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Defensive End High On Cowboys' Wish List This Christmas

" Now that I'm retired, I want to say that all defensive linemen are sissies."
Dan Fouts

Today, I'm going to channel a little (get it?) Dan Fouts and call out the Dallas Cowboys defensive ends for their lackluster pass rushing performance.

But before we do that, we need to understand the role of the DE’s in what was Wade Phillips’ defensive scheme. Coach Phillips' defensive philosophy was all about pressuring the QB to create defensive plays - blitzing till the lights go out, even on first downs, pressure packages from different angles and all sorts of other weird stunts that should get you sacks like they were being offered up at a fire sale.

The role of the DE’s in the Phillips 3-4 defense was simple: Anchor against the run while the outside linebackers get all the glory. But that all came apart when the Cowboys defense failed to get pressure on the opposing QBs this season, despite blitzing like never before.

Dallas started the season with two big, run stuffing ends in Igor Olshanky and Marcus Spears. Both are natural 310-pounders, but neither of the two is any particular pass rushing threat. As long as they anchored the line while Phillips called for five and six man blitzes, having two runstuffers at defensive end was just fine. No surprise then that Spears has a meager eight sacks in his six years as a Cowboy, and did not record a sack in the first eight games of the season before getting hurt. After Spears got hurt, the Cowboys rotated in Stephen Bowen and Jason Hatcher, but although both are a little quicker than Spears, the pressure on opposing QBs did not improve significantly. Olshansky has 1.5 sacks in 30 games for the Cowboys.

When the pressure failed to materialize from the OLBs and the NT at the start of this season, the lack of a pass rush from the DEs suddenly became an issue, and the failure to bring the pressure ultimately cost Phillips his job. Why the pressure disappeared is a good question for which there is no clear cut answer. Predictability, injuries, bad preparation, take your pick, it’s a moot point now anyway.

But what is not a moot point is that under Coach Pasqualoni the lack of pressure arguably became even more of an issue: Coach P significantly dialed down the blitzing and instead relies on three or four man fronts to bring the pressure. So when the Cowboys rush their line and one half of the Ware-Spencer duo, only the OLB and Ratliff qualify as consistent pass rushing threats. Double-team Ratliff and get an extra blocker on the OLB and more often than not, the opposing QB has all the time in the world to pick apart the Cowboys secondary and have a career day.

The numbers

The Cowboys have their own statistics database which they populate by analyzing game film. These stats usually differ slightly from the official NFL stats, but they are as close an indicator as we can get on how the coaches see the players. Importantly, these stats contain 'QB Pressures' in addition to sacks. Here's how the Cowboys' pass rushing performance compares across the last three years:

Sacks & Pressures through wk 15, 2008-2010

2008 2009 2010
51 35 29
QB Pressures 142 202 86

What we’ve got here is a catastrophic collapse in overall pressure. If we add up sacks and pressures for this year and divide by the number of games, the Cowboys have averaged six pressures and two sacks per game. Last year that number was at about 14 pressures and 2.5 sacks. That’s eight more uncontested throws per game this year versus last year. Eight. Uncontested. Throws. That will make any secondary look bad.

Here’s where the pressure is or isn’t coming from, again based on the Cowboys evaluation of game film:

Sacks & Pressures through wk 15, 2008-2010

QB Pressures Sacks
2008 2009 2010 2008 2009 2010
4 0 5
19 4.5 6.5 3
10 8 4 3.5
LBs 14
8 7 1
17.5 16.5

The defensive line combined for 109 pressures through 14 games last year. This year, the Cowboys' defensive line has accumulated just 29 pressures through 14 games. That is a meltdown of gigantic proportions.

Regardless of scheme, the Cowboys need more pressure from the defensive linemen. A lot will obviously depend on who will be the defensive coordinator next year, and whether he’ll go for more blitzing in the Phillips mold (unlikely) or rely more on three and four man fronts to bring the pressure (more likely).

Look at who the new DC gets to work with up front to create the pressure: The Cowboys have one HOF caliber OLB and another one who can create pressure, even though he seems to habitually fall short of getting a sack. On the line, Dallas has Jay Ratliff, a rare rush nose tackle. Imagine the pass rushing firepower the Cowboys could bring to the game if Ratliff had a partner on the line who could consistently get in the QB’s face. Stephen Bowen looks like the most likely candidate on the current roster for that role, but so far he’s not a guy that opposing teams feel the need to double-team.

If the Cowboys can find a consistent pass rusher at defensive end, their 3-4 scheme will likely overwhelm most opposing offenses: they would now face the problem of blocking four exceptional rushers after first identifying which four are going to come after the quarterback.

Don't be at all surprised if a pass rushing DE is number one on the Cowboys’ wish list this year.

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