Ryan's Bullies: How Good Is The Cowboys D-Line? (Part I)

How does the Cowboys defensive-line compare to those of other 3-4 defenses in the league?

The Cowboys defense led by new coordinator Rob Ryan seemed a much improved unit in 2011. It made getting run over by the Eagles even more disappointing. Clearly a breakdown occurred that must be remedied. With the offense having trouble finding a rhythm and consistent success, it will be important for the Cowboys defense to play well in the coming weeks. Now with a 3-4 record, the Cowboys have little room for error during the "favorable" phase of their schedule. With starters Sean Lee and Mike Jenkins likely to miss some time, Rob Ryan will have to do some tinkering and continue to rely on all the players on the Cowboys defense.

During the defeat to our rivals, it seemed the Cowboys defense relied too much on run blitzes and linebackers and safeties to stop the run. Thus the game-plan to keep Vick corralled with less blitzing, combined with the absence of Sean Lee and the safeties playing in deep coverage, proved devastating. I wrote how these were major factors in the loss.

So I then began to wonder if the quiet efficiency of the defensive-front was really a sign of success or actually a sign of a lack of playmakers. Perhaps a mix of both? Rob Ryan has referred to his "bullies" up-front and commented on his belief in their success - but stated a bit more provocatively. I began to wonder how much truth exists behind Ryan's bold statements. The Cowboys front-three seems to win plenty of battles, but they rarely stand out by making big plays. Are they getting the job done even without making impact plays? Are the linebackers and safeties masking defensive-line deficiencies?  

Taking a closer look at the Cowboys defensive linemen and how they compare to other 3-4 fronts in the league...

The Yuglies have often been discussed this season because of the many changes along the offensive line, but not much mention of the Cowboys Big Nasties has transpired recently. Perhaps it's because no flashy new additions occurred during the offseason. Perhaps it is simply par for the course; the big guys up-front are rarely relished in the limelight. Re-watching games, it appears the Cowboys defensive-line has prospered under the tutelage of Brian Baker and Rob Ryan. The defense has proved strong against the run and has been able to create pressure while sending a three or four-man rush. And yet defensive-linemen aren't often dancing behind the line of scrimmage after big plays. I don't miss the Russian Dancing Bear...but it made me curious.

Combined Player Stats:

I have gathered and compared the rankings and player stats of ten 3-4 defenses in the league, but left out the Ravens, Patriots, Bills, and Chiefs who all utilize a hybrid version with many 4-3 fronts. The following collection of player stats for every defensive-lineman on each team is from ESPN.com.

D-Line Stats Tackles (total) For a Loss Sacks Fumbles
Cowboys 71 5 4 0
Cardinals 87 10 4.5 2
49ers 52 2 7.5 2
Dolphins 67 7 4 2
Jets 77 8 3 1
Texans 71 4 9.5 3
Steelers 53 7 5 2
Chargers 69 8 2 1
Redskins 64 1 13 1
Packers 57 5 6 1
Average 66.8 5.7 5.9 1.5

The Cowboys d-line rotations have managed just a few total tackles above the average for all the 3-4 defenses, but rank below the averages of every other statistical category. Among 3-4 defenses, the Cowboys d-line is in the Top 5 (of 10) in total tackles, but not in tackles for a loss and sacks. They are also the only 3-4 d-line without a forced fumble. First impressions would lead observers to believe the Cowboys d-line is nothing special and likely below average.

The Cowboys defensive-line appears to be getting the job done shedding blocks to make tackles, but the poor rankings in tackles for a loss, sacks, and fumbles could be considered proof that the team does lack "impact players" along the d-line? So, do the Cowboys just have a collection of average linemen that are doing their jobs but nothing more? There are teams that have double the sacks from their d-line. Perhaps even more discouraging, there are teams with twice as many tackles for a loss as well.

It's always difficult to rank 3-4 linemen based purely on stats. These Goliaths of football can devastate a play (like pushing two offensive linemen back into the pocket and freeing up a teammate to make the sack), but earn no statistic for their success. So I find judging the d-line based only on the sum of player statistics lacking, however necessary.

Individual Player Stats:

Seeing how individual Cowboys stack-up against the competition can also be enlightening, but can still inconclusive when comparing stats for defensive-linemen.

Player - Team Tackles (total) For a Loss Sacks Fumbles Player - Team Tackles (total) For a Loss Sacks Fumbles
C. Campbell - ARI 37 4 3 1 V. Martin - SD 18 1 0 0
A. Garay - SD 27 2 1 0 R. McDonald - SF 13 1 3 0
J. Smith - SF 26 1 4.5 2 J. Wynn - GB 11 2 3 0
JJ Watt - HOU 26 1 2 1 K. Golston - WAS 15 0 1.5 1
D. Dockett - ARI 21 4 0.5 0 J. Hatcher - DAL 13 0 2 0
B. Keisel - PIT 19 2 3 1 D. Williams - ARI 14 1 0 0
S. Bowen - WAS 19 1 3.5 0 P. Soliai - MIA 14 1 0 0
J. Ratliff - DAL 20 2 1 0 R. Pickett - GB 14 1 0 0
S. Pouha - NYJ 21 2 0 0 M. Spears - DAL 11 0 1 0
A. Smith - HOU 16 3 4.5 1 K. Coleman - DAL 13 1 0 0
M. DeVito - NYJ 19 1 1 1 K. Langford - MIA 11 1 0 1
R. Starks - MIA 18 2 1.5 0 J. Odrick - MIA 10 1 1 1
M. Wilkerson - NYJ 17 2 1 0 S. Lissemore - DAL 9 2 0 0
BJ Raji - GB 16 0 2 0 D. Carter - ARI 7 1 1 1
A. Carriker - WAS 11 0 4.5 0 T. McDaniel - MIA 7 1 0.5 0

These are a compilation of individual stats from players of the ten 3-4 defenses referenced earlier. Ideally, you would like to have at least one top-notch player in the Top 10. It appears Arizona has the most impressive showing with two Top 10 linemen in their 3-4 front (we'll explore the irony of this in Part II).

Unfortunately, Jay Ratliff is a little lower on the list than most fans would like, but he is having a respectable season. I am particularly happy with the two tackles for a loss. It was very disappointing when Ratliff had zero tackles for a loss last season, especially since I personally consider it one of the most important indicators to the success of d-linemen (especially in a 3-4). Linemen may have more 2-gap responsibilities and though successful still suffer in the sack column, but whether penetrating one gap or occupying two, either well-executed assignment against a run play should ideally lead to a tackle for a loss.

Then things get confusing. If the Cowboys rank below average in combined player stats along the d-line, you wouldn't expect much from the Cowboys individual players, especially after one of them ranks in the Top 10. Comparing ten 3-4 defenses would mean the Top 30 players should be considered the best "starters" of the 3-4 defenses in the league. How many players should a below average unit have in the Top 30?

Well, the Cowboys (tied with the Dolphins) have the most players on the Top 30 list. Even more surprising is that five Cowboys players have managed to make the list. This is likely a sign that the team successfully relies on a rotation along the d-line (and/or has dealt with injuries) and that there is no liability or weak link on the d-line. Impressively, Jason Hatcher ranks 20th even though he missed a few games due to injury. The fact that Sean Lissemore also made the Top 30 list and has never started a game is also promising and a testament to the frequency of his success whenever called to action.

The Cowboys may lack in impact plays from their d-line compared to other 3-4 defenses, but they can definitely trust in their depth at the position. Despite the lack of tackles for a loss and sacks across the d-line, the Cowboys appear to have five players that are performing as well as some other starters on 3-4 teams.

Is the Cowboys defensive-line rotation average at best because of the lack of impact plays? Are they still getting the job done for Rob Ryan's defense?   

Individual player stats can be confusing and at times misleading. The Cowboys 3-4 defensive-line is not being credited for big-plays as often as other 3-4 defenses, but the Cowboys appear to have a strong rotation compared to other teams in the league. The combination of players stats shows the Cowboys defensive-line may only be average at best. Will team stats and defensive rankings reveal similar conclusions?

Find out more in Part II of Ryan's Bullies.

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