Cowboys 2011 Defense: Part II, Grading The Pass Rush

The pass rush from the Cowboys defensive-line has not sent most fans jumping for joy.

The Dallas Cowboys 3-4 defense is based on applying pressure and designed around the edge-rushing phenomenon DeMarcus Ware. With Rob Ryan now coaching the unit, there is every reason to believe applying pressure and creating havoc along the line is the intended spearhead for Ryan's organized chaos. Part I was a breakdown of sack ratings, but as they say...you can never have enough pass rush.

Judging the effectiveness of a defense's pass rush requires more than just the tally and dispersion of sacks. The Cowboys rank in the Top 10 in total sacks, but there are more signs of carnage left by a penetrating front-seven. Part II will compare some more detailed stats and thus have fewer teams in the study. In my opinion there are four teams that managed consistent 3-4 pressure from their defense. Oddly enough, one of them runs a 4-3 and the other a hybrid 3-4. Let me explain...

At the heart of the 3-4 design is the attempt to disguise and confuse an offense with a potent pass rush from schemes that utilize a variation of the players in the front-seven pressuring gaps. In this way, the Baltimore Ravens and the New York Giants use a virtually 50/50 split between the pressure from their linebackers and defensive linemen. In some cases, the distinction between edge-rushing OLB and DE disappears. In fact, plenty of Ryan's schemes rush three or four players from traditionally 4-3 defensive-line positions, Jay Ratliff and Sean Lissemore lining up as defensive tackles with Ware and/or Anthony Spencer as defensive ends.

A great 4-3 defense can create pressure with just the defensive-line. A great 3-4 creates pressure from any combination of their front-seven. In my opinion, along with the Ravens and Giants, two other teams stood out with their 3-4esque pass rush, the Houston Texans and the Washington Redskins.

The Cowboys pass rush must clearly improve before anyone calls it elite...but there is more than one way to solve that problem.

Beware Cowboys Fans: the following collection of statistics is both painful and surprising!

First, a slightly more detailed look at the sack totals including a breakdown of each team's leading rushers.

Statistics from NFL.com

HOU NYG BAL WAS DAL
Sacks 44 48 48 41 42
Rank 6th 3rd 3rd 10th 7th
% DL 37.5% 52% 32% 44% 25%
% LB 61% 46% 53% 49% 68%
Rusher 1 C. Barwin-11.5-OLB JPP-16.5-OLB T. Suggs-14-OLB B.Orakpo-9-OLB D. Ware-19.5
Rusher 2 A. Smith-6.5-OLB Osi U.-9-DE P. McPhee-6-DL R.Kerrigan-7.5-OLB A.Spencer-6-OLB
Rusher 3 B.Reed-6-OLB J.Tuck-5-DE P. Kruger-5.5-OLB S.Bowen-6-DL J.Hatcher-4.5-DL
Rusher 4 JJ Watt-5.5-DL D.Tullefson-5-DE H. Ngata-5-DL A.Carriker-5.5-DL V.Butler-3-OLB
Rusher 5 Mario Will.-5-OLB C.Canty-4-DL C. Redding-4.5-DL B.Cofield-3-DL J.Ratliff-2-DL
Rusher 6 B.Cushing-4-ILB M.Kiwanuka-3.5-OLB J.Johnson-2.5-OLB C.Neild-2-DL S.Lissemore-2-DL
Sacks from 2-6 27 26.5 23.5 24 17.5

Looking at sacks alone, even Atlas would be impressed at Ware's ability to bear the load in ranking the team Top 10 in total sacks. Anthony Spencer and Jason Hatcher rate below par against the other second and third rushers, but worst of all is Dallas' abysmally low sack totals from their front-seven (minus star rusher) compared to the other teams. Even worse, two of the leading rushers, Victor Butler and Sean Lissemore, are only situational players.

One can only be impressed by the Houston Texans. Of their six leading rushers, only one is a backup and he stepped in admirably when Mario Williams went down with an injury. They are also the only team with an inside linebacker ranked among their leading rushers. The Texans may have the best front-seven in football.

Even if Jay Ratliff had found a way to rank his sack totals closer to his ability, Dallas would still be half-a-dozen sacks away from the other impressive pass-rushing defenses. Clearly, the Cowboys must upgrade certain positions to increase their sack totals.

Still, many of us recall the Cowboys creating pressure before opposing quarterbacks found open receivers. Could it really be Ware that single-handedly collapses pockets?

In the quest for more info to debate, the time has come to see how the Cowboys defense ranked in terms of some other pass-rushing stats. While NFL.com is somewhat limited, advancedNFLstats.com keeps commendable track of quarterback hits and tackles for a loss. Both provide additional insight into a team and player's ability to win the battles at the line of scrimmage by applying pressure and collapsing the pocket. Sacks are the sexier statistic, but tackles for a loss can be just as impactful and quarterback hits eventually lead to incompletions, jumpy quarterbacks, sacks and interceptions.

HOU NYG BAL WAS DAL Averages
QB Hits TFL QB Hits TFL QB Hits TFL QB Hits TFL QB Hits TFL QB Hits TFL
Primary Rusher 27 12 29 23 22 20 12 6 28 26 23.6 17.4
#2 Rusher 16 10 11 8 8 4 12 9 15 12 12.4 8.6
Top 3 59 35 50 37 45 36 35 20 53 43 48.4 34.2
Rushers 2-6 62 42 45 44 46 32 38 23 43 33 46.8 34.8
Total 89 54 74 67 68 52 50 29 71 59 70.4 52.2

Wait...but the sack totals said...does that mean...?

While the Cowboys pass rushers are subpar in terms of sacks, their ability to create pressure does appear to be legitimate. The Cowboys are above average in virtually every category. Amongst these dominant pass-rushing teams, even Almost Anthony ranks as one of the best #2 rushers in terms of quarterback hits and tackles for a loss. Even the Top 3 totals - Ware, Spencer, and Hatcher - rank above average. Only when comparing each team's pressure without their key pass-rusher does Dallas fall slightly short of the average. It would seem the Cowboys, even with two role-players in the ranks of their best rushers, actually have a solid front-seven in terms of quarterback hits and tackles for a loss.

Not to repeat myself, but maybe Anthony Spencer isn't the biggest problem with the Cowboys ability to force sacks. Indeed, he may not even be the second highest priority. The Cowboys need to find greater depth in their pass-rushing ranks, especially at one specific position. Having a rotation where some of your team's best pass-rushers are scheme-specific part-time players is clearly less reliable and consistent. It would appear one great way for Ryan to improve the pass rush is to get a dominant defensive-end to play opposite Hatcher. Sean Lissemore has certainly earned more snaps, and though he may still be a situational player it's tough to deny him the credit he deserves and even consideration for a starting role. Consider the following:

Jay Ratliff had six QB Hits and finally got back on track with eight tackles for a loss. With far fewer snaps (and double teams), Lissemore had five Hits and four TFL.

Now, the Cowboys front-seven has been lacking in sacks, yet totals tons of hits against quarterbacks and plenty of tackles for a loss. Could there be something other than a dominant end or replacement for Spencer that could improve the Cowboys pass rush and sack numbers considerably in 2012?

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