Dallas Cowboys Pass Rush: Pass-Rushing Linemen And Unannounced Blitzers

An early sign of things to come: During pre-season, Jason Hatcher sacks Tim Tebow. Hatcher continues to sack, Tebow continues getting sacked.

Today, we conclude our three-part look at the Cowboys' pass rush. In part I, we looked at the overall number of sacks, QB Hits and QB pressures generated by the Cowboys, combined all three stats into an aggregated stat called QB Disruption Points and found that the Cowboys defense was ranked tenth in the league in pass rushing.

In part II, we looked at the Cowboys' linebackers and predictably found that there is no match on the team for DeMarcus Ware in terms of pass rushing productivity. But we also saw that Victor Butler and Sean Lee are two players with a lot of potential as pass rushers.

In this third and final part, we take an extensive look our the Cowboys defensive line, compare Jay Ratliff to his 3-4 nose tackle peers, wonder whether Jason Hatcher is the real deal and try to get a better feel for how Rob Ryan is using his defensive backs as pass rushers.

Jay Ratliff: Stud

Before going into detail about the Cowboys' D-line, we'll take a closer look at Jay Ratliff and how he compares as a pass rusher to the other 3-4 nose tackles in the league.

For the season, Ratliff has one sack, six QB hits and 15 QB pressures. This gives him 16.8 Quarterback Disruption Points for the season (QBDPs are explained in detail in part I). He achieved those numbers on 343 pass rushing snaps for a 4.9% Pass Rushing Productivity (PRP is explained in part II).

Here's how Ratliff's numbers compare to the other 3-4 NTs across the league.

Player Team Snaps Pass Rush QB Sk QB Ht QB Pr QBDP PRP '11
Antonio Garay SD 338 162 2 5 10 13.3 8.2%
Jay Ratliff DAL 552 343 1 6 15 16.8 4.9%
Isaac Sopoaga SF 277 144 0 2 5 5.3 3.6%
Shaun Cody HOU 244 111 1 2 2 4.0 3.6%
Barry Cofield WAS 506 271 2 4 5 8.8 3.2%
B.J. Raji GB 613 404 3 1 10 11.3 2.8%
Dan Williams ARZ 244 99 0 1 2 2.3 2.3%
Sione Pouha NYJ 386 147 0 0 4 3.0 2.0%
Kelly Gregg KC 346 132 1 0 2 2.5 1.9%
Paul Soliai MIA 323 137 0 2 1 2.3 1.6%
Casey Hampton PIT 226 100 0 0 2 1.5 1.5%

A nose tackles' primary responsibility is to clog up the middle as a run stopper. The ability to rush the passer is strictly a bonus. The Cowboys are certainly getting a lot of bonus from Jay Ratliff as a nose tackle. Ratliff creates more pressure per snap than all other 3-4 NTs except San Diego's Antonio Garay. Note also that there aren't many  'workhorse' 3-4 nose tackles left in the league. An average team has had a little over 600 defensive snaps so far this year. Only Ratliff, B.J. Raji and the Redskins' Barry Cofield are on the field for the vast majority of defensive snaps, all others on this list are frequently substituted in and out.

Defensive Linemen: Surprise Stud

Before moving on to the Cowboys' defensive ends, we need to establish a baseline for what a good pass rushing performance is. We saw that for pure pass rushers a PRP of 10% or more was a very good value, and for a nose tackle, 5% seems to be very good.

The table below shows the top ten 3-4 DEs and their pass rushing productivity. For some reason, there is a persistent school of thought that pops up every time the talk turns to defensive ends in a 3-4 scheme and claims that 3-4 DEs are pure run-stuffers who do not need to be able to rush the passer. The table below tells a different story.

Player Team Snaps Pass Rush QB Sk QB Ht QB Pr QBDP PRP '11
Antonio D. Smith HST 451 297 5 12 20 29 9.8%
Justin Smith SF 698 469 5 9 38 40.3 8.6%
Jason Hatcher DAL 256 161 3 4 8 12 7.5%
Kendall Langford MIA 387 193 0 1 17 13.5 7.0%
Ray McDonald SF 586 379 4 5 25 26.5 7.0%
Darnell Dockett ARZ 665 380 1 8 25 25.8 6.8%
Calais Campbell ARZ 687 397 6 7 18 24.8 6.2%
J.J. Watt HST 482 303 4 1 17 17.5 5.8%
Ropati Pitoitua NYJ 236 106 2 0 5 5.8 5.4%
Randy Starks MIA 464 259 2 5 11 14 5.4%

While not comparable to the numbers of the elite pass rushers of 10% and more, there are a number of 3-4 DE's who are very productive pass rushers. And lo and behold, Jason Hatcher is one of them, ranking as the third most productive pass rushing end on all 3-4 teams in the league. By comparison, just for old times sake, Stephen Bowen has a PRP of 3.3% with the Redskins.

Cowboys Defensive Linemen

Here's how the entire Cowboys defensive line looks in terms of pass rushing.

Player Snaps Pass Rush QB Sk QB Ht QB Pr QBDP PRP '11
Jason Hatcher 256 161 3 4 8 12.0 7.5%
Josh Price-Brent 119 52 0 0 5 3.8 7.2%
Sean Lissemore 170 102 0 2 5 5.3 5.1%
Jay Ratliff 552 343 1 6 15 16.8 4.9%
Marcus R. Spears 295 154 1 1 6 6.3 4.1%
Kenyon Coleman 298 147 1 1 5 5.5 3.7%

Big surprise here for me to see Josh Brent ranked so high. I had always considered him primarily a run stuffer, and honestly, never saw him as anything more than somebody who was there to give Ratliff a breather. But, and there's always a but, beware of sample size effects here: one less pressure by Brent and he'd have a PRP of 5.8%. But I'll revise my opinion of Brent anyway, and keep a close watch on how these figures develop for the rest of the season.

Seventh-round pick Sean Lissemore has a more robust base to work off of, although it is still a bit low. Despite that, his pass rushing productivity ties him with first-round pick Jared Odrick for the 11th spot on the 3-4 DE list, just three spots down from another first-round pick, J.J. Watt.  Hmmmm...

Spears and Coleman are both slightly below average as pass rushers, no surprise there.

There are a lot of hypothetical line-up permutations we could go through with the existing personnel in the hopes of getting a better pass rush from our defensive line, but one thing is clear: an effective pass-rushing, three-down defensive lineman would do this line a world of good.

Defensive Backs: Unannounced Blitzers

Back in January, we took a first look Rob Ryan's defense in Cleveland and found that Rob Ryan likes to rush the passer with what BTB-member Chandus calls "unannounced blitzers": Chandus's film study (The Schematic Advantage of Having a Ryan) showed that Ryan likes to hide the points of attack of his rushers by using delayed rushes from the ILBs or the defensive backs (either safeties or corners) to "blitz the brains out of the OLineman and QB".

That's not something the Cowboys have done in the past years. In 2010, the Cowboys rushed one of their DBs 48 times on 590 dropbacks by opposing quarterbacks for a "rush" rate of 8.1%. That number was 4.0% in 2009 and 6.4% in 2008.

So far this year, the Cowboys have rushed a defensive back 94 times, almost as much as the 110 rushes in the previous three years combined. Here's how that number compares to the other 3-4 teams in the league this year:

Team Opponent dropbacks DB Rushes in %
NYJ 326 153 47%
GB 496 132 27%
WAS 352 93 26%
MIA 433 105 24%
DAL 428 94 22%
PIT 359 70 19%
HOU 358 66 18%
ARI 413 71 17%
KC 296 43 15%
SF 441 47 11%
SD 294 27 9%

What's unclear right now is whether the Cowboys are blitzing their backs out of choice or out of necessity. As we saw earlier, the 49ers are getting loads of pressure from their front five, and can keep their secondary back doing what they're supposed to be doing, protecting against the pass. So are the Cowboys bringing more backs on rushes because the front five are not getting enough pressure, or are they doing it because they are achieving exceptional results when they blitz a guy out of the secondary?

Defensive backs: More Surprise Studs?

We've established the principle, so without further ado, here's the pass rush productivity table for the Cowboys secondary:

Player Snaps Pass Rush QB Sk QB Ht QB Pr QBDP PRP '11
Gerald Sensabaugh 684 13 0 0 5 3.8 28.8%
Orlando Scandrick 434 18 1 1 4 4.8 26.4%
Barry Church 157 12 0 1 1 1.5 12.5%
Frank Walker 236 14 0 1 1 1.5 10.7%
Abram Elam 728 26 0 0 1 0.8 2.9%
No rushing allowed
Terence Newman 533 1 0 0 0 0.0 - -
Alan Ball 414 4 0 1 0 0.8 - -
Mike Jenkins 400 1 0 0 0 0.0 - -
Bryan McCann 35 3 0 1 0 0.8 - -
Danny McCray 26 2 1 0 0 1.0 - -

The Cowboys secondary is quite effective when sent against opposing quarterbacks. Sensabaugh and Scandrick in particular are veritable pass rush threats, and it's no surprise that Ryan's sending them after the QB. Elam has been surprisingly ineffective on his blitzes, which is a little strange considering that he was supposed to be the Jedi Master of the Rob Ryan defense.

Also noteworthy is that Ryan does not blitz his starting corners. Newman, Jenkins and Ball are hardly ever sent rushing. No wonder, they have their hands more than full with their coverage assignments anyway.

Based on all the numbers in these three posts, it wouldn't come as a surprise at all if the Cowboys decided go for a three-down, pass-rushing defensive lineman with a high pick in the draft or via free agency.

At the end of the day, if the Cowboys want to improve their pass defense (which they should), they'll have to invest in their defensive line first. If the Cowboys’ defensive line can't put enough pressure on opposing quarterbacks, the secondary is going to go chasing after opposing receivers all day and end up looking old, stupid and incompetent in the process. If receivers are running around all day, it doesn’t matter if you have Pro Bowl corners, you won't be able to cover anybody. Even a corner picked in the first round next April won't help one little bit if the line doesn't bring the pressure.

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