Sports Outside the Beltway

Cowboys Sack Numbers Not Whole Story

When Wade Phillips was brought in as head coach, Dallas Cowboys fans thought all the investment in high draft picks on defensive linemen and linebackers would finally pay off in the form of massive quarterback sack totals. That hasn’t happened. DMN’s Albert Breer argues that this is misleading.

Seven games into Phillips’ tenure, the numbers fail to show a quantum leap. The Cowboys have 18 sacks, projecting to 41 for a season, which would be a modest improvement from last year’s total of 34. Dallas ranks 12th in sacks per pass play, another decent but not huge jump from last year’s finish of 19th in the category.

But to look at the numbers alone would be missing the point. The simple threat a Phillips defense presents, especially when armed with an elite edge rusher like DeMarcus Ware, has worked to handcuff offenses.

“I’m encouraged about our pass rush,” Phillips said. “We’re seeing more max-protect – it’s what we saw [coaching] in San Diego. They keep everybody in, and therefore you can cover better.”

Never was that more evident than last weekend against the Vikings, a game in which the Cowboys didn’t register a sack until the midway point of the fourth quarter, yet held quarterback Tarvaris Jackson to 72 yards passing and a 32 percent completion rate.

By an unofficial count, Phillips and defensive coordinator Brian Stewart sent just four rushers on 18 of Jackson’s 25 pass drops. They sent five men to pressure seven times, and never more than that. But, as Phillips said, that didn’t stop the Vikings from keeping tight ends and backs in to block. More often than not, six blockers were kept in to handle four rushers, and seven were there to block five. In some instances, Minnesota even had seven in protection blocking four, and that’s with a line starting two players who have nine Pro Bowl berths between them.

“When you get that situation, although you’d like to say the speed and the intensity of the pressure will get there … they’ve got a chance to block it,” Stewart said. “So what you want to do is play coverage. You can double guys and drop more guys, and you get coverage sacks, not just the blitz sacks.”

It becomes a blitz economy. In the situations in which Minnesota kept a back and a tight end in with the tackles, guards and center, only three receivers were releasing. In the cases where Dallas rushed four, seven dropped into coverage. Meaning in that circumstance, seven guys are covering three receivers.

So for a secondary that’s been besieged by injury – most prominently to starting corners Terence Newman and Anthony Henry – the pass rush’s impact has been a godsend. It’s meant less to put on Jacques Reeves and Nate Jones as they’ve inherited more extensive roles. “It helps them because they know where their help is; they might have inside help here or short help there,” Stewart said. “But they still have to know what they’re doing.”

The scary thing is that, as time passes in the new regime’s first season, the guys up front still can know what they’re doing better. That will allow more liberal play-calling.

It starts with Ware, who Stewart agreed has a similar impact as the Chargers’ Shawne Merriman in the way he stresses an offense, be it forcing a double team from a tight end, a chip from a back or a slide in protection. And now with Greg Ellis returning to full speed and Anthony Spencer having six starts under his belt, the coaches have three solid edge rushers at their disposal to go with a fleet of linemen capable of pressuring inside.

So perhaps, at this point, the real effect of the aggressive nature of Phillips’ defense has yet to be felt. “I think the coaches have confidence in us, from when they first got here, that we can get the job done,” defensive end Chris Canty said. “It’s just they’re kind of learning us a little more and we’re feeling situations out a little better in the game, and that’s what you’re starting to see.”

The problem with this analysis is that it hasn’t translated into strong performances against good teams. Yes, the D dominated the sorry Vikings and Buffalo Bills. But Tom Brady and the Patriots torched them for a ridiculous 38 points. Yes, the Pats are killing everybody right now. But the Cowboys have too much of the salary cap tied up in the defense to allow that to happen.

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