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Can The 2015 Cowboys Pass Rush Make A Late-Season Push?

Going by sacks alone, the Cowboys have an anemic pass rush, but can the team get more pressure on the QB in the remaining seven games?

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Going into the season, expectations for the Cowboys' pass rush were sky high. The Cowboys had signed the top free agent pass rusher in Greg Hardy, walked out of the draft with arguably the best pass rusher available in Randy Gregory, and were expecting big things from DeMarcus Lawrence, who had come on strong at the end of the 2014 season. Tyrone Crawford had received a hefty contract extension and even Jeremy Mincey was given a bit of a raise.

Many Cowboys fans and observers alike were expecting big things from the pass rush under the tutelage of Rod Marinelli in 2015, and a lot of the disappointment in the pass rush this season may be the result of extremely high (and maybe unrealistic) expectations. After all, the 16 sacks the Cowboys have collected so far this season rank the team just 22nd in the league.

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 2.3 sacks per game). Yet a typical NFL game consists of about 63 defensive snaps. How can you use two to three plays in a 63-play game to make a definitive statement about the the other 60-61 plays?

Today, we'll look a little deeper at the Cowboys' pass rush beyond just the number of sacks. But since sacks are still the pass rusher's currency of choice, let's start by having a look at the Cowboys' sack totals.

Cowboys Sack Count by Week
Giants Eagles Falcons Saints Patriots Giants Seahawks Eagles Buccaneers
Sacks 1 1 1 3 5 2 0 1 2

Going by sacks alone, the Cowboys have an anemic pass rush, and only lived up to the high expectations in the first half of the Patriots game. And outside of that three-game stretch in the middle of the nine games above, the Cowboys have averaged just one sack per game in their first three games and one sack per game in their last three games. Not a great situation by anyone's reckoning.

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 a few years back, and while they don't publish all their numbers, they do publish some:

Through eight games, the Cowboys list 14 sacks, the same number shown by  Pro Football Focus (PFF). The Cowboys show only one number for QB pressures (114 through nine games), while PFF separates those pressures into hits (33) and hurries (91) for a total of 123 pressures. That's a little more than the team recorded, but close enough to make me feel 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 Hurries: A hurry 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 2015 Cowboys have totaled 16 sacks, 33 QB hits and 91 QB pressures over nine games, 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 nine-game totals for the 2015 Cowboys, the Cowboys defense has 109 QB Disruption points over nine games this season, or 12.1 per game. Here's how that number compares to previous years.

Cowboys QB disruptions, 2011-2014
QB Disruptions per game 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015
First 9 games
13.2 11.8 15.6 12.6 12.1
Last 7 games
15.1 10.7 9.3 12.0 - -

Overall, as measured by QB Disruption Points, the 2015 Cowboys are marginally behind the 2014 team (which had a 6-3 record after nine games) and roughly in line with the averages of the last five years, with the notable exception of 2013, where the pass rush had its highest points total of the last five years.

To put that number in perspective, here's how the Cowboys rank relative to the other 31 NFL teams through Week 10.

Rank Team QBDP
Rank Team QBDP
Rank Team QBDP
1 DEN 18.4
12 DET 14.4
23 HOU 12.5
2 NYJ 18.2
13 ARI 14.3
24 BUF 12.1
3 CAR 17.4
14 PHI 14.2
25 DAL 12.1
4 MIN 16.6
15 SF 14.2
26 WAS 12.1
5 NE 16.6
16 CHI 14.1
27 NO 12.0
6 GB 16.6
17 OAK 14.0
28 SD 11.4
7 SEA 16.5
18 BAL 13.9
29 TB 11.4
8 KC 15.9
19 MIA 13.9
30 JAC 10.8
9 CIN 15.8
20 IND 13.8
31 ATL 10.7
10 STL 15.3
21 NYG 13.0
32 CLE 10.4
11 PIT 14.7
22 TEN 12.9

With their 12.0 QB Disruption Points per game over nine games, the Cowboys rank 25th in the league, which is pretty much in line with where they are ranked by their raw sack total (22nd).

An argument could be made that the Cowboys haven't rushed the passer all that that much, and there's some validity to that. The Cowboys defense has only been on the field for 303 pass attempts so far (ranked 24th in the league), and PFF shows them with a total of 1,439 combined pass rushing snaps (ranked 29th).

If we adjust the QB Disruption points for the number of pass rushing snaps, the Cowboys move from 25th to 17th, which isn't exactly something to write home about, but makes them an average unit and not the bottom 10 unit the sack total suggests they are. That may not be much of a consolation for Cowboys fans, but it's better than nothing.

Where all the data gets a little more interesting is if we look at season splits. Note that in the initial QB Disruption Points table above, there was no late-season push from the pass rush outside of the 2011 season. In fact, the last seven games of the season even saw a decline in QB disruptions in each of the last three years. And that might be something that could change this year. The table below splits the current Cowboys season in half, the first four games without Greg Hardy and the last five games with Hardy.

The Greg Hardy effect: Cowboys QB disruptions 2015
QB Disruptions per game Sacks Hits Hurries QB Disruption pts per game
Games 1-4 (without Hardy)
6 10 36 10.1
Games 5-9 (with Hardy)
10 22 55 13.6

Since Greg Hardy joined the team in Week 5, the pass rush has seen an uptick of production. It's still nowhere close to the preseason expectations, but the 13.6 points per game are something that could bode well for the rest of the Cowboys' season.

If the Cowboys had played at that level over all nine games, they'd rank 21st overall instead of the 25th spot they are currently at, which doesn't seem like much of an improvement. But if we adjust the 13.6 points per game for the number of pass rush snaps the Cowboys played, they jump to the eighth overall spot. And that's got to give the Cowboys some optimism for the remaining seven games.

We're not going to kid ourselves, the Cowboys pass rush has had some issues this season. But a part of the low production numbers are a result of a low number of pass rush opportunities. Of late though, the pass rush has played better, even if that's not (yet) something you can measure by the amount of sacks per game. But in terms of being disruptive, the pass rush of the last few weeks has played like a top ten unit, quite a feat for a defense that's only ranked 22nd in total sacks. They may not have the sack totals to show for it, but they are getting a good level of pressure regardless.

To answer the question in the title of this post: The Cowboys pass rush has shown that it can be one of the top ten most disruptive units in the league. And with the defensive linemen rounding into shape, there's reason to believe they can make a late-season push.

The sacks will follow. Maybe as early as the Miami game.

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