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Cowboys D-Line Questions, Part I: How Will The Three-Technique Rotation Play Out?

With the news that Tyrone Crawford will primarily play three-technique defensive tackle in 2014, thus sharing the position with Henry Melton, its important to ask: what is the optimal scenario?

Might it not make sense for Tyrone Crawford to start at "under" tackle?
Might it not make sense for Tyrone Crawford to start at "under" tackle?
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

One of the articles highlighted by O.C.C. in this morning's news post answered a question that the Cowboys coaching staff had apparently been waiting to answer until after the draft: will third-year defensive lineman Tyrone Crawford play inside, as a defensive tackle, or outside, as as the strongside, or closed, defensive end. As the inimitable Cool put it:

Rod Marinelli said Crawford has gotten bigger and stronger, which is one reason why the Cowboys have moved the third-year veteran to the 3-technique spot, where he and Henry Melton will alternate as the disruptive force that is so critical to the Tampa Two scheme.

Our first assumption after reading this would be that Crawford will serve as Melton's backup, spelling the former Bear so that Melton is rested late in games, when his skills are needed most. This may indeed prove to be the case. Today, however, I would like to entertain another scenario, one which depends on the question: which of two thumbnail defensive tackle profiles is more important?

To begin, let's examine the two profiles to which I refer. Since we are well into baseball season, please allow me to borrow from the National Pastime's established terminology:

The starter: This guy is probably the better run defender, with the capability to give a team a little pass rush should the opposing offense opt to pass on first or second down, or should the defense force a "passing" down and distance on second down. He is often the better or more highly-paid player, in no small part because he is more durable, or at least able to log more snaps than his backup without wearing down or compromising his performance.

The reliever: The guy who spells the starter. He isn't capable of playing as many plays as the starter, but often offers more "juice" during the plays he is in the game. This player is often a pass-rush specialist who might be a liability against the run. Since he plays largely, if not exclusively, on passing downs, it doesn't really matter, since his use helps to cover for this weakness.

Think back to 2009, when the Cowboys last had a viable and reasonably well-defined defensive line rotation. Players like Marcus Spears and Igor Olshansky functioned as the starting pitchers who would play stoutly on running downs and often give way to relief men in Stephen Bowen and Jason Hatcher. Neither Bowen nor Hatcher, it was thought, could hold up as three-down 5-technique defensive ends, but both were very good pass rushers, especially when the team went to a four-man line in nickle situations.

The statistics bear this out. Here's a wee handy chart showing how many snaps each man had, along with his number of sacks, quarterback hits and QB hurries:

Player Snaps Sacks QB Hits QB Hurries
Olshansky 642 1.5 4 13
Spears 528 2.5 6 10
Bowen 484 3 7 17
Hatcher 391 1 5 17

In far fewer snaps, Bowen, and to a lesser degree Hatcher, had more production. To compare their respective seasons, we can develop a "per snap" production ratio. I've crafted one that, as you can see, values sacks more than hits on the quarterback, and QB hits more than hurries. Here it is:

[(3x)SACKS + (2x)QB HITS + QB HURRIES] / TOTAL SNAPS = PRODUCTION RATIO

With this as the model, our four D-linemen had production ratios as follows:

Bowen: .826
Hatcher: .767
Spears: .559
Olshansky: .397

Using this or any other model that values pass rushing over run-stuffing, our "relievers," Hatcher and Bowen, would prove to be the more productive players. This was also the case in the bang-bang 90s, when the starting defensive tackles, Russell Maryland and Tony Casillas, gave way to a bullpen featuring Leon Lett and Jimmie Jones (and, in 1994 and '95, when Lett became a starter, Chad Henning), players who regularly outstripped them in pass rush statistics. In all four seasons from 1992-'95, the backup defensive tackles equaled or bettered the starters' sack totals, in fewer snaps (backups 25.5 sacks; starters 22).

Which brings me to the question with which I began: which of the two thumbnail defensive tackle profiles is more important? In today's increasingly pass-oriented NFL, is it better to receive excellent play from the starters or the proverbial relievers? For me, this is an easy one: I'll happily accept decent play from my first- and second-down guy and superb play from my third-down/ nickle player. In short, I'll take solid starters if I know I can have an ace closer - a guy who can produce on the "money down" like Leon Lett, Jimmie Jones or Stephen Bowen

Which brings me to the current iteration of the Cowboys. Rod Marinelli has said that Crawford will rotate with Melton at the three-technique position. If we can accept that its more valuable to a defensive line rotation to have the better player (or, at least, the better pass rusher) in the reliever's position, then might it not make sense for Crawford to start and Melton to play the Jimmie Jones role as the hair-on-fire pass rusher?

Think about it: which of the two players would you rather have come into the fourth quarter of a late December division game, fresh as a daisy, to get after the quarterback on a critical third down? For my money, that guy is Melton.