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Grading Cowboys @ Redskins: Performances Of Note

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Martellus Bennett finally had his moment as a Dallas Cowboys receiver.
Martellus Bennett finally had his moment as a Dallas Cowboys receiver.

Thanksgiving and the Dolphins are fast approaching for the Cowboys, and the team is already in the middle of its preparations for Thursday's game. They didn't waste any time switching their focus from the Redskins to the Dolphins, and the coaches pulled an all-nighter from Sunday to Monday to get prepared for the Dolphins.

So while the team moves on to the next opponent, we have the luxury of reflecting once more on the second win over the Redskins this season. As usual, we'll do that using the Pro Football Focus player grades.

This week, you may find a few surprises in the numbers, as you may find a couple of unexpectedly positive grades for some team units after the break. Oh, and brace yourself: there's a reference to Rob Ryan's father included in the section below.

Follow the link for a lengthy introduction to the PFF methodology. Better yet, read PFF's detailed FAQ, which should answer the vast majority of questions.

Offensive Line

The Cowboys' O-line continues to do it's best impression of a Yo-yo this season. After recording their best game of the season in terms of PFF grades against the Bills, they continued their up-and-down performances with a less than stellar outing against the Redskins. The line, particularly the inside of the line, didn't get a lot of push in the run game, and the pass protection was underwhelming as well. Here's the line's card for the season so far:

WK 1 WK 2 WK 3 WK 4 WK 6 WK 7 WK 8 WK 9 WK 10 WK 11
Overall Grade
-1.4 -12.4 -6.0 +9.2 -14.9 +4.9 +1.2 +4.9 +9.9 -2.4

Keep in mind that a -2.4 is just slightly below average, and really nothing to hyperventilate about. Anything between -1 and +1 is a fairly average performance, red figures denote below average performance, green figures are above average. On to the individual grades:

Free Holland Costa Kosier Smith
vs. Redskins
+0.4 +0.3 -1.8 -2.2 +0.9
Run Blocking
+2.4 +0.3 0.0 -3.2 -1.1
Pass Protect
-1.5 +0.6 -2.0 +0.6 +1.5

Overall, the line shows a pretty uneven picture. The Cowboys had trouble run blocking to the right in no small part because that was where London Fletcher (+5.4) was lined up for the Redskins. In pass protection, Free and Costa both gave up a sack and two pressures each, and are downgraded accordingly. 

Of note, Montrae Holland recorded his fifth positive grade in as many games, despite getting hit by a penalty. He has been a significant upgrade for the Cowboys and is performing admirably. The center and right guard position remain the soft spots along the Cowboys O-line. The other three guys all rate positively for the season, Costa (-9.9) and Kosier (-2.2) do not.

Skill Position Player Highlights

  • John Phillips (47 of 77 snaps, -3.6) makes us wish for a speedy recovery by Tony Fiammetta. Phillips' -2.5 run blocking grade is a clear indication that he did not get the type of push in the run game that the Cowboys have seen from Fiammetta. And on the 5 snaps Phillips stayed in to pass block, he gave up two pressures. In the four games he's played fullback, Phillips has a cumulative grade of -6.4
  • Dez Bryant (55/77, +1.3) had another good game and has caught the fancy of the PFF graders: Bryant's season total of +7.6 ranks him as the eighth best wide receiver in the PFF rankings. Laurent Robinson (70/77, -2.0) was thrown at ('targeted' may be an exaggeration on some of the throws) 11 times but only caught four of those balls and dropped another one. Not a good outing for Robinson, but he did manage to haul in that critical TD, so we'll forgive him this week.
  • DeMarco Murray (54/77, +0.9) got a good grade (+1.7) as a receiver but didn't get a lot of yards as a rusher (-1.3). Similarly, Martellus Bennett finally got something going in the receiving game (+1.6), but sub-par run-blocking (-1.3) and a penalty drop him to -0.3 overall.  
We must hit the QB hard and often

When Rob Ryan signed with the Cowboys in January, I think it's fair to say that most Cowboys fans expected Ryan to bring the pressure on opposing QBs like few before him, and many were looking forward to all sorts of exotic blitz packages and stunts that he would throw at opposing offenses.

I obviously don't have access to Ryan's playbook, but I do have access to his father's playbook while with the Houston Oilers, and that playbook features the following quote that I'm sure we would find in similar form in Rob's version somewhere:


After the game on Sunday, I wasn't so sure anymore that we were in fact trying to hit the QB "hard and often", so I looked up the PFF numbers for how often the Cowboys have blitzed opposing QBs:

WK 1 WK 2 WK 3 WK 4 WK 6 WK 7 WK 8 WK 9 WK 10 WK 11
21/49 15/33
23/41 12/43 8/45 14/34 14/37 11/32 10/34 16/42
in %
43% 45%x 56% 28% 18% 41% 38% 34% 30% 38%

The numbers are a little erratic, and I'm sure that 10 people would read 11 different meanings into them, but to me it looks like Ryan started out the season blitzing a lot - on almost half the opposing dropbacks - but has since tapered off that figure to roughly one third of all dropbacks.

Obviously, the numbers have to be taken in the context of the game situations, available personnel, schemes, etc. but I had expected the numbers to be a little higher. Then again, what's the use of blitzing if you're not going to create pressure anyway, right?

Well, despite apparently dialing down the frequency of blitzes, the Cowboys are still bringing the pressure. PFF track sacks, QB hits and QB pressures as a measure of how much pressure a defense brings, and combine all three into a formula called Pass Rushing Points (Total Sacks + Total Hits x 0.75 + Total Hurries x 0.75). Per the PFF stats, the Cowboys have recorded 26 sacks, 35 hits and 110 pressures over ten games. That's 13.5 Pass Rushing Points per game, and ranks the Cowboys 9th in the league, 2.6 PRPs behind the league leading 49ers, 7.3 PRPs ahead of the last-place Chiefs and 1.4 PRPs above the league average.

Kegbearer will have a more detailed post on the pass rush later today, so this will suffice for now.

The Front Seven

The fact that the Redskins put up 24 points hides a lot of the defensive accomplishments. The official NFL gamebook credits the Cowboys defense with 9 tackles for loss, a season high. PFF credits the defense with 27 stops, or solo tackles (incl. sacks) that constitute an offensive failure. And when your defense holds the opposition to a 2.5 rushing average, it's smiles (and green grades) all around.

Starters Backups Starters Backups Starters Backup
  Coleman Ratliff Hatcher Spears Lissemore Brent Ware Spencer Butler Lee James Brooking
Snaps (73 total)
32 57 43 18 11 13 66 66 9 72 31 18
0.0 +4.0 +3.0 +1.6 +0.6 +1.5 +2.4 +0.3 +1.1 +0.6 +1.6 +0.2



When you allow Rex Grossman to get a 95.2 passer rating against you, something didn't go quite right. Especially when your defensive passer rating for the season is 79.0 and ranked tenth-best in the league.

  • Terence Newman (68/73, -0.3): Newman came up big in run defense and had a pass defended, but also allowed four of six passes to be caught for 63 yards.
  • Orlando Scandrick (73/73, -0.5) was the first to admit that he didn't have a particularly good game. The graders at PFF liked his interception and liked him against the run but gave him a -1.7 for his two defensive holding penalties, the second of which came on 3rd-and-2 and gave the Redskins a first down on the Cowboys' 16-yard line with 1:16 left in regulation.
  • Alan Ball (42/73, +0.8) only allowed 2 receptions on five targets. Unfortunately, one of the receptions was the tying touchdown shortly after Scandrick's penalty.
  • Abram Elam (72/73, +0.7) was inconspicuous for large parts of the game, allowed one reception on two passes and had three tackles.
  • Gerald Sensabaugh (68/73,-0.2): Sensi had a team-high seven solo tackles plus two assists, but allowed five receptions on five targets for 74 yards.
Top Ten

Here's an overview of which Cowboys players are currently ranked among the top ten (or close) at their positions. Keep in mind that PFF grades are cumulative, so the more games a player has, the higher his grade can be. Also, there are still five games missing in their rankings from week 11. But so what.

  • DeMarcus Ware (+20.5), King Of The Hill among 3-4 OLBs. Spencer comes in at 17th. 
  • Tyron Smith (+11.0), fourth-best tackle overall, second-best right tackle. Doug Free is climbing back into respectability and is 25th overall after gaining +6.4 grading points in the last five games.
  • Jay Ratliff (+12.6) is number five among all defensive tackles. He is already ahead of his 2009 & 2010 full season grades and ahead of where he was in his 2008 season, where he came in with a +21.5 season total.
  • Jason Witten (+5.4) the Senator struggled a lot at the beginning of the season but is rising fast and currently ranked seventh among tight ends.
  • Dez Bryant (+7.6), eighth-ranked wide receiver. Next best NFC East receivers, Santana Moss (+5.8) at 15th, Hakeem Nicks (+5.2) at 16th. No Eagles in the top 60.
  • DeMarco Murray (+8.9) is the tenth-ranked back. Technically, he's tied for 10th, but who cares.
  • Montrae Holland (+5.8) gets an honorable mention as the 12th-ranked guard, as he's only played in half as much games as the guys ranked above him.
  • Second honorable mention goes to Tony Romo (+22.2) who just comes up short at No. 11.

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