How Has The Cowboys' Young O-Line Held Up In Pass Protection So Far?

As the NFL gets pass-happier every year, pass protection and pass defense are becoming more and more critical to the success on the field. Keep your quarterback standing and bring the other quarterback down, and you've just increased your likelihood of winning considerably.

Today, we'll look at the Cowboys' young O-line in a little more detail to figure out just how good they are at protecting their quarterback. A broken rib and punctured lung would suggest the line hasn't played up to par, taking just one play to gauge the line's performance across 288 offensive snaps may not be doing the line justice.

However, outside of sacks allowed there aren't that many metrics that could help to assess the performance of an offensive line. So far this season, the Cowboys quarterbacks were sacked seven times, which ranks 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 Cowboys are playing with two rookies and a first year UDFA on their line. But wait, are those sacks all on the linemen?

Pro Football Focus have assigned only three of the seven sacks directly to a Cowboys offensive lineman. According to PFF, Kyle Kosier, Tyron Smith and Derrick Dockery all allowed one sack each. John Phillips gets one to his 'credit', as does Tony Romo, while the remaining two are not assigned to any specific player.

The other metrics that PFF track are QB hits and QB Pressures. Taken together with sacks, they form a better picture of how successful a line is at protecting their passer. Conveniently for us, PFF have bundled all three numbers into one convenient stat called Pass Blocking Productivity (PBP). 

Pass Blocking Productivity is a fairly straightforward metric developed by Khaled Elsayed of Pro Football Focus that combines sacks, hits and pressures allowed into one simple number. In Khaled's own words:

We added up all the sacks, hits and pressures an offensive lineman gave up (hits and pressures are valued at 0.75 the value of a sack in accordance with our gradings). We then divide this number by the total number of snaps in pass protection before multiplying by 100 to get a solid number. A little something like this:

([Sack + Hit(0.75) + Pressure(0.75)]/Snaps Pass Blocking) x 100 = Pass Blocking Productivity Rating

Using this formula, here's how the Cowboys linemen performed through the first four weeks of 2011:

Position Player Pass Block Snaps Sacks QB Hits QB Pressures PBP NFL Rank Players at Position
LT Doug Free 176 0 2 8 4.3 13 32
LG Bill Nagy
131 0 0 5 2.9 11 32
C Phil Costa
161
0 0 7 3.3 31 35
RG Kyle Kosier
176 1 0 5 2.7 15 37
RT Tyron Smith
176 1 0 6 3.1 6 40

[Note on the data. NFL rank: among players at each position (LT, LG, C, RG, RT) with > 25% snaps for their team. Players at position: number of players at position with > 25% snaps for their team. Pass block snaps: number of times the player stayed in to block a pass rusher, includes sacks and penalties.]

When measured purely by sacks allowed, the Cowboys were ranked 11th in the league last year with 31 total sacks allowed. This year they are once again ranked 11th with seven sacks. Football Outsiders adjust those seven sacks by the amount of pass attempts in a stat they call Adjusted Sack Rate. The Cowboys have an adjusted sack rate of 3.9% which ranks them as the sixth best team in the league so far this year.

PFF credit the Cowboys total O-Line with 4 sacks, 3 QB hits and 35 QB pressures. In terms of total pressure given up, that ranks the Cowboys O-line eleventh in the league by the PFF metrics.

In the table above, the raw number of pressure given up is weighted by the number of pass blocking snaps each lineman had. This is an important stat to look at. Take a pass-happy team like the Panthers or Saints. The Panthers linemen have been on the field for 196 pass blocking snaps, the Saints for 195. At the other end of the scale you have the Texans, whose linemen have only been in on 126 pass blocking snaps. That's a significant difference, and would skew any comparison between the pass blocking effectiveness of the teams.

Now consider the table above. The Cowboys have three players in Doug Free, Kyle Kosier and Bill Nagy who are very close to the top ten players at their positions, at least in terms of pass blocking per snap.

Nagy in particular comes as a mild surprise, given the reports and grades so far that indicate he could be the weakest link on the line. But keep in mind that this is pass protection only. Nagy may struggle in run blocking on occasion, but in two games he's only allowed five pressures, no hits and no sacks. That places the 7th-round pick in the 11th spot among all left guards in the league. Kyle Kosier is about where you would expect him to rank, but Doug Free looks like he has room to improve further, particularly given the size of the contract he signed.

Tyron Smith may be the real surprise of the group, as the rookie already ranks as the sixth best right tackle in the NFL in pass protection. Considering that some right tackles also drafted in the second round have yet to play a single NFL game that is quite an impressive achievement by Smith. Phil Costa has given up a relatively high number of pressures compared to other centers in the league and as a result is the only Cowboys lineman who is ranked fairly low in these pass protection stats.

Surprised? You probably shouldn't be. The Cowboys have racked up the fourth most passing yards in the league with 1,324 yards so far, and the line is playing remarkably well - despite the youth of the linemen. In terms of pass protection, the O-line is a whole lot better than the NFL average, and despite its inexperience is already close to a top ten unit.

Next week we'll look at run blocking, and I'm afraid the picture there is not quite as rosy (yet).

**********

By request, below are the tables for the other NFC East teams. In terms of total pass protection, the Cowboys rank 11th (4 Sacks, 3 hits, 35 pressures, the Giants are 10th (9-1-30), Redskins 17th (7-7-31) and the Eagles 28th (4-8-48).

Position Player Pass Block Snaps Sacks QB Hits QB Pressures PBP NFL Rank Players at Position
LT Jason Peters
181 1 1 10 5.1 18 32
LG Evan Mathis
174 0 2 6
3.4 16 32
C Jason Kelce
181
1 1 5 3.0 29 35
RG Kyle DeVan
181 2 1 10 5.7 32 37
RT Todd Herremans
181 0
3
13
6.6 22 40

 

Position Player Pass Block Snaps Sacks QB Hits QB Pressures PBP NFL Rank Players at Position
LT William Beatty
143 1 0 8 4.9 16 32
LG David Diehl
143 4 0 7
6.5 30 32
C Davis Baas
119
1 0 2 2.1 15 35
RG Chris Snee
143 1 1 2 2.3 12 37
RT Kareem McKenzie
143 2
0
7
5.1 12 40

 

Position Player Pass Block Snaps Sacks QB Hits QB Pressures PBP NFL Rank Players at Position
LT Trent Williams
158 2 1 10 6.5 25 32
LG Kory Lichtensteiger
158 1
0 3
2.1 7 32
C Will Montgomery
158
0 2 3 2.4 18 35
RG Chris Chester
158 0 2 9 5.2 31 37
RT Jammal Brown
158 4
2
6
6.3 21 40
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