Cowboys Pass Rush: A Lack Of Success On The "Money Down"

The Cowboys need more Jason Hatchers on third down

Earlier this month, CBS Sports' NFL insider Pat Kirwin penned an article in which he looked at the rate in which NFL teams generate third down sacks. As Kirwin points out, sacks on "the money down" usually force punts (unless the opposing team is in desperation mode), which is the name of the defensive game.

To illustrate his point, Kirwin offers his readers a chart with what he claims to be all 32 teams' third down sacks to pass attempts ratios. Sitting at the top of the list are the Ravens and Giants. Kirwin suggests its no accident that one of these teams was the Super Bowl champion and the other was a mere dropped end zone pass away from joining them in the annual Game to End All Games.

Given the seeming correlation between third down sack ratio and overall success (all of the playoff teams were at or exceeded the league average), we'd naturally be curious to see where the Cowboys stacked up. Curiously, Kirwin omits the Cowboys from his chart. Lest ye be dismayed, I went back over the 2012 season to compile a Dallas-specific sack ratio chart so we could see how our beloved 'Boys stacked up.

More sack ratio goodness after the jump...

Using Kirwin's chart, here's the Cowboys line:

TEAM PASS PLAYS SACKS RATIO COMMENTS
Dallas 179 10 (11) 1:17 (1:16) Hatcher is a beast (3.5)

The Cowboys defense faced roughly the same number of third down passes as other successful defenses (Baltimore also had 179; Houston tallied 175; San Francisco had 182. Where they "distinguished" themselves is in the number of sacks and resultant sack ratio. Whereas the NFL-leading Ravens notched 24 sacks in the same number of opportunities, Dallas managed only eleven third down sacks (and one of those was Victor Butler's run-down of a scrambling Rex Grossman at Washington). The ratio 1:17 (or 1:16 if you accept Butler's cheapie) places Dallas at the very bottom of Kirwan's rankings. Not surprising, but gloomy news nonetheless.

And, in case you're wondering: opponents ran the ball 29 times on third down against the Cowboys in 2012.

A handful of other observations:

  • The third down sack breakdown goes as follows: Hatcher 3.5; Ware 2.5; Spencer 2; Butler 2 (or 1); Scandrick 1
  • They need Jason Hatcher to be in the third down rush package. I don't know how many third down snaps he logged, but I'd guess it was significantly fewer than either Ware or Spencer, and he still led the team.
  • On the other hand, Jay Ratliff didn't appear to sniff the quarterback on third down. Perhaps this is because of scheme (I've seen him doubled a lot in passing situations), but the big third down goose egg is a bit embarrassing (and perhaps telling).
  • The Cowboys enjoyed a spate of third down sacks in weeks 11-13 of the season (five in three games against Washington, Miami and Arizona) and then suffered a dearth in the final month, when they went 0-fer against the Giants, Bucs, and Eagles before managing a shared Ware/ Hatcher takedown in the season finale.
  • I don't have the exact stats for you, but it was clear that, as the season wore on, the Cowboys not only failed to generate sacks on third down, but far more frequently allowed conversions and big gainers. This is certainly no revelation, but they simply couldn't get other teams off the field.

What's the lesson here? If Kirwan's correlation between third down sack ratio and success is to be believed, the Cowboys will have to take down the quarterback more frequently on "the money down." Think about it: a key third down sack might have won any one of six close games last season: Jets, Lions, Patriots, Cardinals, and either Giants contest. Had Dallas enjoyed Baltimore's sack ratio (with 140% more sacks in the same number of opportunities), the mind boggles at how different the season might have been.

I'd bet that Rob Ryan and his team are all too aware of this, and wouldn't be surprised to see the Cowboys defensive staff give extra attention to their third down packages in training camp. It could be the difference between a memorable season and another mired in mediocrity. The question is: do they have the horses to make the necessary leap forward? I'll be watching intently...

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