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Cowboys O-line: Defending The Splash Play

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Think back to the Rams game. Now try to visualize what you remember about Doug Free's performance. If you're like me and probably 98% of all football fans, chances are the only thing you'll remember about Doug Free is the sack he allowed on Romo.

That's only one play out of 65 snaps that Doug Free played on Sunday, yet often that's all we use to base our entire evaluation of a player on. That is the reality offensive linemen have to live with. For the most part, they get noticed only when they make mistakes or allow what NFL scouts call splash plays - plays that turn games around. Splash plays include sacks, QB hits, QB pressures and penalties.

The fewer of these an offensive lineman allows, the better.

After the break we look at how the Cowboys linemen compare against the NFL average so far in 2011 and how many splash plays they've given up. And because were in Eagles week, we'll include the data for the Eagles O-line as well, for no extra charge whatsoever.

Before we start comparing sacks, hits and pressures among players along the O-Line, it's important to understand that pressure is not distributed evenly along the line. Tackles obviously give up more pressure than the interior linemen. But even if you had the average sacks given up by a left tackle, you wouldn't necessarily be able to compare one left tackle to the other because one guy may have played 250 pass blocking snaps, while the other guy played only 200 snaps.

Example: Doug Free gave up 10 QB pressures according to Pro Football Focus (PFF). The Eagles' left tackle, Jason Peters, also gave up 10 pressures. If you're a proponent of volume stats, you would argue that both gave up the same amount of pressures. Technically, you'd be right, but this doesn't take into account how many snaps each player played, as Jason Peters only played in four games, while Free played in six.

If you take the number of pass blocking snaps into account, Free clearly has the edge because he allowed those 10 pressures on 250 pass blocking snaps, while Peters allowed his 10 pressures on only 181 pass blocking snaps. So if we adjust Peters' numbers to 250 snaps, his pressures-allowed-per-250-pass-blocking-snaps increases to 13.8, which is not quite on par with Free's performance.

Because the Cowboys played exactly 250 pass blocking snaps so far this year, I have 'normalized' the data for all NFL O-linemen who've played on at least 25% of their teams' snaps to those 250 snaps to make everybody comparable and to see how many sacks, hits and pressures an average NFL O-line has given up so far this year over 250 pass blocking snaps. Because penalties accrue in both pass blocking and run blocking, I've normalized the penalties to 400 snaps, which is roughly the average number of snaps linemen have played this year.

NFL Avg. 2011 LT LG C RG RT
Sacks 3.1 1.5 0.9 0.9 2.8
QB Hits 2.5 2.3 1.1 1.9 2.7
QB Pressures 11.1 8.4 4.5 7.5 12.8
Penalties 3.1 2.0 1.9 2.0 3.5

The pressure is bigger from the outside, no big surprise there, but I was a little surprised to see that the pressure from the left is about on par with the pressure from the right. I always thought that O-lines and QBs were more susceptible to pressure from the left- or blind side. Perhaps there are more left-handed QBs in the league who balance that out, perhaps it's that teams tend to put their best athletes at LT to counter this threat, perhaps my assumption was simply wrong - no matter, it's the way it is.

Now that we've established the baseline, or 'average' for these splash plays, let's have a look at how the Cowboys linemen compare. Note on the color scheme: green is better than the NFL average at the position, yellow is up to 20% below the NFL average, red is more than 20% worse than the NFL average.

Cowboys Free LG Costa Kosier Smith
Sacks 2.0 0.0 1.1 1.0 2.0
QB Hits 2.0 2.0 1.1 0.0 0.0
QB Pressures 10.0 7.1 10.6 6.0 8.0
Penalties 4.7 1.9 1.0 2.8 2.8

As you look at the table, the first thing you'll notice is that there is a lot of green here. For the most part, the Cowboys' O-line has been above average in defending the splash play. LG is the combined performance of Bill Nagy, Derrick Dockery and Montrae Holland at the position. Nagy by himself would have been below average in the amount of pressures he's given up, with a normalized 8.8. And that is also indicative of the problems this line has had, allowing too much pressure up the middle.

In terms of penalties, Doug Free and Kyle Kosier stand out negatively. Free has already been flagged five times, Kosier three times (although two of those were declined or offsetting).

And as Tyron Smith improves even further with more NFL experience under his belt, it would not come as a surprise if the Cowboys move him to the left side. At this pace, no later than next year.

The Eagles and the splash play

The Eagles O-line presents an entirely different challenge statistically, as there's been a lot of movement along the. Here are the names and weeks I've used to calculate the stats for those positions where more than one player has started this year:

LT: Jason Peters (week 1-4), King Dunlap (wk 5), Todd Herremans (wk 6)
RG: Kyle DeVan (week 1-4), Danny Watkins (wk 5-6)
RT: Todd Herremans (week 1-5), Winston Justice (wk 6)

Eagles LT Mathis Kelce RG RT
Sacks 0.9 0.0 0.9 1.9 0.0
QB Hits 0.9 1.9 3.7 0.9 3.7
QB Pressures 10.2 5.7 6.5 10.2 15.7
Penalties 4.6 0.9 1.8 5.5 2.8

Of the nine sacks the Eagles have given up this year, PFF only assigns the blame for four to the offensive line. As a result, the Eagles line in this table looks fine in the sacks department. Another point to keep in mind is that with Vick under center, the right side is actually the quarterback's blind side. And this right side is the one that has been struggling early in the season, giving up an overproportional number of hits and pressures.

The good news for the Eagles is that Danny Watkins appears to have stepped in ably at right guard, and has given up only one pressure and one penalty in two games. The Eagles remain vulnerable up the middle, where rookie Jason Kelce is doing his best Phil Costa impression - except that at about 280 pounds, he's almost 40 pounds lighter than Costa, which should make for a very interesting matchup with Jay Ratliff.

Jason Peters was back at practice on Monday, so he's likely to start at left tackle on Sunday, which is further good news for the Eagles. Todd Herremans was practicing at right tackle again, so he'll move back to the right side on Sunday. Herremans has been struggling on the right side, particularly in terms of pressures given up, so expect to see DeMarcus Ware lining up on that side frequently.

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