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How Disruptive Is The Dallas Cowboys Pass Rush?

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Going by sacks alone, the Cowboys have an anemic pass rush, but the Cowboys get much more pressure on the QB than their sack totals would suggest.

Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

Traditionally, the success of a team's pass rush is measured in sacks. Lots of sacks = good pass rush; not a lot of sacks = bad pass rush. But a sack is not the only way to get pressure on the quarterback, and a sack is not the only way to measure pass rushing performance.

Consider that good team gets about three to four sacks per game (the NFL average this year is 2.2 sacks per game). Yet a typical NFL game consists of about 63 defensive snaps. How can you use three to four plays in a 63-play game to make a definitive statement about the the other 59-60 plays?

Today, we'll start a little series of posts that look a little deeper at the Cowboys' pass rush beyond just the number of sacks. We'll start in this post with a general overview of where the Cowboys' pass rush ranks relative to the other teams in the NFL, and in subsequent posts we'll go through some individual position groups.

But since sacks are still the pass rusher's currency of choice, let's start by having a look at the Cowboys' sack totals. Over ten games, the Cowboys have recorded 16 sacks, which ranks them 28th in the league. Going by sacks alone, the Cowboys have an anemic pass rush.

Cowboys Sack Count by Week
49ers
Titans Rams Saints Texans Seahawks Giants Redskins Cardinals Jaguars
Sacks 1 2 0 2 0 2 0 3 2 4

If you're looking for some reasons for optimism, you may find it in the weekly sack totals above. After averaging just one sack per game over the first seven games, the Cowboys have been averaging three per game over the last three games. Whether the last three weeks are just a random spike or the start of a trend remains to be seen, but we wanted to look beyond sacks anyway.

Considering the limited time the ball is in the quarterback's hands in today's offenses, just penetrating the pocket and pressuring the QB to throw early must also be considered a success for the pass rush. So to get a better feel for the overall effectiveness of the pass rush, you’ve got to measure a defense’s overall ability to pressure the quarterback, and in addition to sacks, you need to look at QB hits and QB pressures as well.

But before we go there, a couple of words on the stats we're about to use. QB hits and QB pressures are unofficial stats. QB hits are tracked in the individual NFL gamebooks but are not officially tallied, pressures aren't tracked by the NFL's official scorekeepers at all. Most teams do keep their own count of QB pressures, but each team uses a slightly different definition.

The Cowboys also track sacks, hits and pressures as linebacker coach Mat Eberflus pointed out two years ago when he talked about Anthony Spencer:

Linebackers coach Matt Eberflus points out that Spencer was fourth in the league in sacks (6), pressures (31) and hits (9), though pressures and hits are unofficial stats.

Those numbers are remarkably close to the numbers shown by Pro Football Focus (PFF), who saw Spencer with 6 sacks, 35 QB pressures, and 9 QB Hits. That's only four pressures more than the team recorded, which is close enough to the numbers the Cowboys use to make me feel very confident about the PFF numbers, which is why we'll use those numbers for this post. And just so we're all on the same page, here's how all three PFF stats are defined:

QB Sack: A QB is tackled for a loss or no gain before he can throw a pass or while in the pocket. PFF award either one sack or no sack, but do not count half sacks, so their sack totals can differ slightly from the official numbers

QB Hit: A hit is when a QB is knocked down but not sacked

QB Pressure: A pressure is when a QB is forced to move in the pocket in some other way than simply stepping up in the pocket to throw.

By PFF's tally, the 2014 Cowboys have totaled 19 sacks, 40 QB hits and 107 QB pressures, all of which you can aggregate into one single number: QB Disruption Points aggregates sacks, hits and pressures, but weights sacks a little more. It is calculated as Sacks + (Hits * 0.75) + (Pressures * 0.75). Using the 10-game totals for the 2014 Cowboys, the Cowboys defense has 129.3 QB Disruption points over 10 games this season, or 12.9 per game. Here's how that number compares to previous years.

Cowboys QB disruptions, 2011-2014
QB Disruptions per game 2011 2012 2013 2014
First 10 games
13.5 11.6 14.7 12.9
Last six games
15.0 10.9 9.8 tbd.

Overall, as measured by QB Disruption Points, the 2014 Cowboys are roughly in line with the 2011 team, ahead of the 2012 team and behind the 2013 team. And while the number is not particularly high, it has helped carry the Cowboys to a 7-3 record.

But what's really interesting about the previous years is to see how the 2012 and 2013 teams ran out of steam over the final six games of the season. How that will play out for the 2014 team remains to be seen, but the improving health of the defensive line should bode well for the final six games, as should the trend of the last three games.

With their 12.9 QB Disruption Points per game, the Cowboys rank 14th in the league, which is quite a bit higher than where they are ranked by their raw sack total.

Rank Team QBDP Rank Team QBDP Rank Team QBDP
1 DEN 16.85 12 NO 13.38 23 CIN 12.43
2 PHI 16.45 13 KC 13.33 24 NYJ 12.18
3 MIA 16.13 14 DAL 12.93 25 SEA 12.13
4 DET 15.90 15 STL 12.93 26 CHI 11.95
5 BUF 15.80 16 PIT 12.91 27 ATL 11.85
6 HOU 15.35 17 ARI 12.90 28 CAR 11.82
7 BAL 14.93 18 NE 12.80 29 OAK 11.50
8 WAS 14.60 19 TB 12.78 30 IND 11.35
9 GB 14.48 20 TEN 12.70 31 CLE 10.93
10 MIN 14.13 21 SF 12.65 32 JAC 10.28
11 NYG 13.95 22 SD 12.63

The Cowboys are ranked in the middle of the league among a group of teams ranked 14th-17th, all with nearly identical numbers. The Cowboys do not have a great pass rush, but they are also far from being the bottom-dweller their sack numbers suggest they are. But having an average pass rush is already a significant win for the Cowboys, who were widely expected to have one of the worst defensive lines in the league.

Another thing to consider when you look at the table above is that the numbers are simple volume stats, meaning they do not take into account how often a given defense rushed the passer. You may think this is a trivial distinction, but I assure you, it is not. Take the Cowboys for example. ProFootballReference.com (PFR) shows the Cowboys with 591 defensive snaps so far in 2014, the lowest total in the league, while the Bengals have the highest total in the league with 717 defensive snaps. PFF adds a further filter to these numbers by looking not just at team snaps but at individual snaps, and divides those into pass rush snaps, pass coverage snaps, and run defense snaps for each player. According to this metric, the Cowboys defenders rushed the passer on 1,597 individual defensive snaps, the second-lowest total in the league behind the Seahawks, who have 1,588 individual pass rush snaps. Denver leads all teams with 2,072 pass rush snaps, followed by the Eagles with 1,981.

Because of the disparity in the number of defensive snaps on which the defense actually rushed the passer, you need to adjust the total QB Disruptions by the amount of pass rush snaps per team to get a better feel for how disruptive a defense is.

If you divide the QB Disruption points by the number pass rush snaps, you get a percentage called Pass Rush Productivity. For the Cowboys, that number is 8.1% (129.3 / 1,597). The Pass Rush Productivity value tells you how efficient a team was at turning its pass rushes into quarterback disruptions. The table below summarizes the Pass Rush Productivity (PRP) for all 32 teams:

Rank Team PRP
Rank Team PRP
Rank Team PRP
1 DET 9.0% 12 HOU 7.9% 23 NE 7.2%
2 MIA 8.8% 13 PIT 7.8% 24 TB 7.1%
3 NYG 8.6% 14 GB 7.7% 25 OAK 7.0%
4 BUF 8.4% 15 SEA 7.6% 26 CAR 6.8%
5 WAS 8.4% 16 SF 7.4% 27 ATL 6.7%
6 PHI 8.3% 17 SD 7.4% 28 ARI 6.6%
7 BAL 8.3% 18 NO 7.4% 29 CIN 6.4%
8 DEN 8.1% 19 NYJ 7.3% 30 CLE 6.2%
9 DAL 8.1% 20 CHI 7.3% 31 IND 6.1%
10 KC 8.0% 21 TEN 7.3% 32 JAC 6.0%
11 MIN 8.0% 22 STL 7.3%

The are a few interesting changes when looking at the data this way. Denver drops from the top spot to number eight. The Broncos get to the QB a lot because they rush the QB more than any other team, not because they are more effective than other teams.

The Cowboys move up five spots in this ranking and find themselves among the top ten most effective pass rushing teams, quite a feat for a defense that's only ranked 28th in total sacks.

There is some disappointment with the Cowboys' pass rush, despite its lackluster pedigree, but that disappointment is largely unfounded. To answer the question in the title of this post: The Cowboys defense ranks as one of the top ten most disruptive teams in the league. They may not have the sack totals to show for it (yet), but they are getting a good level of pressure regardless.

In the next post, we'll look at how the defensive ends and defensive tackles contribute to these results and where that ranks them relative to their NFL peers.