Dallas Cowboys Pass Rush Pt. I: How Disruptive Are DeMarcus Ware & Co?

If you're a QB, now would be a good time to start worrying.

Give any NFL quarterback enough time and he’s going to pick you apart. Pressure him, force him into making a decision and the chances of the QB making a mistake go way up.

I'm pretty sure that Rob Ryan uses words to that effect, with a couple of expletives thrown in for good measure, to describe what he wants from his pass rushers. I obviously don't have access to Ryan's playbook, but I do have access to his father's playbook while with the Houston Oilers, and that playbook features the following quote that I'm sure we would find in similar form in Rob's version somewhere:

"A quarterback has never completed a pass when he was flat on his back. We must hit the QB hard and often. QB's are over-paid, over-rated, pompous bastards and must be punished. Great pass coverage is a direct result of a great pass rush, and a great pass rush is simply a relentless desire to get to the QB."

Today, we'll start a little series of posts that look at the Cowboys' pass rush. We'll start in this post with a general overview of where the Cowboys' pass rush ranks relative to the other teams in the NFL, and in subsequent posts we'll go through the individual position groups.

Traditionally, the success of a team's pass rush has been measured by sacks. I have always marveled at this. A good team gets about three to four sacks per game. Yet a typical NFL game consists of about 60 defensive snaps. How can you use three to four plays in a 60-play game to make a definitive statement about the the other 56-57 plays?

But since sacks are still the pass rusher's currency of choice, let's start by having a look at the Cowboys' sacks over the last few years.

Cowboys Official Sack Totals and Rank, 2007-2011

2007 2008 2009 2010 2011
NFL Rank (Sacks)
3rd (46)
1st (59) 7th (42) 16th (35) 9th (42)

With the exception of 2010, the Cowboys have consistently had a top ten pass rushing unit as measured by sacks. But even last year's 42 sacks over 16 games are just 2.6 sacks a game. 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 also be considered a success for the pass rush. So to get a better feel for the overall effectiveness of the pass rush, you’ve got to measure a defense’s overall ability to pressure the quarterback, and in addition to sacks, you need to look at QB hits and QB pressures as well.

But before we go there, a couple of words on the stats we're about to use. QB hits and QB pressures are unofficial stats. QB hits are tracked in the individual NFL gamebooks but are not officially tallied, pressures aren't tracked by the NFL's official scorekeepers at all. The reality is that every team keeps their own count of QB pressures, but each team uses a slightly different definition.

The Cowboys also track sacks, hits and pressures as linebacker coach Mat Eberflus recently pointed out when he talked about Anthony Spencer:

Linebackers coach Matt Eberflus points out that Spencer was fourth in the league in sacks (6), pressures (31) and hits (9), though pressures and hits are unofficial stats.

Obviously, I don't have access to the stats each team keeps, and it wouldn't help anyway, because every team's definition of what constitutes a pressure will differ slightly. So for hits and pressures, I'm turning to Pro Football Focus, who track these stats for all teams and players.

In Spencer's case, PFF saw 6 sacks, 9 QB Hits and 35 QB pressures. That's only four pressures more than the team recorded, but close enough to the numbers the Cowboys use to make me feel very confident about the PFF numbers. And in contrast to individual team stats, PFF applies the same criteria across all 32 teams. But just so we're all on the same page, here's my summary of the how all three PFF stats are defined:

QB Sack: A QB is tackled for a loss or no gain before he can throw a pass or while in the pocket. PFF award either one sack or no sack, but do not count half sacks, so their sack totals can differ slightly from the official numbers

QB Hit: A hit is when a QB is knocked down but not sacked

QB Pressure: A pressure is when a QB is forced to move in the pocket in some other way than simply stepping up in the pocket to throw.

By PFF's tally, the 2011 Cowboys totaled 43 sacks, 50 QB hits and 192 QB pressures. Here's how that compares to previous years:

Cowboys QB disruptions, 2008-2011

2008 2009 2010 2011
Sacks 58 46 37 43
Hits
68 78 35 50
Pressures 134 164 189 192
QB Disruption Points 209.5 227.5 205 224.5

QB Disruption Points is a number that aggregates sacks, hits and pressures, but weights sacks a little more. It is calculated as Sacks + (Hits * 0.75) + (Pressures * 0.75). Overall, as measured by QB Disruption Points (QBDP), the 2011 Cowboys came in ahead of the 2008 and 2010 team, and rank slightly behind the 2009 team. With their 224.5 QB Disruption Points, the Cowboys rank sixth in the league, which is a little higher than where their raw sack total places them.

Rank Team QBDP Rank Team QBDP Rank Team QBDP
1 PHI 253.0 12 ATL 201.3 23 NYJ 166.0
2 SF 241.5 13 CIN 201.3 24 SD 161.3
3 HOU 230.3 14 NYG 199.0 25 JAC 158.5
4 MIA 226.8 15 SEA 197.0 26 CAR 153.8
5 OAK 226.5 16 MIN 196.3 27 TB 152.0
6 DAL 224.5 17 WAS 191.0 28 CLE 143.0
7 STL 221.8 18 BAL 190.8 29 TEN 143.0
8 DET 215.8 19 NO 188.5 30 BUF 139.5
9 ARI 210.0 20 GB 183.8 31 KC 137.3
10 NE 206.5 21 PIT 181.0 32 IND 131.8
11 CHI 201.8 22 DEN 177.5

The Cowboys are among a group of teams ranked third through seventh who are all bunched pretty tightly together. And there's a clear gap between this group and the two teams at the top of this list, the Eagles and the 49ers.

If you simply add up the Eagles' total (52 sacks, 56 hits, 212 QB pressures) you get 320 plays in which they got some type of pressure on the QB last season. That's 20 per game. The average QB drops back to pass about 37 times per game, so the Eagles disrupted the QB on roughly every second throw. That's a pretty good pass rush they've put together there last season. Of course, the Eagles also turned in an 8-8 season, so a good pass rush is not necessarily going to guarantee you a playoff spot.

Another thing to consider when you look at the table above is that the numbers are simple volume stats, meaning they do not take into account how often a given defense rushed the passer. You may think this is a trivial distinction, but I assure you, it is not. Take the Cowboys for example. The Cowboys accumulated about 11,500 defensive snaps last year across all their defensive players. Out of these 11,500 snaps, 2,709 were pass rush snaps (snaps in which a player rushed the passer).

The Cowboys' pass rush snaps are pretty close to the league average of 2,768 pass rush snaps but there's a pretty large spread by teams: The Saints topped the league with 3,424 pass rush snaps, while the Chiefs had the fewest with 2,240 pass rush snaps. Because of the disparity in the number of pass rush snaps, you need to adjust the total QB Disruptions by the amount of pass rush snaps to get a better feel for how disruptive a defense was.

If you divide the QB Disruption points by the number pass rush snaps, you get a percentage called Pass Rush Productivity. For the Cowboys, that number is 8.3% (224.5 / 2,709). The Pass Rush Productivity value tells you how efficient a team was at turning its pass rushes into Quarterback disruptions. The table below summarizes the Pass Rush Productivity (PRP) for all 32 teams:

Rank Team PRP
Rank Team PRP
Rank Team PRP
1 PHI 9.5% 12 SEA 7.0% 23 JAC 6.2%
2 SF 8.7% 13 DET 7.0% 24 TB 6.2%
3 STL 8.5% 14 ARI 6.9% 25 DEN 6.1%
4 DAL 8.3% 15 SD 6.8% 26 KC 6.1%
5 HOU 7.7% 16 NE 6.8% 27 CLE 5.8%
6 MIA 7.4% 17 PIT 6.8% 28 BUF 5.8%
7 ATL 7.4% 18 BAL 6.8% 29 GB 5.7%
8 CIN 7.4% 19 NYJ 6.7% 30 IND 5.5%
9 WAS 7.3% 20 CHI 6.6% 31 NO 5.5%
10 OAK 7.0% 21 NYG 6.6% 32 TEN 5.1%
11 MIN 7.0% 22 CAR 6.2%

The list doesn't change all that much at the top. The Eagles and 49ers still retain their top spots, which shows that not only did they accumulate a lot of QB Disruptions, they were also highly effective when they did rush.

The Cowboys move up slightly on this list. Perhaps because Cowboys fans gave come to expect 59-sack seasons from the Cowboys, there was some disappointment last year with the Cowboys' pass rush. But that disappointment is largely unfounded. The Cowboys ranked sixth in QB disruption points and fourth in pass rushing productivity. Or to put that a little more succinctly and answer the question in the title of this post: The Cowboys were one of the top teams in the league in disrupting the opposing passer, and were one of the most efficient teams in generating pressure from their pass rush.

A couple of other teams stand out on the two lists as well. Take the Colts for example. If you thought that the Colts' collapse was all about not having Peyton Manning under center, the tables above suggests that the problems in Indy run much deeper than just at the QB position.

Notice also that the Saints drop from 19th to 31st from one table to the other, an indication that while they rushed the passer more often than any other team, they were not particularly efficient when doing so. Also dropping by 9 spots each are the Packers and Bears, both of whom also have a high number of pass rush snaps (GB: 3,200, CHI: 3,065) and comparatively little to show for it. The biggest climbers in the second list are the Chargers (up 9 spots) and the Redskins (up 8).

And finally, you'll see that the Browns are sitting in 27th place in the PRP table above. Last year, playing in a 3-4 scheme and under a different defensive coordinator, they had a PRP percentage of 7.9%, which would have been good enough for the fifth spot in this year's ranking.

Concluding, a lot of the Cowboys' success in these metrics obviously has to do with DeMarcus Ware. And in the next post, we'll find out just how much Ware and the other outside linebackers contributed to these results.

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