The key to slowing down modern offenses is to get pressure on the passer. Occasionally, some dinosaur will rear its head somewhere and talk about how 'stopping the run' is the key to a successful defense. Ignore that.
Quarterbacks in the NFL today get rid of the ball in less than three seconds on average. If your defense doesn't get to the quarterback by then, chances are you've just allowed a completion. Give the QB more time and your secondary just got burned for a 60-yard bomb. Pressure him, force him into making a decision and the chances of the QB making a mistake go way up.
Traditionally, the success of a team's pass rush has been measured by sacks, and since sacks are still the pass rusher's currency of choice (despite a multitude of advanced metrics), let's start by having a look at the Cowboys' sacks over the last few years.
|Cowboys Sacks 2008-2011|
NFL Rank (Sacks)
||1st (59)||7th (42)||16th (35)||7th (42)||21st (20)|
In no small part due to DeMarcus Ware, the Cowboys pass rush has been a fairly consistent top ten unit over the last couple of years. But not this year. 2012 is shaping up to be the the worst of the last six years in terms of pass rush - if you measure the success of a pass rush by its sack totals.
But considering the limited time the ball is in the quarterback's hands in modern offenses, just penetrating the pocket and pressuring the QB to throw early must be considered a success for the defense. So to get a true feel for the effectiveness of the pass rush, you’ve got to find a metric beyond sacks to measure a defense’s ability to pressure the quarterback.
Fortunately for us, the NFL record keepers also measure quarterback hits, which is one way to approximate how much pressure a defense is bringing. Here are the official NFL numbers through the first 10 games for the past five years:
|Cowboys QB sacks & hits through 10 games, 2008-2012|
Both sacks and hits are a bit on the low side compared to previous years. This year's total of 64 sacks and hits is a so-so figure. In terms of pass rush as measured by these numbers, the Cowboys had their best recent years in 2008 and 2010, when they recorded 84 disruptions. So why aren't the Cowboys getting to the QB enough? Read on.
The Cowboys keep their own statistics based on the coaching film that they review. These statistics usually differ slightly from the official NFL records, but importantly for our purposes, these records include a stat-line called 'QB Pressures'. This is a number that includes QB hits as well as other 'pressures', although it's not clear how exactly the Cowboys define a other pressures. But I'll assume the Cowboys staff know what they're talking about and have been consistent in applying this measure over the years. Here's how the first ten games of each of the last five seasons look like according to the coaching film stats:
|Cowboys QB Pressures (from coaching film) through 10 games, 2008-2012|
(*Note: I only have the data from the coaching film through nine games in 2009, all other data is through 10 games). What we see here is that after a significant drop in pressures in 2010 and 2011, the 2012 Cowboys are back to bringing the pressure the way they did in their more successful years.
If you add pressures and sacks, you get an approximation of the number of QB disruptions the defense has recorded over the season. This year that's 110 disruptions, or 11.0 contested/disrupted throws per game, an increase over the 8.3 in 2010 and 9.3 in 2011. The difference may not sound like all that much, but every little bit helps.
In the next and final step of this mid-season look at the Cowboys' pass rush, we look at the position groups to understand where the pressure is coming from, and how that has changed over the past few years:
|QB Pressures by position groups through 10 games, 2008-2012|
The OLBs have been the Steady Eddie's of the Cowboys' pass rush over the last few years, getting around four pressures per game like clockwork.
The situation does not look as nice along the defensive line. From a high of 69 pressures in 2009, the DL production dropped to an embarrassing 16 pressures last year. And while the situation has improved to 35 pressures this year, that's still only half of what the unit produced in 2009. Part of that decline is due to Jay Ratliff's injury issues over the last few years and the corresponding decline in production. But the bigger chunk are the missing pressures from the DEs.
In 2009, Stephen Bowen (18 pressures), Jason Hatcher (15), Marcus Spears (10) and Igor Olshansky (6) formed a formidable pass rushing line for the Cowboys. From that unit, Bowen was lost to the Redskins, Olshansky was released after the 2010 season, Spears hasn't recorded a pressure since 2010 and only Jason Hatcher has maintained his pace, notching another 15 pressures again this year.
Unfortunately, Hatcher isn't getting a lot of help from the other DEs: Kenyon Coleman (2 pressures), Sean Lissemore (1), Marcus Spears (0) aren't much of a pass-rush threat, and only Tyrone Crawford (4) has shown some promise in limited opportunities.
To paraphrase Bian Burke from Advanced NFL Stats, "Got a DE that can stuff the run but can't rush the passer? Trade him to some sucker team that cares that they only give up 3.8 yards per carry rather than 4.2 yards per carry. That's how you build a perennial playoff contender."
The Cowboys need more pressure from their defensive linemen. If they can't get a sack, at least provide some pressure and make the quarterback step up in the pocket, move or hurry his throw. Based on the numbers above, I wouldn't be surprised at all if the Cowboys decided go for a defensive lineman with their first round pick in the draft. Hatcher, Coleman, Spears and Ratliff will all be over 30 next season, and the odds are stacked against those four delivering better numbers next season.
On a much brighter note, Sean Lee (8 pressures, 2 TFL) and Bruce Carter (2 pressures, 9 TFL) are bringing a level of disruption to the game from the ILB position that the Cowboys haven't seen in quite a while. Imagine both of them healthy ...