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Dallas Cowboys Pass Rush Pt. I: How Disruptive Is The Cowboys' Defense?

One-man pass rush? DeMarcus Ware has 14 of the Cowboys' 26 sacks so far this season.
One-man pass rush? DeMarcus Ware has 14 of the Cowboys' 26 sacks so far this season.

Just because you hear people on TV saying that 'stopping the run' is the key to a successful defense doesn't mean it's true. That particular hypothesis may have been true thirty or forty years ago, but constant repetition by people who grew up in the 60s and 70s doesn’t make it any truer or any more relevant. The key to slowing down modern offenses is to get pressure on the passer.

Quarterbacks in the NFL today get rid of the ball in less than three seconds on average. If your defense doesn't get to the quarterback by then, chances are you've just allowed a completion. Give the QB more time and your secondary just got burned for a 60-yard bomb.

But if your defense does get pressure on the QB or hurries his throw, he's much more prone to make a mistake and turn the ball over or make enough bad passes to make the offense one dimensional. If you give any NFL quarterback enough time, he’s going to pick you apart. Pressure him, force him into making a decision and the chances of the QB making a mistake go way up.

Traditionally, the success of a team's pass rush has been measured by sacks. I have always marveled at this. How can you use four or five plays in a 60-play game to make a definitive statement about the the other 55-56 plays?

Considering the limited time the ball is in the quarterback's hands in modern offenses, just penetrating the pocket and pressuring the QB to throw early must be considered a success for the defense. So to get a true feel for the effectiveness of the pass rush, you’ve got to measure a defense’s ability to pressure the quarterback, either in form of hits, hurries or other pressures.

But since sacks are still the pass rusher's currency of choice, let's start by having a look at the Cowboys' sacks over the last few years.

Cowboys Sacks 2007-2011

2007 2008 2009 2010 2011
NFL Rank (Sacks)
3rd (46)
1st (59) 7th (42) 16th (35) 10th (26)

It's fairly obvious that the Cowboys are not the pass rushing machine they used to be. 2010 saw a significant drop in the number of sacks compared to the previous years, and even under a new defensive coordinator, the 2011 Cowboys are not back to the level of previous years.

Even more disconcerting is that after storming out to the league lead with 13 sacks in the first three games of this year, things appear to have quieted down a little, and the Cowboys needed seven games to match their sack total from the first three. Here are the sacks for each of the ten games played so far:

WK 1 WK 2 WK 3 WK 4 WK 6 WK 7 WK 8 WK 9 WK 10 WK 11
4 6 3 0 3 1 4 1 1 3

Now that we are slightly worried about the Cowboys pass rush, let's roll out some more pass rushing stats. In addition to sacks, the folks at Pro Football Focus also keep track of QB Hits and QB pressures. by their definition, a hit is when a QB is knocked down but not sacked, a pressure is when a QB is forced to move in the pocket in some other way than simply stepping up in the pocket to throw.

For the 10 games this season, the Cowboys have totaled 26 sacks, 35 QB hits and 110 QB pressures. Here's how that compares to previous years after 10 games:

Cowboys QB disruptions through 10 games, 2008-2011

2008 2009 2010 2011
Sacks 27 34 21 26
45 65 22 35
Pressures 76 109 108 110
QB Disruption Points 117.8 164.5 118.5 134.8

PFF calculate QB Disruption Points as Sacks + Hits (0.75) + Pressures (0.75). Compared to previous years, the Cowboys are ahead of where they were in 2008 and 2010, and behind the blistering pace they set in 2009.

With their 134.8 QB Disruption Points (QBDP), the Cowboys rank 10th in the league after 10 games, exactly where their sack total has them ranked as well.

Rank Team QBDP Rank Team QBDP Rank Team QBDP
1 SF 160.5 12 GB 130.0 23 TB 102.0
2 OAK 159.3 13 DEN 129.5 24 TEN 99.3
3 PHI 154.0 14 ATL 126.8 25 NYJ 98.3
4 STL 153.8 15 NYG 124.3 26 SD 96.3
5 HOU 148.0 16 NO 123.5 27 CAR 94.8
6 DET 145.3 17 WAS 123.5 28 BUF 91.0
7 ARI 139.8 18 CIN 123.3 29 JAC 90.3
8 MIA 138.0 19 BAL 120.5 30 CLE 82.3
9 NE 137.0 20 SEA 119.8 31 IND 77.3
10 DAL 134.8 21 CHI 114.0 32 KC 66.8
11 MIN 131.0 22 PIT 102.0  

Notice that the 49ers in the top spot have almost the same total disruption points as the Cowboys did in 2009 after 10 games. That's a pretty good pass rush they've put together there.

If you simply add up the 49ers' total (27 sacks, 38 hits, 140 QB pressures) you get 205 plays in which they got some type of pressure on the QB. That's 20.5 per game. The average QB drops back to pass about 37 times per game, so the 49ers are disrupting the QB on every second throw. No surprise then that their defense is one of the best in the league right now.

And if you bought in to the popular theory that the Colts' collapse is all about not having Peyton Manning under center, look no further than the 31st spot in the table above to understand that the problems in Indy run much deeper than just at the QB position.

Notice also that the Browns are sitting in 30th place. Last year, playing in a 3-4 scheme and under a different defensive coordinator, they had 144 QB Disruption Points after 10 games, almost twice as much as this year.

But back to the Cowboys. Do the QBDP numbers show the same game-by-game pattern we saw for the sacks?

Maybe, maybe not. The answer to that question very likely has to do with how you interpret the game-by-game data. Keep in mind that how much and how effectively a defense will disrupt the quarterback depends on a large number of variables, like the pass-protection capability of an offense, the individual ability of an offensive lineman, the score, the scheme played etc. Having said that, here's the game-by-game data for the Cowboys this year.

WK 1 WK 2 WK 3 WK 4 WK 6 WK 7 WK 8 WK 9 WK 10 WK 11
18.3 17.5 19.5 12.8 13.3 9.3 13.8 9.3 7.8 15.8

Notice how the disruptions only dip below 10 points in the three games the Cowboys won by a comfortable margin? St. Louis, Seattle and Buffalo were outscored 101-27, and I don't think it's unreasonable to assume that the defense took their foot off the pass rushing pedal and went into more of a prevent mode in the latter part of those games.

By the same rationale, the tightly contested games against the Jets, 49ers and both Redskins games saw the Cowboys defense deliver its highest number of QB Disruption Points.

Detroit may have been a case of taking the foot off the pedal too early after establishing a 27-3 lead. The Eagles game may have been the exact opposite: down 21-0 five minutes into the second quarter, there wasn't much of a pedal left to push anymore. And the Patriots may just have had a really good offensive line that stymied the Cowboys' rushers.

What's your take on these numbers?

In Part II of this post we'll look at which Cowboys defenders contributed to the pass rush, and which didn't contribute as much.

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