Thursday, December 15, 2011

Where (Ware) are the Sacks?

The Cowboys defense has been heavy under the microscope this week after surrendering 400 yards passing, 510 yards in total offense, and 37 points in the home loss to the Giants on the weekend. Rob Ryan's credentials have been examined closer and the defense in general has been targeted for ridicule for their inability to come close to sacking Eli Manning.

The best way to stop an aerial show in the NFL is to apply pressure to the QB. When you cannot get to him in a reasonable amount of time, he is able to then get comfortable, go through his read progressions, and then make an easy throw to his intended target. The QBs at this level are too good to allow that to happen. Yet, again, the Cowboys did just that.

So, over the last several days, I have been asked to break down the pass rush of the Cowboys by the numbers and attempt to figure out how the Giants are doing this, and who on the Cowboys we should be asking much more of.

First, I believe it should all be heading of how good Eli Manning played in this game from an intelligence standpoint. His ability and maturity as a QB has really progressed over the last few seasons, and as critical as I have been of him over the years, I leave this evaluation very impressed by Manning. Rob Ryan threw a ton of things in his direction and was unable to rattle him. In 2008, Eli Manning was sacked 8 times in his final visit to Texas Stadium (the biggest sack performance by a Cowboys defense since 1997) and looked very poor. Since then, he has played 3 games at Dallas and has been sacked once. And I submit that much of it is due to the QB learning how to slow down a pass rush by making sound decisions and getting the ball out quickly. His older brother has been a master of this art for more than a decade, and now it appears Eli is figuring it out, too.

Keep in mind that the Giants had David Diehl (LG) playing Left Tackle against DeMarcus Ware. This was supposed to be a field day for Ware, and it never materialized. It has been suggested in the media that the Cowboys had Ware double-teamed every down. I went back and tried to verify that theory, and here is what I found:

DeMarcus Ware Against New York - 33 pass rush situations:
Lined UpSingle TeamSacks-PressureDouble TeamSacks-Pressure

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As you can see, Ware had 33 chances to get after Eli Manning and ended up with 5 pressures, 0 QB hits, and 0 sacks. How did the Giants do that with David Diehl? Click here to see Ware's 5 pressures.

If you go back and look at those situations where Ware and Diehl squared off, there were almost no occasions when Eli Manning held the ball for any period of time. The ball was out on 3-step drops on quick outs to his WRs or dump downs to a TE. They were not crazy enough to ask Diehl to hold his ground against Ware except on rare occasions. And each of those rare occasions included Eli looking out of the corner of his eye and ready to get rid of the ball.

Then, the Cowboys tried to flip him to the right against the equally underwhelming Kareem McKenzie. McKenzie has been their full-time Right Tackle and rates him as the 66th tackle in the NFL this year. And yet, the Cowboys were unable to get there on him, either.

Ware did slightly better against McKenzie, but the Giants were very quick to send double teams if they knew they had a pass on that would require any amount of protection.

Here is how Rob Ryan deployed pass rushers, separated by down:

Pass Rushers Against New York - 50 pass rush situations:
Pass Rushers1st2nd3rd4thTotal

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Eli threw 47 passes (and 3 more passes where penalties rendered it "no play) and the Cowboys tried many different ideas. Ryan would try to bring 5, 6, and even 7 and his guys couldn't get home. On 10 occasions, Ryan sent defensive backs. Still no sacks.
And even worse, no real hits on Manning. He was comfortable and the Cowboys couldn't change that comfort no matter what they tried.

There has been plenty said about the Cowboys defense and the deployment of the 11. Still more is bothersome about the apparent confusion on assignments and timeouts are wasted. At this point of the season, there is no question things should be more seamless, however, on the issue of pass rush, I fear that the strategy is not the problem.

When you have a coordinator who is varying his approach, by trying every conceivable idea in every possible scenario, then you are left to wonder about the quality of the players involved. With Ware, you have true quality. His credentials are flawless and his production is off the charts, by any standard. But, it appears he is hurt and the season has taken its toll. He had 12 sacks after 7 games but just 3 sacks in the last 6.

Additionally, if you are the Giants, you will spend all week figuring out how to handle Ware in each and every scenario. It is certainly way easier said than done, but they executed it flawlessly and then were aided with Ware missing 18 of the final 24 snaps. On 2 of the 6 he was back, he committed crucial penalties trying to cheat the snap count.

But, what of the rest of those Dallas defenders? Anthony Spencer was largely facing single-teams (as is often the case) and he couldn't get home. In fact, Victor Butler had one of the two QB hits (Barry Church) in his spells for Ware late in the game. The defensive ends rushed 68 times and never touched the QB once. Jay Ratliff makes plays every game, but interior pass rush is merely a bonus to his arsenal until the Cowboys move him outside (which doesn't appear to be an option on a defense without a true nose tackle).

Bottom line seems to be this: We can continue to blame Rob Ryan for getting the scheme wrong and wonder why DeMarcus Ware doesn't have 4 sacks a game, but the truth is that Ryan tried everything and the Giants only objective is to stop Ware. The Giants gambled that nobody else would bother Eli Manning on the Cowboys defensive front and they were quite right. The Tyron Smith pick was a marvelous one that addressed a real need on the offensive line, but passing on elite rookie defensive ends like JJ Watt really hurt after games like this one. If only the Cowboys had 2 picks at #9.

This is not to say that Rob Ryan is flawless or that Ware does need to get home regardless of what the Giants do. But the truth seems that the Cowboys have many holes on this roster that scheme can only cover up on certain occasions. They lack difference makers that defy Xs and Os, and until they improve that number of difference makers, we might continue to blame the coordinator for not "coaching them up".

This lack of pass rush seems to be a simple matter of the Cowboys needing to improve the pieces on their defense. Many suggested that last summer, but Dallas thought they could get away with some cheap fixes. And now, they see why that might not have been a great decision.

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