23T OAK 37
2
IND* 18 12T KC*
29
23T BAL* 37
3
TEN 20 14 HOU
30
25 DEN 39
4T
DAL 22 15T MIA 31
26 SF 40
4T
NE* 22 15T SEA*
31
27 CAR 42
6
ATL* 23 17 BUF
32
28T ARI 44
7T
NO* 25 18T SD
33
28T PHI* 44
7T
CIN 25 18T JAC 33
28T WAS 44
9
DET 26 20T CLV 35
31 PIT* 45
10
TB 27 20T GB* 35
32 CHI* 49
11
NYJ* 28 20T MIN
35
- - - - - -

A word on the Chicago offensive line which ranks dead last in this table. The Bears led the league in total sacks allowed with 56 and also had the fourth highest number of interceptions with 21. If anybody was surprised by that, they don't really know their NFL history. The combination of Mike Martz and Jay Cutler is simply too much for any O-line to handle.

Since 2000, Mike Martz led offenses (00-05 STL, 06-07 DET, 08 SF, 10 CHI) have had 20 or more INTs in 9 out of 10 seasons and more than 40 sacks in every single season. Throw a guy into that sort of offense who apparently needs more time than the average QB to make his reads and you’ll get sacks galore. Don’t blame the O-Line.

Teams marked with a (*) are playoff teams. Note how they are all over the place in sacks allowed.

2. Sack Rate

Most of the time when looking sacks, we simply look at the number of sacks allowed and rank teams from low to high, as we just did in the table above. But this sort of ranking doesn't account for how often a quarterback dropped back to pass. One way to provide a little more context to this volume stat is to look at the Sack Rate:

Sack Rate = Sack / (Pass Attempts + Sacks)

To better understand why this helps to contextualize, let's look at the Saints and the Jets. The Saints gave up 26 total sacks in 2010, the Jets gave up 28. That's pretty close, and it would be reasonable to say both lines are about equally good, right? Well, consider that the Saints had 687 drop backs (661 pass attempts + 26 sacks) and got sacked on 3.8% of those dropbacks, while the Jets had 553 drop backs and got sacked on 5.1% of those dropbacks.

These numbers make a pretty compelling case that while the absolute number of sacks given up is roughly equal, there is little doubt that the Saints O-Line performed much better. The number of dropbacks is just one factor to consider as you look at sacks, but you can easily see that the number of sacks by itself is not a truly meaningful measure. Using the sack rate, here's how the Cowboys offensive line performed over the last three years:

Year
Sacks Rank Sack Rate Rank NFL Avg
2008 31 15th 5.4% 13th 5.9%
2009 34 15th 5.8% 13th 6.1%
2010 31 11th 5.1% 9th 6.1%

Regardless of whether you look at the absolute or relative number of sacks, if you use sacks as a measure of the line's pass protection performance, you'll have to admit that the Cowboys O-line actually held up in pass protection, and even improved a little over the previous two years.

3. Summary

As I looked at these sack numbers during the course of the season, I became more and more convinced that the Cowboys O-line is probably an average line in the NFL, and certainly not the root of all evil (Colombo excepted of course) that has befallen the Cowboys in 2010.

The standard counterargument has always been (and I’m as guilty here as the next guy) that the Cowboys simply gameplanned around the weaknesses of the O-line. There certainly were times last season where it appeared the Cowboys were actively scheming around the limitations of the O-Line. Take the high number of screen passes we all saw last year, or Kitna's apparent unwillingness or inability to throw deep. All clear signs that the Cowboys gameplanned around their O-line.

But so did all the other teams with less than stellar O-lines. Some of them even made the playoffs. Two of them are now in the Super Bowl: the Steelers and the Packers.

So how do we explain that the Cowboys barely made it to a 6-10 record, while the Packers and Steelers are playing in the Super Bowl in our house? Easy. Defense. More specifically, atrocious pass defense, additionally confounded by the regression of our pass rush.

Having said that, there's no question that the Cowboys have to make some changes on the offensive line if they want to see this offense reach its full potential, given the quality at QB and at the skill positions. And also, as average as the line's performance may have been in 2010, nobody wants to find out just how far below average they can go next season.

[Over the next couple of days, we'll look at pass protection in a lot more detail, follow that with the individual grades of our linemen and then close this O-Line series with look at the free agent options for the line]

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