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Dirty Deeds, Done Dirt Cheap: The Dallas Cowboys Defensive Line

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Soooo … Albert Haynesworth is unhappy in Washington. That in itself would hardly warrant a mention on a Dallas Cowboys blog, but what makes this FUBAR situation interesting - apart from a malicious delight in another teams’ misfortunes - is the reason he gives for being unhappy: The man doesn’t want to play in a 3-4 defensive scheme.

Granted, the reason he gives publicly may have nothing whatsoever to do with what is really going on, but let’s take what’s being said at face value. The question then becomes, why would a player not want to play in a 3-4 defense? The question of why a player with a $100 million contract would even care what position he plays, well, we’ll leave that for another day and another time.

It is widely accepted that defensive linemen in a 3-4 defense don’t put up the numbers that the linemen do in 4-3 teams. After the break, we look at whether 3-4 linemen stats really do suffer because of the scheme, whether they are paid less as a result and what this all means for the Dallas Cowboys.

The Dallas Cowboys defensive line, despite having First Team All Pro Jay Ratliff on board, garnered only 17 sacks and ranked 22nd in the league last year in total sacks. (PFF) have developed a fairly simple way to measure pass rushing performance, Pass Rushing Points (PRP), which takes sacks, QB hits and QB pressures into account:

Pass Rushing Points = Total Sacks + (Total Hits x 0.75) + (Total Pressures x 0.75)

Even using PRP, Ratliff’s crew only ranked a joint 22nd in the league. The casual observer might conclude from those stats that the Cowboys have a below average defensive line. After all, the Eagles and Vikings defensive lines recorded 41 and 39 sacks each last season, and the Cowboys managed only 17.

Of apples and oranges

The interested observer will quickly point out that comparing the stats of the teams above is pointless, as the Cowboys are playing a totally different defensive scheme, the 3-4. To better understand just how good or bad the Cowboys defensive line’s stat production was last year, we need to compare them to other 3-4 teams. In the table below, I've ranked the top 10 teams for each defensive formation as per PFF:

3-4 Defense 4-3 Defense
Team Sacks QB Hits QB Pressures PRP Team Sacks QB Hits QB Pressures PRP
Dolphins 22 26 68 93 Titans 26 62 131 171
Cardinals 23 20 71 91 Vikings 39 59 112 167
Cowboys 17 24 66 85 Eagles 41 50 118 167
49ers 14 26 69 85 Colts 31 36 134 159
Browns 13 27 65 82 Falcons 24 35 133 150
Jets 17 12 72 80 Panthers 23 38 120 142
Patriots 15 20 64 78 Texans 25 47 107 141
Jaguars 10 16 64 70 Giants 23 51 98 135
Packers 7 18 50 58 Bears 24 40 102 131
Chiefs 9 13 50 56 Seahawks 18 48 87 119

The 3-4 defense pits three defensive linemen against five offensive linemen and the occasional tight end or two. Their role essentially is to keep these five plus blockers occupied long enough for the 3-4 outside linebackers to get to the QB and do their pass rushing job.

And because they’re being asked to basically maintain their positions and occupy blockers, any pass rushing stat must be seen as a bonus. This makes Jay Ratliff’s performance all the more remarkable: Despite playing in the statistically disadvantageous 3-4 scheme, he notched 6 sacks, the second highest number for any defensive tackle in the NFL, regardless of whether they were playing in a 3-4 or a 4-3.

Dirty deeds …

Always outnumbered in the trenches, the 3-4 lineman’s job is to stop or at least delay blockers and create lanes for the linebackers who are the real stars in the 3-4 system. Unfortunately, there are no readily comprehensible stats available that would accurately show an individual lineman’s contribution with an individual stat.

And the available stats don’t do the 3-4 linemen a lot of justice either. Because they often have to take on two blockers, they often have low tackle totals. They don’t have a lot of tackles for losses or sacks because their role isn’t about shooting gaps.

But if the 3-4 linemen do their job well, the outside linebackers will rack up pass rushing stats like there’s no tomorrow, while the inside linebackers will collect tackles as if they were being handed out for free. The 3-4 linemen do all the dirty work, others in the team reap the rewards. Here’s how the stats for the OLB and MLBs/ILBs stack up for the twelve best teams in the league:

Outside Linebackers ILBs/MLB
Team Sacks QB Hits QB Pressures PRP Team Tackles
Cowboys 20 45 81 115 Chiefs 224
Steelers 24 28 65 94 Chargers 194
Packers 19 31 50 80 Broncos 192
49ers 19 23 52 75 49ers 187
Broncos 18 15 55 71 Cowboys 185
Cardinals 17 10 59 69 Packers 180
Chargers 15 23 48 68 Cardinals 155
Chiefs 12 16 57 67 Browns 151
Browns 15 20 42 62 Jaguars 149
Dolphins 19 10 38 55 Steelers 146
Patriots 12 14 34 48 Patriots 130
Redskins (4-3) 13 17 23 43 Panthers (4-3) 121

Note that for each position in the table above, only one 4-3 team makes the top 12. This is of course a result of the scheme, in that a 3-4 scheme heavily favors OLBs as pass rushers, and having two ILBs instead of one MLB will also drive up your tackle total.

One player each on the Redskins and Panthers stood out: Brian Orakpo recorded a scary 12 sacks as a 4-3 LB (somebody needs to tell him quickly that you just don't that in a 4-3) and Jon Beason continued his beastly ways, notching a league leading 121 tackles according to PFF.

Also note that if you use the performance of the OLBs and ILB as a measure of how well the defensive linemen are doing, the Cowboys had arguably one of the best 3-4 defensive lines in the game last year.

… done dirt cheap

The USAToday NFL salary database lists the salaries for all NFL players for last season. Now I know that comparing salaries in the NFL is a tricky business, what with different contract lengths, signing bonuses, guaranteed money and everything else. But taking the cap value of a contract in a given year irons out many of the irregularities and makes total remuneration easier to compare. It doesn’t come as a big surprise to see that 3-4 linemen make less than their 4-3 peers, regardless of how you slice it. The table below shows that on average, 4-3 defensive linemen make 25% more than their 3-4 colleagues, but that difference can be significantly higher depending on where you rank on the salary ladder.

Average defensive line player 2009 cap salary
Cap rank
3-4 4-3 Difference
Top 10
$7.297 m $9.881 m 35%
$4.460 m $6.500 m 46%
$3.132 m $5.403 m 73%
NFL Avg.
$1.846 m $2.300 m 25%

Now let’s take a look at the top ten cap salaries for defensive linemen. Three 3-4 players make the top 10 list. I’ve also added where the Cowboys’ defensive linemen rank in the NFL salary structure.

Best paid defensive lineman, 2009 cap salary
Name Team Scheme Cap Salary
1 Julius Peppers Panthers 4-3 $19.183 m
2 Jared Allen Vikings 4-3 $11.663 m
3 Dwight Freeney Colts 4-3 $11.220 m
4 Justin Smith 49ers 3-4 $10.583 m
5 Will Smith Saints 4-3 $9.421 m
6 Tommie Harris Bears 4-3 $9.090 m
7 Corey Williams Browns 3-4 $8.783 m
8 Aaron Schobel Bills 4-3 $8.564 m
9 Luis Castillo Chargers 3-4 $8.058 m
10 Justin Tuck Giants 4-3 $7.650 m
77 Igor Olshansky Cowboys 3-4 $2.901 m
90 Jay Ratliff Cowboys 3-4 $2.545 m
121 Marcus Spears Cowboys 3-4 $1.656 m

Relative to their performance and relative to their peers, the Cowboys linemen are doing their 'dirty deeds' for relatively little money. If Jay Ratliff continues his stellar play, watch for a reworked contract to come along sooner rather than later. Ratliff's 2.5 million dollars per year is a lot of money, but just for your reference, six kickers in the NFL had a higher cap salary last year.

Albert Haynesworth by the way ranked 12th last year with a cap salary of $7 million.

Here’s how the individual contracts for the three Cowboys starters from 2009 are structured, most data is from

In late 2007, Jay Ratliff signed a five-year, $20.5 million contract extension. The contract included an $8 million signing bonus, and will make him a free agent by the 2013 season. His base salary until then: 2010: $2.105 million, 2011: $3.75 million, 2012: $4.875 million.

Igor Olshansky is playing with a similarly structured, four-year and $18 million contract, with $8 million guaranteed, of which $6 is a signing bonus. He could be due up to $4.5 million in incentives. He made a $1.7 million base salary in 2009. I couldn't find any data on his salary for the next years, but by prorating his incentives I’m guessing his numbers progress roughly as follows: 2010: $2.7 million, 2011: $3.6 million, 2012: $4.0 million.

Marcus Spears is signed to a $1.226 million one year deal.

Unfortunately for most 3-4 linemen in the league, the 3-4 linemen market appears to be a buyers market, a market characterized by low salaries and a supply of quality players exceeding demand. Otherwise somebody would probably have snapped up Marcus Spears already.

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