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Cowboys O-Line: Successful Against The Splash Play?

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In the three previous posts on the O-line, we looked at the run blocking game in detail and examined sacks allowed. Today in part four of this mini-series we take the analysis a step further and look how the individual players on the Cowboys O-line held up in pass protection.

The basic idea behind pass protection is to keep the opposing defenses from making 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 compared against the NFL average in 2010 and how many splash plays they gave up.

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 300 pass blocking snaps, while the other guy played 600 snaps.

Example: Kyle Kosier gave up 14 QB pressures according to Pro Football Focus (PFF), while Leonard Davis gave up 16. If you're a proponent of volume stats, that would give Kosier a slight edge. But Kosier only played on 495 pass blocking snaps, while Davis was on the field for 649. The average NFL lineman played on about 600 pass blocking snaps in 2010, so if we adjust for that, Kosier's pressures-allowed-per-600 snaps climbs to 17.0, while Davis's total declines slightly to 14.8.

I performed a similar 'normalization' to 600 pass blocking snaps for all NFL O-linemen who played at least 25% of their teams' total snaps. This is what the average NFL line gave up in total pressure in 2010, based on 600 pass blocking snaps:

NFL Avg. 2010
Sacks 6.2 3.1 1.8 3.3 6.0
QB Hits 7.5 4.3 2.8 3.9 6.2
QB Pressures 37.9 18.9 12.5 18.7 30.8

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: red is worse than the NFL average at the position, yellow is up to 20% better than the NFL average while green is more than 20% better than the NFL average at the position.

Free Kosier Gurode Davis Colombo
Sacks 4.5 1.2 0.9 4.6 6.8
QB Hits 6.3 2.4 1.8 0.9 10.7
QB Pressures 18.9 17.0 7.2 14.8 39.0

As you look at the table, you'll probably find that you intuitively agree with most of the color scheme. Marc Colombo simply had a very bad year, in almost all aspects of his game. And while Davis graded out as an average run blocker as we've seen in previous posts, he looks to have been uneven pass protection, giving up an above average amount of sacks, but allowing only very few QB hits beyond that. Gurode was solidly above average, Kosier gave up a little too many pressures but was exceptionally good in not letting defenders touch the QB - think about it this way, Kosiers guy got to the QB only three times last season, once for a sack, twice for a hit. Doug Free played great against the run, but still has a way to go as a pass blocker.

In a recent chat with The Ticket's Bob Sturm, Sam Monson from PFF observed:

We love Free as a run blocker, but teams pay left tackles to protect the QB's blind side, and Free was our 15th ranked OT in pass protection, allowing the QB to be knocked to the ground 12 times on the season. I guess it depends how much they think he can improve in that area (still being a relatively young starter), and how much they covet his run blocking.

It's probably too late to move Free back to the right side, or at least to pay him like a right tackle. He'll want left tackle money, and he'll get it from the Cowboys - or some other team. But Free still has some work to do to become a great left tackle, especially in pass protection.

Pass Blocking Productivity

Pass Blocking Productivity (PBP) is a fairly straightforward metric developed by Khaled Elsayed of Pro Football Focus that combines sacks, hits and pressures allowed into one simple number. In Khaled's own words:

We added up all the sacks, hits and pressures an offensive lineman gave up (hits and pressures are valued at 0.75 the value of a sack in accordance with our gradings). We then divide this number by the total number of snaps in pass protection before multiplying by 100 to get a solid number. A little something like this:

([Sack + Hit(0.75) + Pressure(0.75)]/Snaps Pass Blocking) x 100 = Pass Blocking Productivity Rating

Using this formula, here's how the Cowboys linemen performed in 2010:

Player Pass Block Snaps Sacks QB Hits QB Pressures PBP NFL Rank Players at Position
LT Doug Free 668 5 7 21 2.4 8 39
LG Kyle Kosier
495 1 2 14 1.5 8 41
C Andre Gurode 668
1 2 8 0.8 5 34
RG Leonard Davis
649 5 1 16 1.6 10 40
RT Marc Colombo
615 7 11 40 4.4 32 37

[Note on the data. NFL rank: among players at each position (LT, LG, C, RG, RT) with > 25% snaps for their team. Players at position: number of players at position with > 25% snaps for their team. Pass block snaps: number of times the player stayed in to block a pass rusher, includes sacks and penalties.]

In a previous post we saw that when measured purely by sacks allowed, the Cowboys were ranked 11th in the league last year with 31 total sacks allowed. PFF credit the Cowboys total O-Line with 20 sacks (ranked 13th), 25 QB hits (15th) and 107 QB pressures (14th). These measures seem to confirm that the Cowboys had an average to slightly above line in terms of the volume stats.

But the Cowboys linemen were also on the field for a combined total of 3,340 pass blocking snaps, the 8th most in the league. Using the pass blocking productivity formula, with these numbers, the Cowboys O-line gets a PBP value of 3.56, the 7th best value in the league.

Now consider that in the table above, Marc Colombo alone is responsible for 41% of the pass blocking pressure given up by the line. From a purely quantitative point of view, this doesn't leave the remaining four linemen with a lot of pass blocking pressure given up between them. Accordingly, from a pure quantitative point of view, they all end up in the top ten in their respective position groups as measured by PBP.

Shocked? You shouldn't be. The Cowboys racked up the 6th most passing yards in the league last year with 4,042 yards, the third highest total in franchise history - with a 38 year old backup QB under center for the majority of the season. You can think what you want about the Cowboys O-Line, but in terms of splash plays allowed, the line as a whole was better than the NFL average, despite Marc Colombo.

Of course, what these numbers do not show is the quality of pressures or splash plays allowed, i.e. was a sack a coverage sack or was it a one-on-one sack where the lineman was beaten like a rented mule? In the next and final post in this O-line series, well look at the PFF grades for the Cowboys linemen. The PFF grades incorporate exactly those qualitative aspects of the pass protection performance that some may feel are missing in this quantitative assessment.

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