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Dallas Cowboys Defensive Backs: Unannounced Blitzers

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Orlando Scandrick: Surprisingly effective when asked to rush the passer.
Orlando Scandrick: Surprisingly effective when asked to rush the passer.

Right after Rob Ryan was announced as the new defensive coordinator for the Dallas Cowboys last year, we took a first look at Ryan's defense in Cleveland and found that Ryan likes to rush the passer with what BTB-member Chandus calls "unannounced blitzers": Chandus's film study (The Schematic Advantage of Having a Ryan) showed that Ryan likes to hide where his rushers will focus their points of attack by using delayed rushes from the ILBs or the defensive backs to "blitz the brains out of the OLineman and QB".

That's not something the Cowboys had done under Wade Phillips in previous years. In 2010, the Cowboys rushed one of their DBs 48 times on 590 dropbacks by opposing quarterbacks for a "rush rate" of 8.1%. That rush rate was 4.0% in 2009 and 6.4% in 2008.

In 2011, the Cowboys rushed a defensive back 124 times for a rush rate of 20%, more than the 110 combined rushes of the previous three years. After the break we look at that number in a little more detail and wonder whether we'll see another increase in 2012.

Those 124 pass rushes may sound like a lot, especially when compared to what the Cowboys have done in the past, but to really understand whether that's a high or low number, we need to understand how often the other 3-4 teams rush the passer out of their secondary.

Team Opponent dropbacks DB Rushes Rush Rate
New York Jets 547
Green Bay
Kansas City
San Francisco
San Diego

The Cowboys' 2011 rush rate of 20% is a lot higher than it was in 2010, but is roughly average among the 3-4 teams in the league. Would the Cowboys have rushed more often if they had had better corner play than they did last year? Or did they rush as much as they did out of the secondary to beef up their pass rush?

There's no easy answer to those questions, and I think the answer is probably a little bit of both. The table above seems to suggest at least two schematic approaches:

The 49ers got boatloads of pressure from their front five last season, perhaps that gave them the luxury of keeping their defensive backs in coverage because they didn't need them up front.

The Jets have one of the best corner duos in the league. Perhaps having superior corner play allowed the Jets to rush their safeties or slot corners on almost half the dropbacks by the opposing teams

Either way, regardless of the reason why the Cowboys rushed as often as they did, the question is, were they any good when they did rush a defensive back? To answer that question, we'll need to look at two specific stats.

QB Disruption Points: QBDP = QB Sacks + (QB Hits x 0.75) + (QB Pressures x 0.75).

Pass-Rushing Productivity: PRP is simply the QB Disruptions Points divided by the number of snaps in which the player rushed the passer.

QBDP tells you how often a player disrupted the passer (with sacks weighted more heavily than hits or pressures). PRP tells you how efficient a player was at disrupting the passer.

Here's the same table as the one I used before, except this time I've added the two metrics described above:

Team DB Rushes
QB Disruption Points Pass Rushing Productivity
Dallas 124 24.0 19.4%
Kansas City
82 12.5 15.2%
Arizona 117 17.8 15.2%
Washington 133 19.5 14.7%
San Diego 41 6.0 14.6%
Pittsburgh 94 13.3 14.1%
Miami 174 23.5 13.5%
San Francisco 60 7.5 12.5%
Green Bay 182 21.0 11.5%
New York Jets 241 26.0 10.8%
Houston 107 10.8 10.0%

The table shows that among all 3-4 teams in the league last year, not only did the Cowboys get the second most QB Disruption Points from their secondary (3 Sacks, 7 Hits, 21 Pressures), the Cowboys' defensive backs were also the most efficient unit when they rushed the passer. In fact, in the entire league, only the Bengals' secondary was more efficient with a PRP of 20.1%. Whodathunkit?

But if you're suprised by that little stat nugget, you'd better hold on to your horses real tight, because we're about to find out which players are behind those numbers. The Cowboys kept their defensive backfield fairly simple in terms of pass rushing last year: the starting corners almost never rush the passer, while the safeties and nickel corners do.

In the table below, I have therefore separated the DBs into two groups: DBs with more than 10 pass rush attempts and DBs with less than 10. So without further ado, here's on overview of the Cowboys' secondary using the two metrics described above:

Player Snaps Pass Rush QB Sk QB Ht QB Pr QBDP PRP '11
Gerald Sensabaugh 1,004 16 0 0 6
4.5 28%
Orlando Scandrick 680 28 2 2 5 7.3 26%
Barry Church 172 14 0 2
1 2.3 16%
Frank Walker 331 15 0 1 1 1.5 10%
Abram Elam 1,050 35 0 0 4
3.0 9%
No rushing allowed
Terence Newman 829 3
0 0 2
1.5 - -
Alan Ball 499 6 0 1 2
2.3 - -
Mike Jenkins 607 2 0 0 0 0.0 - -
Bryan McCann 35 3 0 1 0 0.8 - -
Danny McCray 32 2 1 0 0 1.0 - -

Sensabaugh and Scandrick in particular are veritable pass rush threats, and it's no surprise that Ryan sent them after the QB. Granted, the sample sizes are small here, but among all 3-4 DBs with at least 10 pass rush snaps, Sensabaugh and Scandrick rank No. 2 and No. 3 respectively behind only Javier Arenas of the Chiefs. In the entire league, they rank No. 5 and No. 6 among all 110 qualifying defensive backs.

What comes as a slight surprise is that Abe Elam was relatively ineffective on his blitzes. 'Surprising' because when he was originally brought in, he was supposed to be something like the Jedi Master of the Rob Ryan defense, yet on the list of 41 3-4 DBs with at least 10 pass rush attempts, Elam only ranked 36th (and 81st out of all 110 qualifying NFL DBs). And in case you are wondering, Brodney Pool ranked 7th (14th total) last year with the Jets.

In Cleveland in 2010, Rob Ryan rushed his DBs on 27% of dropbacks and his brother Rex rushed on 44% last year. Both numbers suggest that Ryan's Cowboys could be looking to rush the passer even more often next season than they did this year, and I would not be surprised if the number comes in at around 30%. Add significantly improved corner play to the mix and you could see Sensabaugh and Scandrick coming after the QB with some hella swag next year.

In a follow-up post, rabblerousr will look at what all of this means schematically, and he'll argue that the Cowboys DBs will be doing more than just rushing the passer on occasion, they will also increasingly be playing a hybrid linebacker role in the nickle.