Dallas Cowboys Pass Rush Pt. III: Pass-Rushing Defensive Linemen

Jason Hatcher, pictured here after an interception, may be the most underrated player on the Cowboys roster.

Today, we conclude our three-part look at the Cowboys' pass rush. In Part I, we looked at the overall number of sacks, QB Hits and QB pressures generated by the Cowboys, combined all three stats into an aggregated stat called QB Disruption Points. We found that the Cowboys defense was ranked sixth in creating QB disruptions and was the fourth most efficient team in doing so.

In Part II, we looked at the Cowboys' linebackers and predictably found that there is no match on the team for DeMarcus Ware in terms of pass rushing productivity. But we also saw that Victor Butler and Sean Lee are two players with a lot of potential as pass rushers.

In Part IV, which was published before the other three parts (but which I'm calling Part IV retroactively, just like George Lucas does with his films), we saw that the Cowboys secondary was one of the most efficient pass rushing secondaries in the league - on the few occasions in which they did rush the passer. Of course, had they been a better coverage secondary we couldn't care less about their pass rushing ability.

And in this third and final part, we take an extensive look at the Cowboys defensive line, compare Jay Ratliff to his 3-4 nose tackle peers, wonder whether Jason Hatcher is the real deal and look for possible new starters in 2012.

Jay Ratliff: Stud

Before going into detail about the Cowboys' D-line, and before we meander into yet another 'Ratliff to DE' discussion, let's first take a closer look at Jay Ratliff and how he compares as a pass rusher to the other 3-4 nose tackles in the league. In 2011, Ratliff recorded two sacks, six QB hits and 21 QB pressures. This gives him 22.3 Quarterback Disruption Points for the season. He achieved those numbers on 462 pass rushing snaps for a 4.8% Pass Rushing Productivity (both metrics are explained in detail in Part I).

Here's how Ratliff's numbers compare to the other 3-4 NTs across the league.

Player Team Snaps Pass Rush QB Sk QB Ht QB Pr QBDP PRP '11
Antonio Garay SD 538 263 3 6 20 22.5 8.6%
Jay Ratliff DAL 750 462 2 6 21 22.3 4.8%
Isaac Sopoaga SF 488 236 0 3 10 9.8 4.1%
Shaun Cody HOU 396 181 1 3 5 7.0 3.9%
Sione Pouha NYJ 627 240 1 0 11 9.3 3.9%
Paul Soliai MIA 450 188 0 3 5 6.0 3.2%
B.J. Raji GB 885 548 3 1 16 15.8 2.9%
Barry Cofield WAS 789 426 3 4 7 11.3 2.6%
Dan Williams ARI 244 99 0 1 2 2.3 2.3%
Casey Hampton PIT 448 204 0 0 6 4.5 2.2%
Kelly Gregg KC 543 204 1 0 2 2.5 1.2%

A nose tackles' primary responsibility is to tie up the center and one of the guards on every play, clog the middle of the line and control the two "A" gaps. The ability to rush the passer or collapse the pocket is strictly a bonus. Judging by the numbers above, the Cowboys certainly got a lot of bonus from Jay Ratliff last year as a nose tackle. Ratliff created more pressure per snap than all other 3-4 NTs except San Diego's Antonio Garay. Other guys may be bigger, other guys may look more like the traditional nose tackle, but only Garay got more QB disruptions, and was more efficient doing so, than Jay Ratliff.

Note also that there aren't many 'workhorse' 3-4 nose tackles left in the league. An average team had a little over 1,000 defensive snaps last season. Only Ratliff, B.J. Raji and the Redskins' Barry Cofield were on the field for the vast majority of those defensive snaps, all others listed in the table above are frequently substituted in and out. Also, keep in mind that Ratliff played the latter part of the season with a cracked rib. He even sat out most of the Tampa Bay game in week 15 as a result.

All of this inevitably leads to the question of Ratliff's longevity. After the 2009 season, he had a procedure to remove bone spurs from both of his elbows, last season he suffered a cracked rib, and he'll turn 31 in August this year. How much longer can Ratliff play at the level he has been playing? Here's on overview of his pass rushing production for the last four years:

Jay Ratliff Pass Rushing stats, 2008-2011
Year Pass Rush Snaps QB Sk QB Ht QB Pr QBDP PRP
2008 431 8 8 23 31.3 7.3%
2009 483 6 5 15 21.0 4.3%
2010 466 4 4 26 26.5 5.7%
2011 462 2 6 21 22.3 4.8%

2008 was a truly exceptional year for Jay Ratliff. It's simply not normal for a nose tackle to get eight sacks. Compare that to this year's crop of nose tackles, where not one player managed more than three sacks, and you begin to get a feeling for what an exceptional performance Ratliff put on display that year.

The most visible decline in the table above is obviously in the number of sacks that Ratliff notched each season, but apart from that, his performance has been fairly consistent. QBDP is in the low 20s and PRP around 5%. You could even argue that the bone spurs in 2009 and the cracked rib in 2011 affected his performance metrics negatively in both years, and that if Ratliff plays healthy, a repeat of the 2010 performance should be possible this season. Of course, that is a big 'if'.

Defensive Linemen: Surprise Stud?

Before moving on to the Cowboys' defensive ends, we need to establish a baseline for what a good pass rushing performance looks like. We saw in the linebackers post yesterday that for pure pass rushers a PRP of 10% or more was a very good value, and for a nose tackle, 5% seems to be very good.

Base34_medium

Often when the talk turns to 3-4 defensive ends, the players manning those positions are somewhat derisively called run-stuffers. Another expression that is used is that of a fencepost DE or fencepost five technique. In the Cowboys 3-4 defense the DEs often line up on the outside shoulder of the offensive tackles (hence the name "Five Technique") and are tasked with clogging up the B and C gaps on their side of the line in an effort to deny the RB a hole to run through. Hence terms like "control the run gaps" or "seal the edge" are often used in talking about 3-4 DEs.

Traditionally, the 3-4 DE's primary focus has been on stopping the run and keeping multiple blockers tied up so that they cannot release upfield to take on a LB or DB. Often, this role meant the DEs in a 3-4 were not the players who made the most tackles or sacks, as part of their traditional role also was to keep offensive linemen occupied to allow the true stars of the 3-4 scheme, the linebackers, to rush the QB and get all the glory. But all of that has been changing of late.

Arizona's Calais Campbell, San Francisco's Justin Smith and Houston's rookie sensation J.J. Watt combined for 23 sacks, 34 QB hits and 102 QB pressures last year, and demonstrated just how disruptive a pass rushing five technique - or Pressure Five - can be. Nowhere is it written that 3-4 DEs can't also rush the passer. In fact, the best defensive ends do both, as the table of the top ten 3-4 DE's (as ranked by pass rushing productivity) below shows:

Player Team Snaps Pass Rush QB Sk QB Ht QB Pr QBDP PRP '11
Justin Smith SF 946 621 7 14 48 53.5 8.6%
Jason Hatcher DAL 428 271 5 6 14 20.0 7.4%
Antonio D. Smith HST 746 544 7 15 29 40.0 7.4%
Kendall Langford MIA 554 277 0 2 25 20.3 7.3%
Darnell Dockett ARZ 1035 597 4 15 35 41.5 7.0%
Calais Campbell ARZ 1032 605 9 9 29 37.5 6.2%
J.J. Watt HST 806 557 7 11 25 34.0 6.1%
Ray McDonald SF 865 553 6 5 32 33.8 6.1%
Randy Starks MIA 677 376 5 7 16 22.3 5.9%
Tommie Harris SD 287 193 3 0 10 10.5 5.4%

The numbers for the 3-4 DEs are not quite in the same league as the elite pass rushers with a PRP of 10% or more, but there are a number of 3-4 DE's who are very productive pass rushers. Keep in mind that in a 3-4 DE, you are basically pressuring a five-man offensive line with just three defensive linemen. And you're already asking them to take on two guys at a time, stop the run and keep blockers from releasing upfield. And you now want them to rush the passer as well? It takes a very special kind of player who can do all of that.

And the Cowboys may already have at least one of those rare pressure fives on the roster. Looking down the list above, it may come as a surprise to see that Jason Hatcher was the second most productive pass rushing end on all 3-4 teams last year. And the reason for that surprise may be because we've been conditioned for years to look only at sacks as the single and absolute measure of a pass rusher's worth.

Jason Hatcher recorded five sacks and 20 QBDP in relatively limited pass rush opportunities. His pass rush productivity of 7.4% is excellent for a 3-4 DE. We tend to forget that Hatcher injured his calf in the second quarter of the week three Redskins game and only came back in week eight against the Eagles. I know that you can't simply extrapolate the numbers above, but hypothetically, if the Cowboys were to double Hatcher's pass rushing snaps, there's reason to believe he might be able to approach ten sacks and 20 QB hits next season.

2011 was Hatcher's first season as a starter, and despite his injury, he started ten games at right end. The Cowboys likely see Hatcher as the starter again this year, and it's not unreasonable to expect a healthy Hatcher to significantly increase his production for the 2012 season.

And just for old times sake, Stephen Bowen had a PRP of 4.3% with the Redskins last year, Marcus Dixon turned in a 3.0% PRP for the Jets and Chris Canty, albeit as a 4-3 DT for the Giants, notched a 4.7% PRP.

Cowboys Defensive Linemen: Another Stud?

Here's how the entire Cowboys defensive line looks in terms of pass rushing.

Player Snaps Pass Rush QB Sk QB Ht QB Pr QBDP PRP '11
Jason Hatcher 428 271 5 6 14 20.0 7.4%
Sean Lissemore 283 164 2 3 8 10.3 6.3%
Jay Ratliff 750 462 2 6 21 22.3 4.8%
Kenyon Coleman 425 201 1 1 9 8.5 4.2%
Marcus R. Spears 400 204 1 1 7 7.0 3.4%
Low pass rush snapcount
Josh Brent 137 61 0 0 5 3.8 6.1%
Clifton Geathers 31 21 0 0 2 1.5 7.1%

Pro Football Focus recently named Sean Lissemore as the Cowboys' Secret Superstar and this table further illustrates why Cowboys fans in the know are so high on Lissy: In limited pass rushing snaps, his pass rush productivity is on par with that of Calais Campbell and J.J. Watt. We'll have to tap the brakes a little here, because his overall number of pass rush snaps is still a bit low to draw definitive conclusions from, but don't tap those brakes too hard. According to defensive line coach Brian Baker, Lissemore was one of the team's more productive players, despite his limited snaps:

"Actually, he was our most productive player, per play last year on defense," defensive line coach Brian Baker said. "When I look back, he's probably a guy I should've played a little more."

Note that we are only looking at pass rushing stats here. Lissemore stood out even more against the run, so it's not hard to believe that he was highly productive. Look for Lissemore to get a lot more snaps this year, and perhaps even get a couple of starts in the process.

Coleman and Spears are both more traditional "fencepost" five techniques. And that's not a bad thing by itself. Kenyon Coleman for example has the third highest stop rate of all 3-4 defensive ends (stop rate: % of tackles that result in an offensive failure). Marcus Spears had some trouble playing right end last year and is happy to be back on the left side after what he describes as a 'rocky' year last season.

But depending on how fast the young guys like Lissemore, Geathers and rookie Tyrone Crawford progress, both Spears and Coleman may find themselves in a tough fight for their roster spots, because they are missing one thing the new coaching regime values very highly: Multiplicity.

Our own rabblerouser dedicated an entire post to the topic of multiplicity, and Jason Garrett explained the concept as follows in a recent press conference:

"Mr. Jones mentions the multiplicity. We play a lot of multiple fronts. Hybrid type fronts, where it looks like we might have three-down personnel in there but we play it as a four-down, and a lot of teams in the league do that. We feel good about that, so a lot of these players are not necessarily the fencepost defensive end, five technique, every down – that’s not what we’re talking about."

"And similarly with our nose tackle, with Jay Ratliff, he’s very rarely in a zero nose, meaning he’s lined up head-up over the center. He does a lot of different things in our fronts. I think Rob Ryan does a great job providing the variety within our fronts and the versatility of our defensive linemen is a big part of that."

There are a lot of hypothetical line-up permutations we could go through with all the different Cowboys players in order to get a better pass rushing performance from the defense. But one thing is clear: an effective pass-rushing, three-down defensive lineman (or, dare I say it, two of the sort) would do this defensive line and the whole defense a world of good.

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