The key to slowing down modern offenses is to get pressure on the passer.
If the quarterback is pressured or hurried, it's much more likely he'll make a mistake and turn the ball over or make enough bad passes to get off the field. 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.
In the NFL, pressure has traditionally been measured by sacks. But considering the limited time the ball is in the quarterback's hands in modern offenses these days, just penetrating the pocket and pressuring the QB to throw early must be considered a success for the defense.
In addition to sacks, the NFL record keepers have recently started to also measure quarterback hits, which is one way to approximate how much pressure a defense is bringing. After the break, we look at the official NFL numbers for sacks and QB hits and ponder Jay Ratliff's role in tonight's game against the Redskins.
Here are the official NFL numbers through week two over the last five years:
|Cowboys Sacks & QB Hits, through week 2, 2007-2011|
Those are pretty good numbers for 2011, at least compared to the previous years. Obviously, these numbers depend a lot on the quality of opponent faced, and right now it's too early to tell how good or bad the two teams were that the Cowboys faced so far. But the numbers do seem to show that the Cowboys defense have had two pretty good games this season. Or did they?
As we look at individual linemen, if their stat lines for a game contain a sack and a couple of tackles, we're inclined to say that that was a pretty good performance. But those raw numbers don't necessarily tell you how a given lineman actually played. They don't tell you anything about the quality of players he was facing, they don't tell you about the lanes he opened for the rushing linebackers, they don't tell you how much gap penetration he got.
In fact, I believe that stats tell you almost nothing at all about defensive line play. In the interview with Jay Ratliff that Dave published this morning, I snuck in a little question of my own that illustrates the point perfectly:
BTB: Stats aren't always a good measure of defensive lineman's performance in a 3-4 defense. How do you measure if you had a good game after it's over?
JR: Number one is the win. I won't speak for any other nose, but personally I like to disrupt the game. Try to be as disruptive as possible and get lots of production. Only then will I say I had a good day's work, if I'm not doing that then I'm not satisfied. That's kind of how you measure it.
Let's take Ratliff's stats through two games: five tackles, one sack, one tackle for loss and one QB hit. That's eight plays in which Ratliff shows up in the official stat sheets. Eight plays out of exactly one hundred defensive snaps that he was on the field for. No way can those eight plays be indicative of his overall performance across 100 plays.
What the stats don't tell you is that while Jason Hatcher and DeMarcus Ware got two sacks each against the 49ers; while Sean Lee made stop after stop against the run; while Tony Romo was busy building his legend as a tough guy, Jay Ratliff was quietly beating the living daylights out of everyone.
Play after play he took it to the 49ers' offensive line. Ratliff took on double-teams that allowed somebody else to get a one-on-one matchup; Ratliff created lanes for the blitzing linebackers; Ratliff pushed the line into the backfield for a couple of yards and disrupted the pocket. None of that shows up in the stat sheets, but for most of the game, Ratliff was disrupting play after play and terrorizing 49ers center Jonathan Goodwin, a 10-year veteran listed at 6-3 and 318 pounds.
Tonight, Ratliff faces off against the Redskins' center Will Montgomery. The 310-pound center has started 17 NFL games in five season with three different NFL teams. This is a matchup that could quietly decide the game, yet probably won't show up on the stat sheet.
If Ratliff can get penetration, he'll be a big disruption in the passing game. And if the Redskins find that their running game is sealed on the edges by DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer, they'll try to go through the middle to get their ground game going. And Ratliff will be waiting there as well.
Regardless of how the game ends, you probably won't read a lot about Jay Ratliff afterward, and you certainly won't see a lot of stats from Ratliff. But if you watch the line play closely, you'll likely see what a terror Ratliff can be on opposing linemen as he disrupts play after play.
It'll be well worth watching.