Grading Cowboys @ Patriots: Performances Of Note

Victor Butler brings the pressure on Tom Brady.

The loss to the Patriots is still fresh on our minds, but not because of the loss itself, more perhaps because of how the Cowboys lost the game.

As we look back on the game with a little more distance, we realize that some Cowboys did their job well, some others did not. We already handed out some gameballs earlier this week and took an in-depth look at the O-line performance, so today we take a look at how the individual efforts of the players graded out. To do that, we'll be using the Pro Football Focus player grades. Some of these grades will be obvious, some others less so.

As always, the grades below are based on the Profootballfocus.com (PFF) data. Follow the link for a lengthy introduction to their methodology.

The "Oooh Boy" line

After the Lions game two weeks ago, we were singing the praises of the O-line, as each single lineman graded out positively. One game later and it feels like we had a totally different O-line on the field, as all but one player on the O-line graded out negatively. This has been the story of the O-line so far this season, good to great in one game, really bad in the next. Having said that, this was not unexpected going into the season given the make-up of the line. Here's how the line graded out against the Patriots:

Free Nagy Costa Kosier Smith
  LT LG C RG RT
Overall -2.0 -3.4 -6.3 -3.6 -0.5
Run Blocking
-1.1 -3.7 -3.6 -4.7 0.9
Pass Protect
+1.1 0.0 -2.4 +1.2 0.1

The interior of the line was truly, truly bad in runblocking. Granted, very few offensive lines will look good against a combination of Wilfork and Haynesworth, but for everybody willing to crucify the Cowboys' running backs, look no further than the collapse of the interior O-line to understand what went wrong in the ground game. The Cowboys allowed a season-high seven tackles for loss and the running backs barely avoided numerous others. Nothing good is going to happen in the running game if your running backs are being met by defenders in the backfield on every second rush attempt. See also rabblerousr's excellent take on the struggles of our O-line against big 4-3 linemen.

Defensive Line and OLB

Rob's Mob seems to be the one unit that has been steadily improving over the last five games. They had a hiccup against the Lions where they were held without a sack for the first time all season, but came back nicely against what is arguably one of the best O-lines in the game. Here's how they graded out:


STARTERS BACKUPS

Spencer Coleman Ratliff Spears Ware Lissemore Butler Brent
  LOLB LE NT RE ROLB RE LOLB NT
Snaps (74 total)
70 18 57 28 67 18 30 15
Rating
-0.7 +1.6 +1.7 +2.1 +2.0 +0.1 +0.7 +0.5

The interior of the line was solid against the run once again, holding the Patriots to a 4.0 yard average on 25 runs, and the line was equally impressive against the pass. Marcus Spears (+2.0) had a sack against none other than All-Pro Logan Mankins, notched two pressures and three stops. Jay Ratliff was a terror in the middle, recording a QB hit and six tackles, four of which were stops. And even Kenyon Coleman, despite playing only 18 snaps, joined the fun, knocked down a pass and also got a stop.

BTB favorite Sean Lissemore also recorded a QB hit in 18 snaps, and may see his role on the defense expand further fairly soon: in 70 snaps over five games, Lissemore has graded out at +6.4, way ahead of the starters Coleman (+2.7, 121 snaps) and Spears (+2.4, 135) and even ahead of Jay Ratliff (+6.1, 260). Two thirds of Lissemore's snaps have come on pass rushing downs where more recently he has stepped in ably for the injured Hatcher.

On the outside, DeMarcus Ware (+2.0) was his usual destructive self. Prior to the game, Patriots left tackle Matt Light had been the top rated tackle in the league by PFF. After Ware abused the multiple Pro Bowler for two sacks,  and the rest of the Cowboys front five added two QB hits and three QB pressures against him, Matt Light (-3.4) dropped from first to sixth among the highest rated tackles in the league.

Victor Butler is also coming into his own as a down lineman. His 30 snaps against the Patriots mark the highest snap total of his career (he had 29 once in 2010 against Detroit and once in 2009 against New Orleans). Anthony Spencer's grade is hurt (justifiably so) by his roughing the passer penalty on 2nd-and-9 at the Dallas 48 that ultimately led to a New England touchdown.

Inside Linebackers

Here's a look at how the linebackers graded out.

  • Sean Lee (74 of 74 snaps, -1.1 grade): PFF continue to see something in Sean Lee's pass coverage that they don't like, and that I cannot quite understand. He did allow four receptions on six balls thrown his way for 64 yards, but also hauled in one of the passes for an INT. Sean Lee has more interceptions on the season than any other linebacker in the league, and with a cumulative defensive passer rating of 74.4, he ranks as the 13th best ILB in the league. Yet PFF grade his pass coverage for the season at -3.6, ranking Lee 40th out of 44 ILB's. I try very hard to make sense out of these grades, and I feel that I am usually able to explain the grades fairly well, but this time I'm just stumped.
  • Keith Brooking (36/74, -1.2): Brooking has graded out negatively against the run in every single game this season, and the game against the Patriots (-1.4) was no different. Yet he has graded out positively against the pass in all but one game. In fact, PFF have Brooking graded as the 8th best ILB in the league against the pass. Which leaves as the odd man out:
  • Bradie James (13/74, +1.3): James was only in for a handful of snaps, but recorded a forced fumble that nearly decided the game. If James can have that kind of impact with a low snapcount like that, more power to him. 
Other players of note

Here are some of the high- and lowlights.

  • Felix Jones (17/74, +0.0): Not a good game for Felix, whose high ankle sprain will keep him out for a while. And while Garrett likes to preach the 'next-man-up' principle, the next men didn't step up: Tashard Choice (-1.3) and DeMarco Murray (-1.3) didn't do anything to make Cowboys fans sleep any easier about Jones' absence. And with the run-blocking issues the line has, the running game isn't likely to break out anytime soon.
  • Miles Austin (66/79, -1.3) caught seven of ten passes thrown his way, which is pretty good by any standard. But he also dropped two passes. PFF do not like wide receivers who drop passes. At all (which is one reason why DeSean Jackson will never be found at the top of the PFF charts, regardless of how much Eagles fans whine about it). As a result, Austin only gets a slightly below average -0.4 grade in the passing game. Also, PFF saw something in Austin's run blocking that they didn't like (-0.8), hence the overall negative grade. They didn't like the run blocking of any of the other receivers either. Dez Bryant comes in at +0.7 overall, Laurent Robinson at +0.1.
  • Tony Romo (74/74, +3.1). Romo and Brady were both 27-for-41. Romo had a slightly higher passer rating (87.1 to 82.3), Brady had a game-winning drive. As a result, Brady graded out slightly better at +4.1.
Top Players So Far

Below is a list of Cowboys players who rank at or close to the top within their position after five games as per the PFF grades. Keep in mind that the grades are cumulative - if two guys get the same grade for each game, but one guy has six games to the other guy's five, the player with six games will have the higher total grade. The Cowboys have played one game less than 20 other teams, so I've expanded the list to the top 20 instead of a more strict top 10 - except for the 3-4 positions DE and OLB, where I've kept it strictly top 10.

POS Player Rank Season Grade
WR Dez Bryant 18th/107 +3.5
T Tyron Smith 5th/72 +5.6
TE Jason Witten 18th/54 +0.4
3-4 OLB DeMarcus Ware 2nd/28 +13.7
DT Jay Ratliff 11th/81 +6.1
ILB Sean Lee 11th/44 +5.5
ST Danny McCray T1st/687 +2.0
P Mat McBriar 7th/35 +7.3

Rank shows the absolute rank within a position group and how many players are ranked in that position group, e.g. Dez Bryant is ranked 18th out of 107 wide receivers who've played at least 25% of their teams' snaps.

Honorary mention goes to Sean Lissemore, whose 70 snaps don't qualify him for the PFF ranking. His +6.4 grade would place him seventh among all 3-4 defensive ends.

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