Protecting the QB is the name of the game in the National Football League. If you are lucky enough to have an elite arm throwing the football for you, then you simply must give him time to distribute the football. This is an era where the rules of the sport greatly favor the offense in nearly every situation. These rules allow for a record number of yardage through the air from offenses around the league. And the only thing that can slow it down for even a second is getting a big pass rush going. That might explain the difference between the Cowboys who are today experiencing the end of the 4th week of their offseason, or the New York Giants who are packing for Super Bowl 46.
In those two head to head match-ups in December between the two teams that battled for the NFC East divisional crown, the Giants out-sacked the Cowboys, 9-2. In the 5 games to finish the season (post-Thanksgiving), the Cowboys were sacked 19 times (the 2nd most in the NFL) and the Giants allowed Eli Manning to be sacked just eight times. In fact, only 4 teams in the league allowed fewer sacks than the Giants after Dec 1 to finish the season. The playoffs have been a difficult proposition for the Giants, as they have allowed 8 sacks in 3 games and Eli took a beating in San Francisco. Meanwhile, their Super Bowl opponent, New England has allowed Tom Brady to be sacked just once. Much like Super Bowl 42, the winner of Super Bowl 46 might come down to pass protection again.
So, from a Dallas Cowboys perspective, let's examine 2011 on the basis of giving Tony Romo time to throw. Now, before we proceed, it should be clearly pointed out that sack totals allowed can be one of the more deceiving statistics available as a sole metric for pass protection. Sacks can be avoided easily if the goal is to avoid sacks. Quick releases, keeping players in to double in pass protection, and not even calling pass plays are 3 simple ways to avoid sacks. But, the name of the game for any offense is to put points up on the scoreboard, and this often requires a team to risk getting their QB hit. Which leads us to another reason sacks are faulty. Sacks are all-or-nothing stats, where "almost sacks" are not recorded. Pressures and QB hits are way too subjective and not universally recorded or recognized to be properly measured.
A QB's ability to move in the pocket is invaluable to pass protection, and Tony Romo is a natural in this category. He has kept numerous plays alive this season that were doomed from the start, but because he can move, spin, and slide in the pocket, he saves a lot of blame by avoiding a sack and then delivering a throw. But, usually, the pressure eventually busts pipes, and in December, the Cowboys conceded multiple sacks in every game, and 2 games in particular were a complete disaster; 5 sacks at Arizona and 6 sacks at New York.
Looking at the last decade of Cowboys' sack totals allowed, you see the numbers are actually quite manageable whenever Romo has been under center. This year was the worst season of his 6 years in terms of sacks allowed (39), but nowhere near as bad as 2005 when Drew Bledsoe was sacked 50 times or 2002 when Chad Hutchinson was sacked 34 times in just 9 games and the team suffered 54 sacks in the season. 2002 finished 2nd to only 1986 in Cowboys history for sacks allowed. In 1986, the team was sacked 60 times - Steve Pelluer alone, 47! So, by historical lows, 39 doesn't seem so bad.
Of the 39 sacks allowed, 28 were on the road (72%). This sort of home/road split is actually quite uncommon. And this goes back to my long-believed premise that Jason Garrett calls a completely different game plan on the road than he does at home.
Also, the sack totals by month were shocking: September 6, October 9, November 5, and December 19. It should be noted that September only contained 3 games and December had 5, but nevertheless, it is clear that the dam broke after Thanksgiving.
39 sacks-against ranks them tied for 14th in the NFL. St Louis was worst with 55, Buffalo best with 23. From a pass play percentage, they were sacked 6.4% of the time or once every 15.6 passes. New Orleans was the best at 3.5% and Miami was the worst at 10%.
Let's look at each offensive lineman in the department of pass protection and what led to sacks. Again, this is faulty research because we are not discussing pressures and other busts - only those that resulted in sacks. I broke down every sack allowed this season and attempted to find the fault in each play. This is sometimes very easy and other times it is a complete line collapse. We also used data from profootballfocus.com to further fill in some gaps.
So here is the individual pass protection numbers for the OL:
LT - Doug Free - 641 pass plays - 10 sacks: Free started the season very well coming off his new contract. In the first 4 weeks of the season, Free was not involved in hardly any situations that led to sacks. Andre Carter went around his edge in New England, as did James Hall of the Rams, and Trent Cole of the Eagles. There was one blitz awareness issue in the game at Washington that led to London Fletcher's sack, but otherwise a very strong month of November. But, in December, Free was just beaten over and over again (6 of his 10 sacks in December). In fairness to Free, Jason Pierre Paul was dominating the rest of the league, too, but against the Giants and JPP, Free was eaten alive. 4 sacks in 2 games just from the left tackle spot and Trent Cole got him again in Dallas. In all, I had Free as the primary blame in 10 sacks this season, but with 2 against Cole and 3 against Pierre-Paul (and 1 more against Chris Canty) meant that 6 of his 10 sacks allowed were against the Giants and Eagles. Free sees the toughest match-up nearly ever Sunday, so, I am not here to suggest he is doing a lousy job, but it does appear that he might be more of a right tackle in the long term.
LG - Montrae Holland - 361 pass plays - 1 sack: Now, we must keep in mind that interior sacks are much less acceptable and much more easy to defend. However, Holland did a nice job in limited duty making sure he was not to blame for these breakdowns very often. He generally was helping in double teams and not left on an island very often. The one sack he conceded was in Week 14 against the Giants when Chris Canty beat him for a sack.
LG/C/RG - Kevin Kowalski - 82 pass plays - 2 sacks: Kowalski was thrown into duty on a number of occasions because of in-game injuries to the interior. He did a reasonable job until week 17 when he had to replace Kyle Kosier at RG and was tossed about like a rag doll on a few occasions, giving up a ask to Osi Umenyiora on a stunt to the inside and then Justin Tuck threw him on his way to getting to Romo to end the Cowboys season. He will need to improve his strength and anchor to survive.
C - Phil Costa - 601 pass plays - 3 sacks: On a play by play basis this season, the Cowboys center had immense issues in dealing with the bulls that he must block all season. However, in terms of actual sacks allowed, Gary Gibson beat him clean to get to Romo against the Rams, Chris Neild jacked him back into Romo at Washington, and Paris Lenon sprinted past him to nail Romo at Arizona. As December hit, there is no question that he was being targeted by inside blitzes, including the one that knocked Romo out on Christmas Eve. He is not always assignment-sound on who to block. This is an area where the Cowboys will need to either really develop him for next season or get a replacement because the amount of inside pressure against the Cowboys OL was a real hinderance when the season was on the line.
RG - Kyle Kosier - 618 pass plays - 4 sacks: Kosier had a disappointing year that many insiders blame on his deteriorating health, but regardless, he normally doesn't lose as many inside battles. His run blocking was actually a bigger concern, but in pass protection, he was bulled back by Ray McDonald for a rather easy sack in San Francisco, a blitzing Bart Scott got him in New York, another Osi stunt in Week 17 went past him, and Juqua Parker stunted past of the Eagles. You hope a healthy Kosier can be solid as a rock, but we seldom see a healthy Kosier survive an entire season. He has many miles on his tires and will give you everything he has, but it is a battle to stay on the field.
RT - Tyron Smith - 641 pass plays - 8 sacks: A world of expectations have been placed on Tyron Smith, and he took every single snap he could this season at right tackle. From day one, teams tried to confuse him with stunts and blitzes to make his rookie head spin. He also was victim to some old tricks with one pass rush move setting up another. He had Calvin Pace beat him in Week 1, Ryan Kerrigan in week 3. Willie Young bull rushed him on to his back to end the Lions game, Andre Carter went clean around his flank in game 5. Then Jason Babin used two inside spins to get him in Philadelphia and Trevor Laws stunted around him to get a 3rd in that forgettable night against the Eagles. But, here is the great news. Starting in the 2nd half of the year, as the rest of the line was crumbling, Tyron was figuring it out. Kerrigan got him again in Washington and Michael Bennett did get his flank in Tampa Bay, but that was it. All of the troubles against the Giants were not because of right tackle. In his first 7 games, Tyron game up 6 sacks. In his last 9 games, he only conceded 2. His upside is immense and he is only getting better.
As you can see, that only accounts for 28 of the 39 sacks. at least 4 more were caused by Romo holding the ball too long. Another 2 were blitz pickups by running backs, and a few more were too chaotic to blame any one man. Pass protection is something that must be done in concert as a unit or everything looks bad.
Overall, it is clear that Jason Garrett and Jerry Jones tried to limit this number by "the road game plan" which includes quick passes, lots of shotgun, and not allowing Romo to stand back there and look for wide receivers down the field. They knew that they could not trust the offensive line to give substantial time and that is why this is a major area of need to get deep into January next season.
There is some things to like, but overall, this will be the charge of Bill Callahan and Garrett with the players, and Jones and his war-room in the offseason. Figure out a way to better protect the QB, and this will lead to more opportunities down the field for the skill players.