Another Week, Another Cowboys Defensive Line

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The Cowboys' personnel carousel along the defensive line has reached historic proportions.

"We feel like defensive line is a position of strength for us," Jerry Jones said in April this year. At the time, he had a defensive line in mind that would have looked roughly as follows:

2013 Projected Defensive Line
Position LDE LDT RDT RDE
Starter Anthony Spencer Jason Hatcher Jay Ratliff DeMarcus Ware
Backup Tyrone Crawford Ben Bass Robert Callaway Kyle Wilber

The table does not include Sean Lissemore (widely believed at the time to be a bad fit for the new scheme), Nick Hayden (widely believed at the time to be nothing more than a camp body), or Josh Brent (widely believed at the time to be headed to prison). Of those eight defensive linemen, only three have played meaningful snaps for the Cowboys this year.

That in itself is not news, of course. But the extent of the Cowboys' revolving door policy along the defensive line may be. Last week, Todd Archer of ESPN Dallas reported that since May 16, the Cowboys had signed, traded, acquired, put on injured reserve or released 28 defensive linemen.

But that was last week. This week, with the releases of Jason Vega and Caesar Rayford as well as the signing of Corvey Irvin, that number has gone up to 31.

Even more telling than the number of transactions is the actual number of players who have taken snaps for the Cowboys in the first ten games of the season. So far, 17 defensive linemen have played in the 10 games this season:

Position Name Defensive Snaps
DT Nick Hayden 529
DE George Selvie 497
DT Jason Hatcher 479
DE DeMarcus Ware 326
DE Kyle Wilber 304
DT Drake Nevis 197
DE Caesar Rayford 147
DT Jarius Wynn 141
DE Everette Brown 77
DE Edgar Jones 68
DT David Carter 51
DT Jerome Long 46
DE Jason Vega 46
DT Landon Cohen 38
DE Anthony Spencer 38
DT Everett Dawkins 20
DT Marvin Austin 15

Care to take a guess how many NFL teams running a 4-3 scheme this year have fielded 17 defensive linemen?

Only the Cowboys. The teams with the next highest number of defensive linemen are the Patriots and Jaguars, who both have had 12 defensive linemen taking snaps this year.

To give you an idea of just how much of a statistical outlier the Cowboys' issues along the defensive line are, I looked at the data from 2008 through 2013 to determine how defensive linemen on teams running a 4-3 defensive scheme had taken snaps for their team over the course of an entire season. Here are the results in visual form:

Dl_players_medium

From 2008-2013, only five 4-3 teams made it through an entire regular season with just eight defensive linemen. Over the same period, 28 teams played the entire regular season schedule with just nine defensive linemen taking snaps. Over the last six seasons, teams running a 4-3 scheme have had an average of 10.6 defensive linemen taking snaps over the course of a season.

"Hey, new guy!" Marinelli calls, and the entire defensive line turns around

The clear outlier in this six-year overview are the Cowboys, who have cycled through 17 defensive linemen so far this year - and that's not counting players like Ratliff or Crawford who didn't take a single snap this year.

Jason Garrett doesn't want to use injuries as an excuse for the performance this year, but acknowledges that they have played a role:

"We have to get better in some other areas," Garrett said. "Health has been a huge factor on defense. It’s not an excuse, but its [sic] been a huge factor. We are playing a lot of different guys, a lot of new guys, a lot of young guys. That’s part of it. That’s where we are. We have to make sure it works."

I don't have back-data beyond 2008, but I'm confident that the Cowboys' defensive line number will remain an outlier regardless of how far you go back - and I'm also confident that with six more games to play, the number is not going to remain at 17.

At the same time, and this is a great credit for the players and the coaches involved in this year's effort, the production from the "New Guy" defensive line is slightly ahead of last year. Here's how this year's production over ten games compares to the first ten games of 2012:

2012: 24 sacks, 32 QB hits, 90 QB hurries
2013: 25 sacks, 39 QB hits, 123 QB hurries

For a bunch of no-names, these are good numbers. But these are not world-beater numbers. Far from it. And what these numbers do not show are the increasingly long bouts of highly inconsistent performances by the D-line.

It is what it is: the Cowboys' personnel carousel along the defensive line has reached historic proportions; the fact that the performance hasn't also reached historically low levels should be cause more for surprise than alarm.

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