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Dallas Cowboys Pass Rush Pt. II: DeMarcus Ware, Sean Lee & The Linebackers

DeMarcus Ware is getting ready for another standout season.
DeMarcus Ware is getting ready for another standout season.

In any discussion about the Dallas Cowboys and their pass rush, DeMarcus Ware invariably dominates the discussion, much the same way he dominates opposing offensive linemen. There's a widely held belief that DeMarcus Ware is the Cowboys' one-man pass rush. And that line of thinking is not without merit. Last season, Ware accounted for 19.5 of the Cowboys' 42 official sacks and he is easily the most dominant player on the Cowboys defense, and perhaps even in the league.

But as good as Ware is, he can't do it alone.

In yesterday's post about the Cowboys' pass rush, we looked beyond sacks as the sole measure of pass rush efficiency, and introduced QB Disruption Points as a way to aggregate sacks, QB hits and QB pressures into one number that can be used as an indicator of how much pressure a defense exerts on the opposing quarterback.

Related: How Disruptive Are DeMarcus Ware & Co?

The 2011 Cowboys tallied 224.5 QB Disruption Points, the 6th best value in the league. DeMarcus Ware accounted for 59.0 of those disruption points (20 sacks, 8 QB hits and 44 QB pressures), about a quarter of the Cowboys' total.

After the break, find out how much pressure the other linebackers brought to the Cowboys defense.

DeMarcus Ware Appreciation Moment

But before we look at the other players, let's have ourselves a little DeMarcus Ware moment. Ware's 59.0 QB Disruption points (QBDP) are the third highest value in the league for any player, behind only Miami's Cameron Wake (63.0) and the Rams' Chris Long (65.5). Some perspective on just how extraordinary these numbers are: there were only twelve players in the league with QBDPs over 50 last year.

And over the last three years, Ware has been remarkably consistent in this metric, recording 66.8 in 2009 and 63.0 in 2010 in addition to last year's 59.0. And again, just for perspective, Ware ranked within the NFL top three in all three years.

Pass Rushing Productivity

Before we take a closer look at individual Cowboys players, we need to keep in mind that the amount of sacks, hits or pressures (go here for a detailed definition of each) a player can get is strongly dependent on the amount of pass rush snaps the player gets. The QBDP metric, while doing a nice job of aggregating three pass rushing stats into one number, is a volume stat. To make it more meaningful, you need to turn it into an efficiency stat, which is exactly what Pass Rushing Productivity does.

PRP is simply the QB Disruptions Points divided by the number of snaps in which the player rushed the passer. Importantly, since it's only calculated against pass rushing snaps, an argument that a given player plays more snaps against the run or vice versa, while true, is irrelevant. DeMarcus Ware recorded his 59.0 QB Disruptions Points on 450 pass rushing snaps for a Pass Rushing Productivity of 13.1%. Below is a list of how DeMarcus compares to the top twelve pass rushers in the league, each of whom had more than 50 QBDPs. The table is sorted by Pass Rushing Productivity:

Player Team Snaps Pass Rush QB Sk QB Ht QB Pr QBDP PRP '11 PRP '10
Aldon Smith SF 506 355 15 13 36 51.8 14.6% - -
Trent Cole PHI 640 375 11 12 44 53.0 14.1% 12.9%
DeMarcus Ware DAL 913 450 20 8 44 59.0 13.1% 12.7%
Jason Babin PHI 720 427 18 12 37 54.8 12.8% 12.9%
Chris Long SL 946 515 13 12 58 65.5 12.7% 10.9%
Cameron Wake MIA 904 519 9 20 52 63.0 12.1% 11.7%
Tamba Hali KC 1009 459 12 10 41 50.3 10.9% 14.8%
Clay Matthews GB 970 478 6 21 39 51.0 10.7% 11.8%
Julius Peppers CHI 918 561 12 5 53 55.5 9.9% 8.6%
Chris Clemons SEA 952 539 12 9 45 52.5 9.7% 12.0%
Jared Allen MIN 1044 594 24 8 34 55.5 9.3% 9.8%
Justin Smith SF 946 621 7 14 48 53.5 8.6% 9.2%

Rookie sensation Aldon Smith was the most efficient pass rusher in the league last year. Granted, he didn't start a single game, and saw action mostly on passing downs, but that was still a pretty impressive performance. After Smith, DeMarcus Ware is sandwiched between Philly's wide-nine tandem of Cole and Babin, both of whom had outstanding seasons. Philly's tandem in particular showcases the value of having a bookend rusher with the same type of potential, but it also shows you that good pass rushers alone will not win you games.

Note also that the list contains only 3-4 OLBs or 4-3 DEs, with one exception: Justin Smith is a 3-4 DE, and given the position he plays, he may be the most remarkable player on this list. The other thing that stands out here is that the PRP for all these players has remained fairly stable compared to last year. Good pass rushers consistently find ways to get pressure.

Cowboys Linebackers

We've already established where the elite rushers sit in terms of PRP. So anything approaching 10% is a pretty good performance. Remember, PRP is an efficiency measure, and does not distinguish between players with high or low numbers of pass rushing snaps. Here's how the linebackers stacked up in 2011.

Player Snaps Pass Rush QB Sk QB Ht QB Pr QBDP PRP '11
DeMarcus Ware 913 450 20 8 44 59.0 13.1%
Anthony Spencer 939 400 6 9 35 39.0 9.8%
Victor Butler 233 126 3 4 9 12.8 10.1%
Sean Lee 868 106 0 3 13 12.0 11.3%
Low pass rush snapcount
Keith Brooking 408 29 0 1 2 2.3 7.8%
Bradie James 414 33 0 1 1 1.5 4.5%
Alex Albright 44 24 0 0 1 0.8 3.1%
Bruce Carter 41 7 0 0 0 0.0 0.0%

The numbers in this table may or may not come as a surprise to you, they certainly were a surprise for me when I first became aware of them. Sean Lee in particular was a surprise, especially since one of the knocks on him was that he wasn't a particularly good pass rusher. Of course, the one blemish on Lee's 2011 record is that he didn't get a single sack, but outside of that, he was very efficient at creating disruptions when he went after the QB. Among all ILBs in the league with more than 100 pass rushing snaps, Lee ranks as the fourth most efficient rusher as measured by PRP. Whodathunkit?

Victor Butler, despite some limitations against the run, also has a pretty impressive pass rushing productivity. Sure, like Aldon Smith, he is used largely on passing downs, so that may positively impact his numbers a little, but having him in the line-up is an obvious boost for the Cowboys' pass rush. His 2011 numbers suggest that the Cowboys would do well to give Butler more playing time this year (and perhaps sign him to an extension before he improves his numbers becomes too expensive).

The four players with 33 or less pass rush snaps don't really warrant any analysis - I only put them in to avoid answering questions about them later - because the sample size is simply too small to infer any meaningful conclusions from the data.

That leaves us with Anthony Spencer. With a 9.8% PRP, Spencer was more efficient in 2011 than he was in 2009 (9.2%) and 2010 (7.0%). Clearly though, Spencer is no DeMarcus Ware. But he's also far from being a scrub. Spencer has a fairly high amount of pressures, and Cowboys fans would have liked more of those pressures to result in actual sacks, but in terms of QB disruption points, Spencer ranks 10th among all 3-4 OLBs, and that's actually quite impressive for the second rusher on a team.

Here's how last year's 3-4 teams break down in terms of production from their first and second rusher (as determined by number of pass rush snaps in 2011):

Team Tot. QBDP Player PR Snaps QB Sk QB Ht QB Pr QBDP PRP
98.0 Ware 450 20 8 44 59.0 13.1%
Spencer 400 6 9 35 39.0 9.8%
91.8 Orakpo 390 10 6 43 46.8 12.0%
Kerrigan 451 9 12 36 45.0 10.0%
91.5 A. Smith 355 15 13 36 51.8 14.6%
Brooks 473 6 8 37 39.8 8.4%
91.0 Wake 519 9 20 52 63.0 12.1%
Taylor 345 7 12 16 28.0 8.1%
81.8 Matthews 478 6 21 40 51.8 10.8%
Walden 420 3 14 22 30.0 7.1%
71.3 Barwin 520 12 18 24 43.5 8.4%
Reed 404 6 6 23 27.8 6.9%
68.3 Hali 459 12 10 41 50.3 10.9%
Houston 206 6 3 13 18.0 8.7%
59.3 Barnes 274 11 5 29 36.5 13.3%
Phillips 271 4 5 20 22.8 8.4%
57.3 Harrison 250 9 11 23 34.5 13.8%
Woodley 220 10 3 14 22.8 10.3%
47.8 Pace 382 5 8 23 28.3 7.4%
Maybin 197 6 2 16 19.5 9.9%
42.3 Haggans 339 4 6 25 27.3 8.0%
Acho 211 6 0 12 15.0 7.1%

The Cowboys' bookend rushers, Ware and Spencer, combined for more sacks than any other 3-4 pass rushing duo, and they also had more QB Disruption Points than any other duo. And among the second rushers on the 3-4 teams above, Spencer acquitted himself fairly well. Being a good second guy may not be what you expected from a first-round draft pick, but for what it's worth, PFF rated Spencer as the best 3-4 OLB against the run. Here's what his coach thinks of him:

"I listen to all those radio shows on the way home, and when they're not dog-cussing me, they're dog-cussing him," Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan said of Anthony Spencer after the rookie minicamp.

"The bottom line is: He's a damn good football player. What we asked him to do, he did a great job with. So if we send him more this year [as a pass-rusher], that will be great. I know everybody just looks at the bottom line on sacks or wins, and I don't blame them. But as a coach, you appreciate a guy like Anthony Spencer because he does the right thing, and he plays hard; he forces fumbles; he still rushes the passer. ...I think he's going to have a great year."

Read more here:

The Cowboys had 224.5 Quarterback Disruption Points last year. DeMarcus Ware accounted for 59.0 of those and the remaining linebackers combined for another 68.3 QBDPs. As a unit, the linebackers are responsible for 57% of the Cowboys' QBDPs. In a previous post on the Cowboys Defensive Backs and Unannounced Blitzers we saw that the defensive backs also contributed 24.0 points, which leaves 73.2 points to be divided up by the defensive linemen. And that will be the subject of the third part of our detailed look at the Cowboys' pass rush.


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