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Cowboys @ Redskins Review: Whither The Pass Rush?

Does anyone else find it troubling that Rex Grossman was so well protected by the likes of Tyler Polumbus?
Does anyone else find it troubling that Rex Grossman was so well protected by the likes of Tyler Polumbus?

Sunday's Redskins game was a good-news, bad-news affair. This was particularly true on defense, where the 'Boys were very stout against the run, allowing a paltry 2.5 yards per rush (check out O.C.C.'s post on PFF's grades to see who was responsible for that). On the other hand, they appeared to struggle mightily against the pass. It wasn't that they gave up record-setting yardage totals (289 yards isn't horrible by today's NFL standards); rather, the Cowboys struggled to generate what I'd like to call "real pressure"--forcing Washington quarterback Rex Grossman either to 1) move out of the pocket; 2) pull the ball back down; or 3) force a hurried or errant throw.

I found the lack of pressure a bit mystifying. Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan was overheard pregame, declaring his plan to attack Washington's anemic offensive line, a unit that had given up ten sacks to Buffalo. In particular, he intimated that he was going to run a lot of stunts and games designed to exploit the right side of guard Chris Chester and tackle Jammal Brown. In watching the tape, however, I caught nary a stunt; most rushers took clear lanes--probably to avoid being gouged by the 'Skins running game. Moreover, I only rarely noted some kind of line game or the use of fire zones to confuse Grossman and Co.

In fact, I rarely noted any pressure at all, especially after the first quarter. Indeed, this was such a problem that my distinct impression, as I erroneously wrote in my post-game "quick take," was that Rob Ryan chose to rush only three guys a frustratingly high percentage of the time. In reviewing the game, however, this proved not to be the case. Although Ryan usually chose to rush only four, he "played prevent" on a mere three pass attempts. Apparently, theol' eyeball test isn't the most objective measuring stick. What could have led ol' Rabble's usually reliable eyes so far afield? So, what gives? Why was I so deceived? This post will attempt to unravel this mystery, the "Case of the Missing Pass Rush."

More musings after the jump...

Before moving on to why the rush seemed nonexistant, lets review the different different looks Ryan threw at the Redskins. Including plays that resulted in sacks, penalties and quarterback runs, Washington ran a total of 48 passing plays, 38 of which made the official record. Looking at all of these gives us a pretty clear sense of what Ryan's pressure plan was. Lets look at how many guys he sent and how often he sent them:

  • three rushers: four times
  • four rushers : 23 times
  • five rushers: 16 times
  • six rushers: three times
  • seven rushers: twice.

Clearly, Ryan wanted to play it pretty close to the vest; on 39 of 48 possible pass plays, he rushed four or five--and his packages weren't particularly exotic. Although Ryan didn't deploy his guys in a traditional 3-4 most of the game, those four or five were most often drawn from the usual suspects: down linemen and outside linebackers.

I found these numbers to be interesting, particularly in light of who the Cowboys were playing. Over the course of his career, Rex Grossman has demonstrated that he's a very streaky passer. He can be be excellent, particularly on deep passes, as he was at the beginning of the Bears' super bowl season in 2006. On the other hand, he is capable of the killing mistake, particularly when under duress. Indeed, time has shown that the key to defending Grossman that he's particularly susceptible to pressure. Notice what happened on the five plays in which the Cowboys sent six or more rushers at him:

  • second drive, fifth play: On a 3rd and 8, Ryan deploys a formation with three down linemen (including DeMarcus Ware) and Anthony Spencer standing at the line. On the snap, Sean Lee and Abrah Elam blitz. With the middle of the pocket collapsing at him, Grossman throws off target to Gaffney, incomplete.
  • third drive, third play: On another 3rd and 8, Ryan offers a formation with two down linemen, Spencer standing at the line and Ware moving around, ultimately moving in between NT Ratliff and LDE Hatcher. At the snap, Lee and Elam again blitz, although Elam's blitz seems largely intended to engage the right guard: as he soon peels off, covering the 'Skins running back as he goes into a delayed pattern. Again feeling interior pressure Grossman over throws Gaffney on the sideline, incomplete.
  • last drive in regulation, seventh play:  Coming back from the two-minute warning, Ryan decided to dial up some pressure on a 2nd and 11. Again, he goes with the three down linemen, on of them Spencer, with Ware standing opposite RT Brown. On the snap, both ILBs, Lee and Bradie James, blitz the "A" gaps, on a cross. Grossman, forced to throw quickly, hits Stallworth over the middle for a gain of nine.
  • same drive, three plays later: After a penalty on Scandrick and a short pass to Washington RB Roy Helu, Ryan decides to send some more pressure, again from the three-down, with Ware standing set. This time, he sends Lee up the middle and Scandrick and Church from the edges, for a total of seven. With pressure in his face, Grossman throws before his target, David Anderson, has even made his break. Incomplete.
  • final snap of the Redskins' overtime drive: After getting gouged, and with Washington in field goal range, Ryan realizes he needs to get pressure by any means necessary, so he dials up the seven-man blitz2nd and 12. Ryan deploys three down linemen, with Ware standing. At the snap, Scandrick, Lee and Church come, Grossman is hurried, but manages a quick pass to Gaffney, for a gain of five.

In five "plus" blitzes, the Redskins gained a paltry 14 yards. And, on the few times (mostly in the first quarter) when 4 and 5-man pressure was effective, Grossman was especially ineffective.

For some reason, however, Ryan appeared to be tentative about bringing the heat. What I don't know is why. Did he devise a less risky scheme figuring that the Cowboys didn't need to fear Washington's aerial attack? Did he determine that whatever blitzes he called weren't going to get home so, rather than get burned, he decided to dial up the pressure only when things got desperate? Or was his primary concern the Washington running game, such that he wanted above all for his linemen to maintain lane integrity? The answer probably is a combination of these; whatever the case, there wasn't much consistent "real pressure" on Sunday.

Watching the game unfold, I was reminded of last season's defensive troubles. I think its important to recall these, as Ryan has this defense playing well enough that we often forget that he's working with the same players who recently gave up franchise-worst numbers in passing yards and points allowed. As I have argued many times (are you tired of it yet?) in these pages, this was more a product of poor pass rush that it was bad secondary play in 2010. With a failing pass rush, Wade Phillips began to dial up the pass rush heat, with little effect. Eventually, he was rushing six on almost every down, leaving his secondary exposed. And exposed it was.

Then, as now, one of the primary problems seems to be that the Cowboys only consistent pass rusher is Ware. Since the New England contest--and including sacks registered in that game--the Cowboys have tallied 13 sacks, nine of which belong to number 94. History's great pass rushing teams have multiple guys who can consistently beat single coverage and get to the quarterback. Indeed, the point of blitzing for those teams is often to free up these lead dogs for one-on-one matchups, which they will often win. On the Cowboys, other than Ware, who qualifies as such a guy? Both Spencer and Butler are good for an occasional sack, but are invisible for long stretches. Hatcher ? Every once in a while, but nowhere near enough to be a difference maker. Ratliff? I love his game, but he's no Leon Lett, who collapsed the pocket play after play in the mid-90s.

Indeed, I believe this lack of interior pressure on Sunday was the the key to my mistaken thinking re: three-man rushes. As the above play descriptions suggest, on plays in which Grossman saw pressure (i.e., it was in his face), he was largely unsuccessful. In O.C.C.'s ratings post, he offers numbers that suggest the Cowboys did a fairly good job pressuring Grossman. I think this is true of the edge rushers, who frequently forced him to step up in the pocket. Too often, however, there was plenty of stepping-up room because, whether by execution or design, Ratliff and Co. were setting up camp at the line. 

This was only one game, but my mispercetion prompted me to ask and answer a couple of questions. The first of these: when do the Cowboys get their sacks? To use a baseball analogy: do they hit their home runs with runners on base, or are they getting a lot of solo shots that, while impressive, do less damage? Let's take a look: Dallas has 26 sacks on the year. They have collected 9 on first down, nine on second, seven on third down and one (against the Rams) on fourth. While sacks on early downs are certainly useful, its the third and fourth down sacks, the ones that stop drives, that  are noteworthy. Against the Jets, for example, Ware sacked Mark Sanchez on a 2nd and 1, for a loss of six. On the next play, Sanchez hit Dustin Keller for a gain of 17, thus effectively negating the sack.

Considering how often teams pass on third down, I'd have to say that the Cowboys' 8 sacks on 3rd and 4th down is pretty poor. To be fair, it should be noted that two first- or second-down strip-sacks, by Danny McCray against the NYJ and by Spencer to close out the first Redskins game, figure as drive-stoppers...

More important are drive-stoppers in close games. Seven of the above ten have come in the six Cowboys games decided by four or fewer points, one in each game, save for the Lions contest, in which Dallas was held sackless. That's a fairly even spread, which suggests that the 'Boys are good for about one drive-ending sack a game. If that's the case, then for them to have a dominant pass rush, they'd almost certainly need to occur in the second half, preferably in the fourth quarter--in "clutch time."

Early in the season, this was indeed the case; against the Jets, McCray's big play and  a huge Spencer sack on 3rd and 10 killed fourth-quarter Jets drives. The following week, both Hatcher and Ratliff made crucial late-game sackeroonies (Rat's was on second down, but during the 'Niners lone OT possession). In week three, Spencer's strip sack ended the game. Since then, however, only Butler's overtime "sack" of Grossman the play before Gano missed his overtime FG attempt might qualify as a key, "clutch time" quarterback bagging. Perhaps what's most perturbing, therefore, is not the number of sacks the Cowboys register, which is respectable, but the fact that they don't tend to get them when it matters most.

I'll end with this final--and perhaps most disturbing--thought: its in clutch time when the best players have to step up. Notice that not a single of the above clutch sacks belongs to Ware. Is this because he's being double- and triple-teamed when the going gets rough? Perhaps, but Washington's possession in regulation, when a sack would have sealed the victory, is telling. On a twelve-play drive during which he posed nary a threat to the 'Skins signalcaller, Ware was doubled exactly...once.

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