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Ryan's Bullies: How Good Is The Cowboys D-Line? (Part II)

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The Cowboys defensive-line faced plenty of criticism in 2010. Though free agents were re-signed, the 2011 edition has Kenyon Coleman as the single change on the roster. Of course, the additions of Rob Ryan and Brian Baker to the coaching staff are significant changes (some would say upgrades). And while Rob Ryan has hailed his bullies in the media, the defensive-line has either been quietly efficient or lacking big-play ability.

Re-watching games and plays while concentrating on the defensive-line reveals more good than bad, but rarely are the big guys garnering the glory of impact plays likes sacks and fumbles. I began to wonder if they were getting the job done or just succeeding in mediocrity. Comparing the statistics tallied by the linemen of 3-4 defenses, it would appear the Cowboys front is average at best. The combined totals show the Cowboys have active d-line rotations making tackles, but they are below average in tackles for a loss, sacks, and fumbles.

As shown in Part I, the good news is that Ryan is utilizing a variety of defensive-linemen effectively and five Cowboys made the list of the Top 30 players on ten 3-4 lineups compared. But a clear picture of defensive fronts isn't easily constructed by comparing only players' stats. More can be garnered by also comparing team rankings for 3-4 defenses.

The interesting tale of the Cowboys d-line continued...       

Using team stats to compare positional groups is no easy science. I am no expert. There are clearly categories that mean more to one positional group than another, but the obvious team nature of football makes the task imperfect. I have found using a wide variety can actual help reveal some context and uncertainty if you don't allow the clutter to become too confusing.

Why the selection of this particular collection of statistical rankings?

Team Stats -

Rush Avg. & Yards - The first two columns are the ranking of defensive rush avg. and rush yards per game. Obviously rushing stats are a reflection of more than just the defensive-line. In the case of 3-4 defenses, I deem rushing efficiency by opponents paramount to judging the success of the line though still recognizing the vital role linebackers play in stopping the run. 3-4 linemen are most often asked to take up blockers and free linebackers to make the plays. Without effective play from the d-line, even the best 3-4 linebackers will not be great at stopping the run due to the number of linemen free to block. Rush yards allowed per game is a useful stat, but can prove very misleading due to game situations. As always, the sum of yards is not as good an indicator of efficiency as the average yards gained/allowed.

Advanced Stats -

Rush DVOA - Is explained here and is useful because it incorporates a variety of variables to judge a team's efficiency (in this case of stopping the run) compared to a league average.

Adjusted Line Yards - Also explained at the above link, this advanced stat again incorporates a variety of variables for each play and also uses a scale to help eliminate rushing yards gained (by running backs only) past the responsibility of the d-line. As such, it is a great indicator for the effectiveness of the d-line against the run.

Stuffed & 2nd Level - These are helpful statistical rankings because they help provide context. Stuffed rankings are how often a defense stuffs a run at or before the line of scrimmage. An important indicator to how well the d-line is playing at the point of attack, especially for a 3-4 defensive front. 2nd level rankings depict how effective the defense is at stopping long runs. While this ranking is based primarily on the play of the linebackers and safeties, it can help provide clarity to the other stats and rankings. If a team has a poor 2nd level ranking, it is safe to assume the linebackers are not very good against the run. It can thus help provide more insight on how influential the d-line is to the teams' rush avg. and DVOA. If a 3-4 defense is mediocre at stopping the run in most categories but is great at the 2nd level, it is likely the linebackers and safeties playing well for the team. If the defenses rush efficiency is good and 2nd level is poor, then the team likely has an exceptional d-line.         

Adjusted Sack Rate - This advanced statistic is helpful because it takes into consideration the teams' opponents and the number of situations defended (such as pass attempts/ third-and-longs) to provide a better picture at the efficiency of the team's pass rush as opposed to just the total sack count.

Averages - I like comparing league rankings to get a better idea of how the team compares to the rest of the league. Averages of ranks can be amusing, if not always insightful, and can provide a broader view of your chosen statistical categories. I have thus included the average ranking of all categories for each team, as well as the average ranking of all 3-4 defenses across each category.     

3-4 Defense Rush Avg. Yards/Game Rush DVOA Adj. Line Stuffed 2nd Level Adj. Sack Rate Avg. Rank
Cowboys 9th 4th 10th 4th 10th 6th 10th 7.6
49ers 4th 1st 1st 8th 32nd 1st 6th 7.6
Cardinals 5th 15th 29th 22nd 5th 22nd 28th 18
Dolphins 7th 13th 22nd 14th 16th 21st 16th 15.6
Jets 14th 25th 17th 15th 25th 14th 5th 16.4
Texans 16th 6th 24th 21st 23rd 20th 13th 17.6
Steelers 19th 8th 26th 26th 28th 19th 8th 19.1
Chargers 19th 17th 25th 19th 15th 10th 21st 18
Redskins 21st 21st 20th 13th 19th 12th 1st 15.3
Packers 23rd 10th 19th 24th 20th 25th 27th 21.1
Average 13.7 12 19.3 16.6 22.3 15 13.5 16.1

Hold the presses! The Cowboys have the only 3-4 defense that ranks above average in the NFL in each category. (I am not aware if any of the four hybrid 3-4 teams I left out accomplish any of this). The Cowboys are the only team to rank higher in each category than the average ranking of the 3-4 defenses. The Cowboys are also tied for the best average in overall rankings. If the Cowboys d-line is average at best (as suggested by the combined player stats in Part I) how is it possible that the Cowboys defense appears to be one of the best 3-4 fronts in the NFL?

One reason could be that the Cowboys have a great linebacker unit, but it is still not enough to explain it all. The Cowboys have the second highest 2nd Level ranking amongst 3-4 teams. Clearly the linebackers and safeties are holding their own against the run. The Cowboys are also tenth in adjusted sack rate. Considering the below average output of the d-line in sacks, surely the linebackers - especially DeMarcus Ware - play a large role in that success. But it could also mean the d-line is also doing just about everything asked of it to free up the linebackers and safeties on blitzes.

It appears quite clear that the Cowboys d-line is getting it done. The Cowboys average rankings could not compare so well to other 3-4 defenses if the Big Nasties weren't doing their job. The fact that the Cowboys rank sixth in the league and below the 49ers in 2nd level, yet have the second best stuffed rank amongst 3-4 defenses and tenth in the league makes it obvious the d-line is helping the defense prosper.    

A Tale of Two Cities

Dallas and San Francisco are tied for the best average of overall rankings, but seemingly Top 10 defensive fronts in the NFL. But how they differ is an interesting lesson. Though the 49ers are the best in the league in limiting 2nd level yards and rush DVOA, the team still ranks as the worst in the league in stuffing the run. It initially appears contradictory. How can a team that leads the league in rush DVOA and limiting long runs be the worst in the league at stopping rushers for no gain or a loss? The answer could be in how the d-line is being utilized.

The 49ers obviously have an active front-seven. They also have a "big-play" d-line. Recalling the combined player stats from Part I:

Cowboys 71 5 4 0
Cardinals 87 10 4.5 2
49ers 52 2 7.5 2
Dolphins 67 7 4 2
Jets 77 8 3 1
Texans 71 4 9.5 3
Steelers 53 7 5 2
Chargers 69 8 2 1
Redskins 64 1 13 1
Packers 57 5 6 1
Average 66.8 5.7 5.9 1.5

The 49ers d-line has combined for nearly twice as many sacks as the Cowboys. They are above average in both sacks and fumbles, yet fall terribly below average in tackles (totals and for a loss). This could be a sign that the 49ers d-line relies more on gap penetration than 2-gap technique along the trenches. If the d-line are often instructed to pressure gaps, it would make it more difficult to make tackles against runs that aren't through their exact gap. 2-gap linemen have twice the likelihood of being in position to make the tackle. In fact, it seems most d-lines above average in sacks are below average in tackles.

It could also explain why the 49ers are good at stopping the run (avg. & DVOA) but the worst in the league at "stuffing the run." If the d-linemen are pressuring single gaps, then they are trying to avoid the blockers instead of taking them on. This usually leads to feast or famine on stuffing the run, and their d-line is currently on famine in the tackles for a loss category, they are likely still disrupting the rushing plays and blocking designs. That combined with the impressive 2nd level play of 49ers defense means they can obviously handle the freed blockers and stop runs for short gains.

The Cowboys coaching staff appears to take a different approach with their d-line. The Cowboys are actually the second highest ranking 3-4 defense in stuffing the run. They also have a higher adjusted line yards ranking than the 49ers. This kind of discrepancy likely indicates the Cowboys d-line is better against the run than the 49ers d-line, but both their defensive-fronts as a whole are very good. This begins to be a clear sign of two defenses that use their d-lines in different ways, both finding success for their defensive designs.

Do Your Job!

Defensive coordinators ask for different things from their players depending on the scheme of the defense. It could be a reason why the statistical successes of individual players on the Cowboys d-line rotation don't appear as impressive as the defensive unit's statistical rankings. There is a saying that to play in a 3-4 defenses requires one to be unselfish. Assignments must be followed or the intricate play will fail if one player abandons his responsibility.  If a d-linemen is tasked with 2-gap pressure but decides to split the defenders instead, his teammates are left high and dry.

There many different kinds of 3-4 defenses and not all their d-lines are tasked with the same duties. Consider the following: Five of these 3-4 defense rank in the Top 10 for adjusted sack rate - Redskins (1st), Jets (5th), 49ers (6th), Steelers (8th), Cowboys (10th). However, those teams vary greatly in the number of sacks by their d-linemen. While the Skins and 49ers rank in the Top 3 amongst the 3-4 defenses in total sacks by d-linemen (13 and 7.5 respectively), the Jets, Steelers, and Cowboys all have less than the average in sacks. It would appear that the Skins and 49ers ask their 3-4 linemen to penetrate gaps more often, and that the Steelers, Jets, and Cowboys rely on more 2-gap assignments for their linemen to free up their backers and other blitzing teammates. While the sack totals for the d-line may be low, the teams are clearly still successful in pressuring quarterbacks since they rank amongst the Top 10 in the league in adj. sack rate.

Oddly enough, though the Texans are second in total sacks by their d-line (9.5), the team didn't manage to crack the Top 10 in adjusted sack rate. This is probably because the Texans either blitz far more often than other teams or face more passing attempts than other teams. In any case, it may seem strange that there are three 3-4 defenses that rank lower than the Cowboys in adjusted sack rate but have more sacks from the d-line, but it is just another reason why sacks is not a good stat as the primary judge for 3-4 defensive-linemen. Sometimes, getting a sack isn't the top priority of a defensive lineman in a 3-4.

So, How Good Is the Cowboys D-Line?

Individual and combined player stats reveal the Cowboys have good depth along the defensive-line, yet they don't seem to be making the impact plays that look great on a stat sheet and change the flow of the game. But team rankings appear to tell a different story. While the Cowboys d-line may not be getting praised on the player stat sheets, they are getting the job done. And not just to appease mediocrity. The Cowboys defensive-line rotations have helped the team rank as one of the best 3-4 defensive-fronts in the league.

The game against the Eagles made some big hits on the Cowboys team rankings in defense, but still, this unit has been impressive. It appears the Cowboys d-line is truly being quietly efficient and not simply lacking from guys that can make some noise. While as fans we may want more sacks from the big guys up-front, Ryan's Bullies appear to be doing everything their coach needs from them. Of course, we can all still hope that they go beyond the call of duty. It may be required with the team's defense captain and leading tackler likely to miss some time.