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You Got Me Under Pressure: Cowboys' Pass Rush And The Lack Of Sacks

An overview of Dallas's pass rush and why the lack of sacks isn't that big of a worry.

Ronald Martinez

In a recent article OCC noted that, on average, an NFL QB gets rid of the ball in 2.7 seconds. Remember that number, we're going to use it later on to explain our lack of pressure in the Giants game.

But first, let's use it to show why sacks, in and of themselves, are a bad indicator of pressure. The truth is, sacks are somewhat fluky and rely on a lot of outside variables. A good example occurred in our recent game against the Texans, where J.J. Watt beat Tyron Smith off the line and seemed to have an easy sack of Tony Romo, only for Romo to do his magic and escape. Any other QB and that's almost a sure sack. Watt did everything right, and he got pressure on the QB, but it won't show up in the stat sheet as a sack. We saw other examples in Sunday's game against the Giants where Eli Manning was wrapped up and going down, but managed to throw the ball away. Pressure was there, but no sack.

But going back to that 2.7 number. Picture this: Jeremy Mincey beats his man off the snap, and has a free run to the QB, but the play is a WR screen and the ball is released in one second. No sack, and probably no pressure at all. On the other hand, if the offense has called a play where all the receivers are running verticals, Mincey can make the same play and it would probably result in a sack or hit. Exact same play by the defense, completely different outcome depending on the offensive play call. Now I'm not saying that sacks aren't important, just that getting them is not necessarily a good indicator of how well the defense is playing.

So if sacks aren't a good indicator of pressure, what is? As OCC pointed out, the Cowboys coaching staff tracks three main plays; hits, hurries, and sacks to track pressure. I call this total disruptions and here is how the Cowboys have looked so far this season:

Opponent Hits Hurries Sacks Total Disruptions
49ers 5 4 1 10
Titans 2 14 3 19
Rams 7 13 0 20
Saints 3 15 2 20
Texans 6 6 0 12
Seahawks 4 17 2 25
Giants 3 7 0 10
TOTALS 30 76 8 114

A few things stand out: Seattle was our best game of the season by far, but the very next game against the Giants was our worst since opening week.

Now those numbers don't tell us anything in a vacuum so let's look at another team. Below are the rankings for the Houston Texans, home of MVP candidate and quarterback killer J.J. Watt:

Opponent Hits Hurries Sacks Total Disruptions
Redskins 12 12 3 27
Raiders 6 14 0 20
Giants 0 3 1 4
Bills 14 14 3 31
Cowboys 5 9 1 15
Colts 5 17 3 25
Steelers 4 10 3 17
TOTALS 46 79 14 139

So a quick glance at the numbers tells us a few things. Houston has 25 more total disruptions than we do, or about 3.5 per game. We're getting a similar amount of hurries, but they are getting home more often, racking up a lot more hits and sacks. A lot of that can be attributed to having the best defensive lineman in the game playing for you; anyone else think Watt is worth 3.5 more pressure plays than the combination of Selvie and Spencer?

So why did I pick Houston to compare to? A few reasons. Looking at PFF team grades for pressure, Houston has the fourth-highest pass rush grade. Guess whose number five? The Dallas Cowboys. I also like pointing out that Houston's second-worst pressure game came against Dallas. Most importantly though, is the fact that both Houston and Dallas had their worst pressure game against Eli Manning and the Giants.

The Giants Game And How Playcalling Affects Pressure

Eli Manning had the ball in his hand for 85 seconds on pass plays against Dallas. 85 seconds. Not quite a minute and a half of real time; that's how long our defense had throughout the game to hit Eli Manning. The Giants threw the ball 36 times, meaning that in general the ball left Eli's hand in 2.36 seconds.

Remember that number from earlier? If not, don't worry, it was 2.7. That is the average time it takes for a quarterback to throw the ball. That's one reason the Cowboys had so little pressure on the Giants; they obviously came into the game with a plan to get rid of the ball quickly. After their seven-sack debacle against the Eagles, who can blame them? But in reality, that Eagles game was an aberration, as shown by Houston's game against the Giants. This offseason New York moved to a West Coast system, predicated on high completion percentages and getting the ball out quickly. The result of that? Fewer pressures on your quarterback.

There was more to Dallas's lack of pressure however. When Eli did throw he was in the shotgun or ran a play-fake on nearly every play. The Giants were running bootlegs, moving Eli in the pocket, and generally doing everything they could to disrupt Dallas's pass rush.

How Dallas's Pass Rush Works

One reason a lot of people are down on Dallas's pass rush is that it's not being done in the traditional way. We rely a lot on our back seven to pressure the quarterback. Take a glance at the following table:

Pressure From Back Seven
Opponent Total Rushes Sacks Hits Hurries
San Francisco 16 1 2 0
Tennessee 18 2 1 4
St. Louis 20 0 4 1
New Orleans 12 0 0 4
Houston 15 0 1 2
Seattle 12 0 0 1
New York 14 0 0 1

I'm not sure how this compares to the rest of the league, but I know that for Rod Marinelli this is a lot of pressure coming off the back end. Looking at the table a trend emerges; after the New Orleans game both the quantity and the quality of rushes from the back seven drops. Not coincidentally this is when the Cowboys lost Bruce Carter to injury.

Bruce Carter: Defensive Lynchpin

I wrote before the season that Carter should be an impact player, able to cover, tackle sideline to sideline, and rush the passer. We're missing that versatility right now. Having Carter in the lineup gave the defense much more flexibility, as he could rush, cover, and play the run effectively. Rolando McClain is showing similar traits, but unfortunately none of our other linebackers are. If we decide to blitz a secondary player or McClain, that is putting a lot of stress on the remaining linebacker in coverage; one reason I think we have effectively replaced Anthony Hitchens with Kyle Wilber. With Carter in the lineup, the coaches felt secure in sending that extra rusher, knowing that between Carter and McClain there was enough speed and ability on the field to pick up the slack.

Back 7 Rush Production Per Game
With Carter Without Carter
Total Rushes 16.5 13.7
Hurries 2.25 2.33
Hits 1.75 0.67
Sacks 0.75 - -

What It All Means:

There are a few takeaways from all this. First and foremost, while sacks are important, and the best form of pressure, they are not a good stat for actually describing how well the defense is applying pressure. Secondly, the Giants game is probably an outlier in regards to the season. We were up against an opponent who plays a style of offense conducive to not getting sacked, coming off an embarrassing loss, whose entire gameplan appeared to be geared towards not allowing any sacks.

Most importantly however, this tells us a little about the Cowboys. Right now we are doing a good job of applying pressure, but are not getting the best kind of pressure (sacks). A lot of our pressure is coming off of smoke and mirrors, roughly 25% of our total disruptions have come from the back seven. And right now we're struggling because of the loss of Bruce Carter, who schematically makes a lot of our pressure packages possible.

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