Cowboys' Most Productive Defenders In 2012: Sean Lee And Who Else?

Tim Heitman-US PRESSWIRE

At the end of the 2012 season, the Cowboys defense collapsed under the weight of its accumulated injuries. Yet that didn't stop some players from being highly productive defenders while other players were less so. We look at who did what in a little more detail.

One of the things the Cowboys use to measure the effectiveness of their defensive personnel is how productive each player is per snap played. Last year, former defensive line coach Brian Baker referenced such a productivity metric when he talked about Sean Lissemore as being the team's most productive player:

"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."

During the offseason, we tried to approximate a metric that would show Sean Lissemore as the most productive player on the 2011 roster, and after tweaking the numbers a little, we came up with the Play-by-play Productivity ratio.

The Play-by-Play Productivity ratio is a fairly straightforward metric: it counts the plays on which a defender made a positive defensive contribution, and divides those plays by the number of his defensive snaps. To avoid any confusion, these are the positive defensive plays used for the Productivity Ratio.

  • Sacks: A QB is tackled for a loss or no gain before he can throw a pass or while in the pocket. I'm using PFF numbers here, and their sack totals can differ slightly from the official numbers, because what the NFL calls half a sack is counted as a full sack by PFF.
  • QB Hits: A hit is when a QB is knocked down but not sacked, again as counted by PFF.
  • Stops: Stops are plays on which the defense holds the offense to less than 40% of necessary yardage on first down, less than 60% on second down and less than 100% on third and fourth downs. Again, this number is taken from PFF, but I've separated it into run stops and coverage stops, and have deducted sacks from the totals, as technically each sack is also a stop.
  • INTs and Passes Defended: Official NFL stats, but INTs are deducted from the passes defended total to avoid double counting
  • Forced Fumbles and Fumble Recoveries: Official NFL stats.

With that out of the way, here's how the defensive lineman ranked against those stats:

Player Total Snaps Pass Rush Stops Coverage Others Play-by-Play Productivity
Sacks Hits Run Stops Coverage Stops INT PD FF REC
Jay Ratliff 269 0 6 8 2 0
1 0
0
6.3%
Josh Brent 320 2 3 11 0 0
1 1 0
5.6%
Kenyon Coleman 167 0 1 7 0
0
0
1 0
5.4%
Tyrone Crawford 303 0 3 12 1 0
0
0
0
5.3%
Jason Hatcher 784 5 8 24 1 0
1 0
1 5.1%
Sean Lissemore 329 1 1 11 0 0
0
0
0
4.0%
Marcus R. Spears 394 3 0 11 0 0
1 0
0
3.8%

In 2011, Sean Lissemore topped the productivity list of defensive linemen with 6.7% playing defensive end. In 2012, with significant time missed due to an ankle injury, and switching between DE and NT, Lissemore's productivity dropped.

Surprisingly, the most productive linemen on a play-by-play basis were the Cowboys' two nose tackles, Ratliff and Brent. Both have question marks surrounding their future, but those questions are not based on their productivity in 2012. Rob Ryan used to give anybody who questioned Jay Ratliff's performance the evil eye. It probably won't be long before Rod Marinelli starts doing the same thing.

Kenyon Coleman also shows up surprisingly strong on this list, albeit in limited snaps. Coleman was very strong against the run in his two years in Dallas, but never much of a pass rush threat. Tyrone Crawford was just as productive as Coleman against the run, and has the possible upside of being a better pass rusher, so Crawford could end up taking Coleman's spot on the 2013 roster. Marcus Spears may also find himself without a roster spot as he finishes the season at the bottom of this table for the second straight year.

Next up, linebackers:

Player Total Snaps Pass Rush Stops Coverage Others Play-by-Play Productivity
Sacks Hits Run Stops Coverage Stops INT PD FF REC
Sean Lee 331 0 3 16 9 1 2 1 0
9.7%
Anthony Spencer 872 11 2 41 4 0
3 2 1 7.3%
Victor Butler 300 3 3 8 1 0
3 3 1 7.3%
DeMarcus Ware 896 14 13 20 1 0
0
5 1 6.0%
Bruce Carter 625 0 2 20 10 0
2 0
0
5.4%
Dan Connor 350 0 0 13 4 0
1 0
0
5.1%
Ernie Sims 374 0 2 13 3 0
1 0
0
5.1%
Alex Albright 185 0 0 7 1 0
0
0
0
4.3%

Just like Lissemore, Sean Lee had a 6.7% ratio in 2011, but he significantly improved on that over the course of the few games he played in 2012. If he remains healthy, Sean Lee will be a terror in the middle of the Cowboys defense in 2013. Just as a point of reference, J.J. Watt, the league's arguably most disruptive player in 2012, had a Play-by-play Productivity of 11.9%.

Anthony Spencer was rewarded with a Pro Bowl nomination for his play this season, and rightfully so, if his production is taken as a measure of his performance. And although Victor Butler has fallen from grace with many Cowboys fans, the Cowboys coaching staff will like his productivity numbers. In the likely scenario where Anthony Spencer moves on to greener pastures, a rotation of Victor Butler and Jason Hatcher at left defensive end must be an interesting and likely affordable possibility for the Cowboys.

Overall, the Cowboys have got to be pleased with their linebacker play in 2012, particularly in light of the injuries.

On to the secondary:

Player Total Snaps Pass Rush Stops Coverage Others Play-by-Play Productivity
Sacks Hits Run Stops Coverage Stops INT PD FF REC
Orlando Scandrick 339 0 0 1 6 0 4 0
0
3.2%
Sterling Moore 102 0 0 1 1 0 1 0 0 2.9%
Morris Claiborne 909 0 0 3 7 1 7 1 2 2.3%
Danny McCray 658 0 0 8 5 1 1 0 0 2.3%
Brandon Carr 1,043 0 0 2 10 3 8 0 0 2.2%
Eric Frampton 200 0 0 2 0 0 2 0 0 2.0%
Mike Jenkins 374 0 0 1 3 0 3 0 0 1.9%
Barry Church 108 0 0 1 0 0 0 0 1 1.9%
Charlie Peprah 186 0 0 0 0 1 1 0 0
1.1%
Gerald Sensabaugh 981 0 0 3 1 0 3 1 0 0.8%

This metric is probably not particularly suited to assess defensive backs. As a rule, the DBs play a little further away from the ball, so it's no surprise to see lower overall productivity numbers here. Still, the table highlights the fact that the Cowboys don't appear to have a lot of playmakers in their secondary, or played in a scheme that didn't allow potential playmakers to emerge.

Danny McCray played a lot closer to the line of scrimmage than Sensabaugh did, which explains why McCray is ranked relatively high - but doesn't excuse why Sensabaugh is ranked so low. The metric doesn't include tackles, and perhaps that is a disservice to a guy like McCray who was second on the team with 71 total tackles, but the metric also doesn't include all the mistakes a defensive player made, so it is what it is.

We know that the Cowboys use a similar metric as one part of their player evaluations. We also know that there is much more that goes into player evaluations than a simple metric like this, and we also know that we have sample size and other issues with this approach. It's also true that there’s more to playing the game than a couple of big play stats.

There's a limit to how accurately we can assess player performance without access to the team data on performance, assignments, technique and more. Yet even with those limitations, in many cases the data above can be a pretty telling indicator of a player's performance.

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