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Mailbag: How Disruptive Is The Dallas Cowboys Pass Rush?

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Halfway into the season, is the Cowboys' pass rush better than expected or just as bad as we feared?

Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, one of our readers submitted the following question:

"If pressures are a better indicator of a D-line's success, is there a way to collect and analyze the D-line from the last 6-7 years to provide a better understanding of how good they really may be?"

Few elements of the Cowboys' game have received as much criticism and at times downright ridicule as the Cowboys' pass rush, especially during the offseason. And frankly, it didn't get much better from there on out. The Cowboys' two presumptive starters at defensive end, Demarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory, were suspended for four and 14 games respectively, leaving a motley crew of defensive linemen (optimistically billed as a "rotation") to get after the passer. Look at the Cowboys four sack leaders (from coaching film):

3.5 sacks: Tyrone Crawford, a defensive tackle who's been moonlighting at defensive end.
2.0 sacks: Maliek Collins, the rookie defensive tackle who got to the QB twice against the Browns.
2.0 sacks: Orlando Scandrick, a corner who sat out half the games this season.
2.0 sacks: Benson Mayowa, the only defensive end in this group.

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 other 59-60 plays?

Which is why today we'll look at pressures as an additional metric with which to evaluate the Cowboys pass rush. 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 eight games, the Cowboys have recorded 18 sacks, which ties them for 15th in the league. Going by sacks alone, the Cowboys have a league average pass rush, nothing more, nothing less. But does give the Cowboys a little more bang for the buck than many other teams are getting from their much more expensive D-lines:

D-line cap

With 18 sacks so far, they have one sack less than the league's most expensive line in Miami, and more than the Jaguars (15) or Giants (11) who round out the three most expensive units in the league. The Cowboys are on pace for 36 sacks on the year, which would be their highest total since 2011. Perhaps not something to write home about, but much more than many people expected. 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 pressures as well.

Unfortunately, QB pressures aren't tracked by the NFL's official scorekeepers. Most teams keep their own count of QB pressures, but each team uses a slightly different definition for what a pressure is, so we can't compare the Cowboys' stats with other teams. But we can still get a good feeling for how good this year's pass rush is by comparing it to previous Cowboys teams.

The Cowboys' internal numbers (based on coaching film) show the 2016 defense with 62 QB pressures in addition to the 18 sacks over the first eight games. Here's how that number compares across the last ten seasons:

Season
Games Sacks Pressures
Sacks/game Pressures/game
2016 8 18 62 2.3 7.8
2015 16 31 189 1.9 11.8
2014 16 28 165 1.8 10.3
2013 16 34 154 2.1 9.6
2012 16 34 133 2.1 8.3
2011 16 42 140 2.6 8.8
2010 16 35 102 2.2 6.4
2009 16 42 236 2.6 14.8
2008 16 59 158 3.7 9.9
2007 16 46 101 2.9 6.3

Overall, in terms of sack per game, the 2016 pass rush has the fifth-best number of the last 10 years. Nowhere close to the best but still a little better than in recent years. But in terms of pressures, the 2016 team only ranks eighth among the 10 seasons ranked above. That's not very good, and an indication that the Cowboys pass rush is not quite as good as the sack numbers suggest.

Then again, having something approaching 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. But that doesn't mean that everything is just hunky dory. A look at the players leading the team in QB pressures over the last 10 years is pretty instructive as to what the issue is for the 2016 Cowboys.

Season
Total Pressures Rusher #1 Pressures Rusher #2 Pressures Combined % of Total
2016 62 T.Crawford 8 J. Crawford 8 26%
2015 189 Hardy 32 Lawrence 31 33%
2014 165 Mincey 39 T. Crawford 29 41%
2013 154 Ware 35 Hatcher 33 44%
2012 133 Ware 33 Spencer 26 44%
2011 140 Ware 40 Spencer 31 51%
2010 102 Ware 36 Spencer 14 49%
2009 236 Ware 45 Spencer 36 34%
2008 158 Ratliff 31 Ware 20 32%
2007 101 Ware 27 Ellis 13 40%

On average, the Cowboys top two pass rushers over the last 10 years accounted for about 40% of the total QB pressures. And most years, the two best pass rushers were edge players (marked in green), and occasionally an interior lineman (yellow) would rank as one of the top two pressure guys.

In 2016, two interior guys (even if T. Crawford is playing outside for now) are leading the team in pressures, and are combining for the lowest total of the last ten years. And that, in a nutshell, is the issue with this year's pass rush, there's simply not enough production from the outside.

To answer the question at the top of this post: Pressures (in combination with sacks) do indeed provide a better metric for measuring the performance of a pass rush. Unfortunately, the numbers don't paint a flattering picture for the Cowboys - so far. As Demarcus Lawrence rounds into form (he currently has three pressures), he should provide more pressure off the edge, perhaps even freeing up other linemen to get more pressures.

Still, as the playoffs become a more realistic possibility with every additional win, the Cowboys will have to figure out a way to generate more pressure on the passer. Or that the postseason may be a lot shorter than we all hope it will be.