Dallas Cowboys 2011 Defense: Grading The Pass Rush

Is Ware the only Cowboys defender capable of rushing the passer?

Once again the Dallas Cowboys prepare for the upcoming offseason and draft and must find ways to upgrade the defense. The first step has become official; Dave Campo will no longer be part of the coaching staff. Perhaps not surprisingly, the need for a new secondary coach accompanies a need to greatly improve the performance of the team's secondary. Rob Ryan surely requires a few more pieces to complete the puzzle of his defensive designs, but I believe the most pressing need is clearly in the secondary in an attempt to cure the common coverage breakdowns that again plagued the Cowboys. This is saying a lot considering I believe a defense lives and dies in the trenches.

In fact, the first part of this 2011 Grading Series will specifically compare the Cowboys defense to the premier pass-rushing teams in the league. If I were to create a defense, most of the first players drafted would play within the front-seven. I consider it a cardinal rule that a defense hinges mostly on the ability to create havoc for quarterbacks and control the line of scrimmage. As Tom Landry might call it, the ability to dominate up-front and own the defensive diamond. A great front-seven and pass rush with only an average secondary is much more likely to survive in the NFL than an average pass rush with a great secondary. So why do I think improving the secondary is the most pressing need for the Cowboys?

There has been a lot of discussion on the need for Dallas to cure an ailing pass rush. While it is hard to disagree that improvements can be made, it seems odd that many consider it the primary concern in the upcoming offseason and draft (i.e. #14 pick overall). Why?

Well, it appears the Cowboys pass rush stacks up well against the competition. It may surprise a few fans that the Cowboys clearly have a Top 10 pass rush.

In the debate on the effectiveness of Dallas' pass rush, several teams are often sighted as clearly superior examples. The Baltimore Ravens, Pittsburgh Steelers, New York Giants, and Philadelphia Eagles are usual suspects, and in 2011 many would include the Houston Texans, San Francisco 49ers, Minnesota Vikings and Washington Redskins as formidable pass-rushing defenses.

With all the talk of improving the Cowboys pass rush, it seems perplexing that only four of the aforementioned defenses had more sacks in 2011.

An in-depth statistical comparison follows the jump...

The following is a statistical pass-rushing breakdown of the Top 10 defenses in the NFL in total sacks...as well as the Steelers. Surprisingly, the vaunted Steelers pass rush was not among the Top 10 in 2011, though still seemed effective for most of the season despite some injuries across the front-seven. The fact the Steelers defense was so dominant this season is likely because the secondary played as one of the best in the league as well. In any case, on to the analysis:

All statistics from NFL.com

Sacks 50 50 48 48 45 44 42 43.6
Rank 1st 1st 3rd 3rd 5th 6th 7th 7th
Rusher 1 J. Allen-22 J. Babin-18 T. Suggs-14 JPP-16.5 G. Atkins-7.5 C. Barwin-11.5 D. Ware-19.5 13.5
Rusher 2 8 11 6 9 6.5 6.5 6 7.75
%Rusher1 44% 36% 29% 34% 17% 26% 46% 29%
%Rusher2 16% 22% 12.5% 19% 14% 15% 14% 18%
% Top 2 60% 58% 42% 53% 31% 41% 61% 47%
% DL 81% 92% 32% 52% 77% 37.5% 25% 3-4 vs 4-3
% LB 11% 4% 53% 46% 7% 61% 68% 3-4 vs 4-3

Sacks 42 42 41 41 41 41 35
Rank 7th 7th 10th 10th 10th 10th 17th
Rusher 1 A.Smith-14 C. Cambell-8 C. Wake-8.5 B.Orakpo-9 C.Avril-11 V. Miller-11.5 R.Harrison-9
Rusher 2 7.5 7 7 7.5 8 9.5 9
%Rusher1 33% 19% 21% 22% 27% 28% 26%
%Rusher2 18% 17% 17% 18% 19.5% 23% 26%
% Top 2 51% 36% 38% 40% 46% 51% 51%
% DL 31% 32% 32% 44% 61% 19.5% 19%
% LB 69% 56% 54% 49% 12% 63% 76%

Premiere Pass-Rushers and the Guys Opposite:

It is clear that the Cowboys pass rush primarily rests on the shoulders of DeMarcus Ware. He had the second most sacks in the league and no team had a larger percentage of their sacks come from a single player. It is tough to imagine how Ware isn't the Defensive MVP and best defensive player in the league.

The next thing that stands out is that the Cowboys weak areas don't rank far below the overall team averages and the defense is vastly superior when above average. With the best pass rusher in the league, it would only make sense. And for all the calls to replace Anthony Spencer immediately, it should be noted the sacks he brings to the defense are not far below the averages for the totals and % for the #2 Rushers in the league's best pass-rushing defenses. Few would say the Ravens rely on a one-man pass rush, yet they are the only team with a lower % of sacks from their #2 rusher.

Yes, the Cowboys could use more sacks from the rest of the team and a pass-rushing upgrade from Spencer is certainly possible. But is it so bad that it should be made (by not re-signing him) the top priority for this defense?

The Big Nasties Along the D-Line

The aspect of the Cowboys pass rush that could most improve seems to be along the defensive-line. While the Steelers and Broncos had fewer sacks and a lower % of sacks from their defensive-lines, five other 3-4 defenses on this chart had more pass rush production from their linemen - six if you include the Ravens hybrid 3-4.

There is a bright side, however, since it's not as bad as it first appears (Ware's dominance weighs heavily on the %):

D-Line Sacks 16.5 13.0 13.5 13.0 18.0 8.0 6.5 10.5 12.4

Just like Anthony Spencer compared to the other #2 Rushers, the Cowboys defensive-line is less than two sacks below the average of the best pass-rushing 3-4 defenses. That is certainly promising, especially considering Jay Ratliff accounted for only two sacks in 2011. The other good news is that players like Jason Hatcher, Sean Lissemore, and Josh Brent continue to improve every year. However, after the needs in the Cowboys secondary, I would place more talent for the d-line near the top of the list of priorities. Not only is Ratliff getting old, but a more dominant defensive-line would also help Spencer improve his sack totals, would also help protect the secondary with some more pass pressure, and even help cover-up shortcomings at the weak inside linebacker position.

Pass-Rush in Context of Overall Defense

Not to spoil surprises to be revealed in future stories in this Grading Series, but it's time to take a look at how these dominant pass-rushing units fared compared to the effectiveness of the overall defenses. While the Cowboys clearly had a Top 10 pass rush, it is all too clear that the Dallas defense did not rank in the Top 10.

Judging the best defenses of the league based purely on stats is always a tricky subject. The NFL ranks defenses by total yards allowed. Total points has it's obvious shortcomings, but can also help clear up the picture if used in conjunction with other stats. Finally, we can also include some advanced statistics used by football sites that include more variables in their calculations.

Total Yards and Points from NFL.com

Estimated Points Added/Play from Advanced NFL stats

Defense-Adjust Value Over Average from Football Outsiders

Sacks Ttl Yards Def EPA/P Def DVOA Ttl Points
MIN 1st 21st 27th 25th 31st
PHI 1st 8th 10th 12th 10th
BAL 3rd 3rd 1st 1st 3rd
NYG 3rd 27th 25th 20th 25th
CIN 5th 7th 10th 17th 9th
HOU 6th 2nd 4th 8th 4th
SF 7th 4th 1st 3rd 2nd
ARI 7th 18th 13th 18th 17th
DAL 7th 14th 13th 16th 16th
MIA 10th 15th 13th 11th 6th
WAS 10th 13th 20th 14th 21st
DET 10th 23rd 9th 22nd 23rd
DEN 10th 20th 17th 19th 24th
PIT 17th 1st 5th 7th 1st

By all but the DVOA rankings, these top pass-rushing units included the majority of Top 10 defenses in the NFL. By all accounts the Cowboys 2011 overall defense was average at best.

Can you spot the unseen similarities between the top ranked pass-rushing units that are average to below-average in overall defense?

More will be revealed in the next Grading Series, but one thing seems certain. The Cowboys must use this offseason and draft to improve their defense...yet the lack of pass rush in 2011 is often exaggerated. Surely Top 10 in sacks earns Dallas an above average grade, and there was support provided to Ware. The Cowboys don't have an elite pass rush, but would they if their secondary wasn't so porous? Is there a dire need for new pass rushers? How should Dallas' prioritize their offseason and draft resources?

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