On to the next of my summer projects today, where we start a series on the Cowboys pass rush. Last month, we studied the pass protection of the Cowboys and found plenty of good things and a few things that needed improvement to put this talented OL on the next level of performance in 2015 as they seek a Super Bowl.
But, that could be considered nit-picking, to be honest, these days. The fact is, the Cowboys offensive line is on the fast-track to elite, and while they could do some things better, we must never forget that the talent is in the room. If everyone there plays to their paper, the Cowboys OL is going to be a beautiful thing to behold over the next few years (health pending, of course).
Now, about the defensive line and where they are in the ranks of the NFL. In 2013, the Cowboys dedicated themselves to moving from a 3-4 under Rob Ryan to a 4-3 of Monte Kiffin and Rod Marinelli. Since then, the Cowboys have also committed to much less blitzing and a much more populated secondary to attempt to limit the big plays over the top. But, that trade comes at a cost, and the cost is that they have been limited to 62 sacks in the 32 regular season games (1.94 sacks/game). This ranks 29th in the league, as only the Chargers (61), Raiders (60), and Falcons (54) have fewer sacks. The league average is about 78 over 2 seasons and the league leader is the amazing front of the Buffalo Bills who have an absurd 111 sacks in 32 games (3.47 sacks/game).
Here is a chart showing the annual sack output by the Cowboys since 2008 - which happens to be the year they led the NFL in sacks by averaging 3.69 sacks/game:
Now, in 2008, you had DeMarcus Ware in his prime, Jay Ratliff in his prime, Greg Ellis, and a host of butt-kickers all here at the same time. Schemes don't often get sacks, pass rushers do. Since then (When Ellis left), the Cowboys hovered around league average +/- 5 sacks in either direction for the next 5 years. But, since 2010 (Wade Phillips' exit year, not coincidently), the Cowboys have been a below-average pass rush team 4 of 5 years.
Judging sacks on pure numbers is not a perfect idea, by any stretch. But, in a passing league, we should also not shake off results like that. You can see the Cowboys know this, based on their expenditures to bring in pass rushers in bulk in the last 2 offseasons. They are trying to fix this situation post-haste.
In NFL circles, they don't add up the sacks. They want to know the attempts/sack as a more true metric of pass rush success. How many passes do we need to get a sack? This equalizes the idea that teams get sacks because the other team is behind and is passing constantly. If we use the below chart, it evens that out:
The league average for the above chart is 1 sack for every 15.7 attempts. Buffalo needed 11 passes for every sack this year. The Cowboys in 2008 only needed 9.6 attempts. But this year, the Cowboys were at almost 21 passes per sack.
By spending picks on DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory in consecutive years and then signing Greg Hardy from Carolina, the Cowboys have tried to solve this issue the same way they fixed the offensive line - with a massive infusion of talent. We look forward to what these very promising edge guys might do in 2015 if all goes according to plan.
The objective is to "get there with 4". The Giants rode this to a Super Bowl or two. Effective and intimidating pass rush without needing to compromise your coverage plans by bringing too many rushers to get home. Today's NFL with QBs who pick apart blitzes requires a defense who can scare you up front.
So, for the next several weeks, we will grab 4 games a week and examine the 2014 Cowboys from a pass rush standpoint. In the first month of 2014, the Cowboys had 5 sacks - here they are.
First a disclaimer: The analysis below is not meant to be exhaustive for each play. There is context that could require massive write-ups on each sack, but in the interest of time, let’s do this short and sweet. I will try to identify the nuts and bolts on each sack, but sometimes, it will be a guess as we do not know specific calls. We are trying to get this right, but invariably, some of you will see the same play and reach a different conclusion. Cool?
Mike Iupati is one of the best left guards in the game and was signed by the Arizona Cardinals in free agency this year. But, on this play, I am confused what big #77 is doing for the 49ers as they want to take a run-heavy formation and then run play-action out of it. The Cowboys look like they are in a run-blitz, but with 6 defenders up, they all just keep trying to get to Colin Kaepernick. What is weird is what happens next. They pull Iupati right to sell the play-action. In this concept, he is actually just now taking the role of the RT in pass-protection. Often, this really fools the defense. But, here, Iupati runs right by Bruce Carter and goes to help 21-Frank Gore deal with 26-Sterling Moore. Odd, and Carter just shoots that gap and takes a sack against Kaepernick on an otherwise horrid day. The 49ers had everyone accounted for, just a mental bust from Iupati there.
Above, the Cowboys get a sack before halftime in Nashville with the ideal 4-man rush against 5 OL. This is the nickel pass rush in a nutshell. Put two threats at DT who can each rush, line them up on the outside shoulder of the guard and make the center choose which way he is going to try to help. Whichever he chooses, the other side gets 2 on 2 in space. In this spot, Melton is up on LG 67-Andy Levitre and Kyle Wilber has LT 71-Michael Roos. You may not know this, but Wilber can really rush the passer. Maybe the 2014 version of Victor Butler as a guy that can move the needle big time with a nice edge move, but cannot do enough things to be a regular in the defense. Here, Melton and Wilber both get wins, and when Locker doesn't get the ball out, they meet at the QB for a half-sack each. Nice job here by the front 4 getting home. They just didn't do this enough.
|#3||TENN||3/11:45||3/12/29||4||55 - McClain|
This sack is certainly helped by Locker facing a 3rd and long and getting caught looking down at the pass rush. But, from a Cowboys standpoint, look at the Tackle-End stunt where the tackles drive outside the guard and try to pick off the tackle, allowing the Ends to dive inside and try to get home that route. But, the Titans switch pretty well and are ok until their QB is paralyzed. Now, watch Rolando McClain who ends up with the sack. He drops into a zone and then mirrors Locker all the way to the end and really shows impressive quickness to close in on his prey. McClain did that wonderfully for what amount to a coverage sack. They only rushed 4, but the 5th man actually picked up the sack after the play broke down.
|#4||NO||4/7:45||4/9/41||NA||58 - J Crawford|
I don't really know that we can learn much from this one. The Cowboys were up huge, the Saints cut it to 31-17 and then telegraphed a fake punt that nobody was remotely fooled by, and eventually they hunted down Saints punter Thomas Morstead with Tyrone Crawford tracking him down and Jack Crawford cleaning up for the "sack". They all count, but this one is not going to fool anyone into learning much about the pass rush techniques.
|#5||NO||4/2:13||1/10/48||4||69 - Melton|
As you can see, at this point of the year, Henry Melton was doing some really impressive things. Here, he is going right around the once-great, now declining Jahri Evans in the phone booth as Jack Crawford goes by big RT 64-Zach Strief on the edge. Again, 4 against 5, and the center goes in the other direction to help against Nick Hayden (for some reason, the Saints thought that was a good idea). This allowed Melton to get home and look the part as a weapon moving forward. Love his arm swipe to get Evans' hands off of him and just turn the corner inside.
So those are the 5 sacks of the first month where the Cowboys had very little pass rush, but with D Lawrence out with an injury, they were trying to scramble and get what they could. Next week, we will look at Weeks 5-8 against Houston, Seattle, New York, and Washington.