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Can Cowboys pass rush continue to be disruptive against the Texans?

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At the quarter mark of the season, the Cowboys’ pass rush is better than many people are willing to acknowledge.

NFL: Detroit Lions at Dallas Cowboys Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

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 so far this year is 2.5 sacks per game). Yet a typical NFL game consists of about 64 defensive snaps. How can you use three to four plays in a 64-play game to make a definitive statement about the other 60-61 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 four games, the Cowboys have recorded 14 sacks, which makes them the third-best team in the league. Going by sacks alone, the Cowboys have a top pass rush, no question.

But 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 2018 defense with 42 QB pressures in addition to the 14 sacks over the first four games. Here’s how that number compares versus the last 11 seasons:

Season Games Sacks Pressures Sacks/game Pressures/game
2018 4 14 42 3.5 10.5
2017 16 38 197 2.4 12.3
2016 16 35 139 2.2 8.7
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 sacks per game, the 2018 pass rush has the second-best number of the last 12 years, second only to the 2008 team that notched a league-high 59 sacks. If the 2018 team maintains its current sack rate, it will end up with 56 sacks this year. And that’s impressive any way you look at it.

In terms of pressures, the 2018 team “only” ranks fourth among the 12 seasons ranked above. But that’s still pretty good, and an indication that the Cowboys pass rush is as good as the sack numbers suggest.

By coincidence (and certainly not by design) Football Outsiders also list the Cowboys defense with 42 QB pressures. But they use a different definition of pressures than the Cowboys do, as the following table illustrates.

QB Pressures Cowboys coaching film Football Outsiders
Demarcus Lawrence 8 12
Tyrone Crawford 7 8
Jaylon Smith 5 3
Dorance Armstrong 4 3
Taco Charlton 3 6
All others 15 10
TOTAL 42 42

Which just goes to show why pressures are not an official stat; everybody defines the stat differently. ESPN even introduced the newest metric just this week, “Pass Rush Win Rate”, which shows how often a pass-rusher is able to beat his block within 2.5 seconds.

Be that as it may, Football Outsiders offer one advantage the Cowboys numbers don’t, which is that they apply their method to all 32 teams, thus making teams comparable. According to their numbers, the Cowboys have a pressure rate of 35.9%, which is just a pressure or two away from being the best value in the league. Here are the top five teams in terms of QB pressures rate according to Football Outsiders:

  1. LA Rams: 36.1%
  2. LA Chargers: 36.0%
  3. Dallas: 35.9%
  4. New England: 34.2%
  5. Green Bay: 33.3%

Interestingly, FO have the vaunted Houston pass rushers ranked just 31st in the league with a pressure rate of merely 19.8%. Here’s how the two teams compare in terms of pressure rates on offense and defense over the last four weeks.

QB Pressure rates, 2018
Dallas Cowboys Houston Texans
Offense (Pressure rate allowed) 33.6% (27th) 38.0% (32nd)
Defense (Pressure rate generated) 35.9% (3rd) 19.8% (31st)
Pressure rate differential +2.3% (11th) -18.2% (32nd)

The Cowboys O-line was named the “Offensive Line of the Week” for Week 4, but that can’t mask the fact that they had a tough time getting up to speed in their first three games of the season.

Cowboys fans will be hoping for a repeat of the Week 4 performance against the Lions from their O-line and D-line, just as Texans fans will hope that their O-line and D-line will finally be up to speed against the Cowboys.

But with the numbers above being what they are, odds are that winning in the trenches will be the key to the outcome of the game.