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Sack Differential: How The Cowboys Have Turned Their Pass Rush Into An Asset

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We all know how dismal the Dallas pass rush has been, right? Well, maybe that isn’t exactly true.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Cleveland Browns
Making the most of things.
Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

It has been very hard to find any negatives about the 2016 season for the Dallas Cowboys. The offense has been superb most of the time, rattling off six 400-yard games in a row with Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott getting well-deserved recognition for what they have brought to the team. They have been led by an outstanding offensive line. Meanwhile, as the offense has been doing a nice job of scoring points, now averaging 27.9 per game, the defense has been much stingier than we could have imagined, yielding only 17.5 points per contest. That 10 point differential is a large part of the stunning 7-1 record to start the season.

But one thing that continues to be a concern is the anemic pass rush. The Cowboys just continue to have trouble getting to the quarterback with any consistency. This is seen as the biggest unsolved issue for the team. The fact that Dallas is doing so well in so many other ways is masking that, but it is still lurking out there, threatening to become a problem down the road, especially in the playoffs.

Except for one thing. It may not be a problem at all.

How can I say that? Well, a couple of things. First off, look at where the Cowboys stand in the NFL right now in sacks. We all know they are at the absolute bottom of the league. Right?

Well, would it surprise you to know that with 18 sacks so far they are tied for 15th in the league? That’s right, only 14 teams have more sacks than the Cowboys, putting them very much in the middle of the pack, not limping along at the tail end. And that is with some teams ahead of them having played one more game. That puts them on a pace for 36 sacks on the season, and the trend is upwards. After only getting six sacks the first four games, they doubled that in last four, including four sacks each against the Bengals and Browns, and three against the Eagles.

However, the sacks a team gets may be only half the story. Sacks are one of the three impact plays defenses can get, along with turnovers and tackles for a loss. All three contribute to getting the ball back for the offense, with turnovers of course getting it done immediately. But sacks are generally seen as more significant than tackles for a loss. That is somewhat erroneous, because the impact of the two depends more on the down and distance. TFLs often happen on first and ten, or second down, while sacks tend to happen more on third and long, which results in a punt or field goal attempt the next play. A tackle for a loss can be just as important, as was the six yards Sean Lee cost the Eagles during the comeback, putting them (in the mind of Doug Pederson, anyway) out of field goal range. But those don’t happen nearly as frequently as sacks on third down, so sacks do have the advantage of being more productive from a defensive standpoint. TFLs on first or second down can be overcome, and often are. Getting to the quarterback on third down takes that out of the equation.

But with turnovers, differential is much more important than the raw number. If you give up the ball twice in a game, but take it away four times, you are likely to win because you have a positive turnover differential of +2. Everyone gets that. What if the same things work for sacks? In other words, if your offense gives up two sacks, but your defense gets four, you have an advantage that can be important in who wins the game.

And guess who is tied for the NFL lead in least sacks given up? Your Dallas Cowboys, with only 11 sacks surrendered this season. That is a plus seven sack differential. It goes to the value of that offensive line, plus the mobility and awareness of Prescott. They avoid getting sacked, which keeps the team out of bad situations, and makes it easier for the defense to give them an advantage by getting more sacks than the opponent.

This does not make raw numbers of sacks unimportant, and the idea of getting more help there for next season is certainly still a great one. But it makes what the Cowboys have done so far functional. They are not tearing up the league the way sack leaders like the Broncos and Bills are, but they are not being hurt by sacks, either, making the ones they get have more impact. And as mentioned, they seem to be finding more ways to get to the quarterback. With the widespread deficiencies in offensive lines in so much of the NFL, they may be able to continue the trend and help themselves more in this department. (And while Denver is still very much in the playoff hunt in the very tough AFC West, Buffalo is only at 4-5 after losing the Monday night game against the Seahawks and fighting to make it back into contention.)

It also should be noted that the next game for the Cowboys is against the Pittsburgh Steelers, who just lost their starting center, Maurkice Pouncey, for most of their recent loss. In the Browns game, their starting center, Cameron Erving, was ejected along with David Irving after a stupid fight. That turned out to be a net gain for Dallas, and likely contributed to Maliek Collins getting his first two sacks on the year. Pouncey’s status for Sunday is still to be determined, but that injury can’t help, and his backup just went on IR. It could be very important, in a good way for the Cowboys.

Just as the trend in getting sacks for Dallas is going the right way, they are also doing well in sacks allowed. Only once, in the second game against Washington, did they surrender four sacks. Otherwise, Prescott has been sacked twice in three games, once in one other game, and has not been sacked at all three times. Meanwhile, Dallas has yet to have a game without getting credited for at least one sack.

This is another area where consistency and steady improvement are just as important as big splashes. It also reflects how much of the time the Cowboys are playing with a lead and the opponent is having to abandon the run to try and catch up, which sets the table for those multi-sack games such as they had against the Bengals and Browns. Four sacks is a good number in almost any game, and if they can do that in many of the remaining contests, that rate of getting to the quarterback will contribute to more wins.

This defense has snuck up on people, and this is one area where they have been completely under the radar. At this stage of the season, that sack differential has been a positive for Dallas, which is hardly what many perceive. It is just one more way this Cowboys team has surprised the league. Now, of course, everyone knows just how good they are. Hopefully, they will just get better.

Follow me @TomRyleBTB