Perhaps the top priority of the Cowboys this offseason was to improve their pass rush. This, of course, can materialize in a number of ways, but dumping investment in to the defensive side of the roster has been the focus of the organization since it last played a meaningful game.
As we know, the Cowboys have taken several very impressive steps in that direction. The signing of Greg Hardy was certainly controversial, but there is no question that after studying his work in 2013 - which you can read here if you missed it back in March - that he is the best pass rusher this organization has seen since DeMarcus Ware was in his prime. We still don't know how many games he will play with the Cowboys this year, but when he does step on the field, there is every reason to believe that you will see a monster coming off the line and causing damage.
Then, they were able to get Randy Gregory in the draft late in the 2nd round. The Cowboys had him as a Top 5 talent in this draft, but were reluctant to sign up to deal with his issues in Round 1 when they had a better option. But, at pick #60, they were beside themselves to cement the 1-year Hardy signing with a young, impressive player that might be able to be a major 10-sack threat starting in 2016 - provided he can keep on the right path.
Then, the 2nd round pick from 2014, DeMarcus Lawrence is also a player who first stepped on the field in Week 9 against Arizona. He played 233 snaps in the regular season - 8th most amongst Cowboys' DL - due to a foot injury in training camp. He did not make major impressions until the post-season when he was able to account for a sack in each playoff game.
So, as we examine the pass rush of 2014, we are going to identify the issue that the Cowboys were facing, knowing that they have already addressed it.
That issue is that the Cowboys - more than almost any team in football - were trying to rush the passer in 2014 without a lead dog. The elite pass rusher is as important as a lead wide receiver is to your passing attack. Either you have a special player that requires special attention to a unit or you don't. And if you don't, then your defense lacks real teeth. From there, you either have to try to trick with scheme, address the issue with more troops (which means less in coverage), or hope. And, honestly, the team tried a little of all of that in 2014.
So much of a pass rush requires a lead guy. A guy who can beat his man consistently enough that offenses take that away with double teams. Then, the double team provides massive opportunity for others and it all works in concert. But, without a lead dog, you are without a major pass rush. And as we said last week, the team required 21 pass attempts for every sack, which is some of the worse production in the NFL.
Here is how the concept of "lead dog" looks on a chart. If you took the last 25 Cowboys seasons and just charted the sack total of your sack leader, you can see clearly when the Cowboys had a #1 rusher and when they did not.
From 2006-2012, DeMarcus Ware was the sack leader each year. You can see above how clearly he showed his quality and paved his way to Canton. Amazingly, he has many local critics who wanted more from him, but I believe that was mostly from overall franchise frustration. His pass rush production takes a back-seat to almost nobody in this era or in the history of this franchise. Also, notice the Charles Haley era back in the dynasty time where - along with the under-rated Tony Tolbert, the Cowboys could always put pressure on the opposing QB.
But, beyond that, we can see that in 25 years, the Cowboys never had the 10-sack production from their sack leader. And in general, if you don't have a sack leader who scares anyone, you don't have a pass rush that does, either. Haley did it twice, Ware did it seven times, Tolbert once, and Jason Hatcher careered in 2013 (thanks to Ware, in part) as well. And that is it. We throw the term "10-sack guy" around like it is a normal accomplishment in the NFL. The Cowboys show us it is not. Jeremy Mincey led the Cowboys in 2014 with 6. 16 teams - half the NFL - did not have a "10-sack guy" in 2014.
But, now, with Hardy (who has already been past 10 sacks twice), Gregory, and Lawrence, the hope is that the Cowboys have 3 guys who each might get to 10-sacks in a season, sometime in the very near future for Dallas.
That is the hope.
Now, on to part 2 of our 5 part series, studying the Cowboys sacks from last year. This week we cover October (Weeks 5-8) and games against Houston, Seattle, New York, and Washington. Unfortunately, there were 2 games in which they had 0 sacks at all - Houston and New York. So here are the 5 they did get:
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?
So, in Part 1 of this series, we showed you the 5 sacks from September and you noticed that one of them was a Saints botched punt-fake that went for a sack. This one is even cheaper, as Russell Wilson is running with the ball (with nothing but open field in front of him) when he knocks the ball out of his own hands with his thigh. This goes down as an official sack, believe it or not. It is credited as a "Team Sack" and the ball goes back to where he knocked it loose. But, there is literally, nothing for us to see here, save for 92-Mincey at least flushing Wilson out by swimming inside the LT 76-Okung. But, from there, it looks like Mincey was supposed to have "contain" and that Wilson might have gained 25 yards here if luck did not save the day.
This one is legitimate, with the front 4 looking just like it should. In a 4 vs 5 pass rush, the two inside DTs 69-Henry Melton and 98-Tyrone Crawford are threatening enough to draw G-C-G attention. This, gives each edge guy a 1-on-1 trip to the backfield. 93-Anthony Spencer on the far left and 99-George Selvie on the far right. As you can see, Spencer gets around the RT 68-Britt and flushes Wilson into the waiting arms of Selvie and Crawford. They gave Selvie the sack here, one of only 3 he would have in 2014, but this is an example of what a 4-man rush should be able to do. Then, with 7 in coverage, the Cowboys can zone up and make Wilson hold the ball longer, which allows the rush to get there. Good stuff. We just didn't see it often enough.
Here is a play early in the Redskins game where they tried that QB rollout right, off a zone run fake to the left. It isn't technically "naked", as they asked 12-Andre Roberts to get in 99-George Selvie's way, but Roberts weighs 195. Here, you can see Selvie's best attribute - he runs plays down really well for a DE. Colt McCoy quickly sees he isn't out-running Selvie, so he puts on the brakes, and tries to cut inside and that is where Rolando McClain and eventually Henry Melton are there to clean up the mess. As we do the study, you can see that in many sack situations, the guy who gets credit for the sack is not the guy doing most of the work. Melton is rewarded for running down the play, though, as the run fake put him on the opposite numbers and he chased all the way across the field to get involved.
Now, this is just the opposite of what we showed on the last sack. This is Melton just whipping the Redskins RG 66-Chris Chester. Melton is just too quick on the inside for Chester off the snap and fires through the B-Gap to get home and get a nice sack. Now, you can see in the pre-snap that the Cowboys are "sugaring" a blitz from all 3 of their shallow zone guys in the nickel defense, 32-Scandrick, 55-McClain, and 52-Durant. This gets Washington to account for them and that distraction might have been enough to present Melton with his initial daylight off the snap. The threat of a blitz is sometimes just as valuable as a blitz itself. The only issue is that those guys have to turn and drop very quickly when the ball is snapped so they aren't exposed underneath by a quick throw. Plays like this make me wish we had another year of Melton here. I don't fully grasp why he was not an option to stay since the offer from Tampa was so small (1-year, $3.75m, with only $1m guaranteed). He is only 28 and it isn't like there is great depth at DT.
Finally, this is one of the most "clutch" sacks of the season. It is 17-17, the Redskins face a 3rd and long. Tony Romo is up and ready (we thought at the time) to return to win the game. If the Cowboys can get a stop, this could be a massive moment. Now, watch 92-Mincey against the great Redskins LT, 71-Trent Williams. Behold, the only sack Williams gave up in the first 12 Washington games of the season. Look at Mincey walk him back, discard him, and close down the QB all by himself. It is one thing to do this, but it is quite another to do this 58 minutes into a tie game and to get a massive stop for your team. That was Mincey's signature moment in 2014 for me.
At the halfway point of 2014, the Cowboys had just 10 sacks in 8 games. Luckily, in the 2nd half of the season, they would have 18 more. We begin studying those next week, with a look at Weeks 9-12 and games against Arizona, Jacksonville, New York, and Thanksgiving Day with the Eagles.