The DC Times

A New Way to Look at the Cowboys, NFL, and Fantasy Football

By Jonathan Bales

Grading the ‘Boys, Part VIII: Defensive Line

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We were going to analyze the film and statistics of the outside linebackers for this installation of “Grading the ‘Boys,” but the recent trade rumors surrounding Marcus Spears pushed us to do the defensive line instead.  We wanted to determine how effective Stephen Bowen and Jason Hatcher were in 2009, giving us a better sense of why Dallas may have been interested in unloading Spears.

Grading defensive linemen is difficult due to the variety of roles that each player can fill.  The statistics among players at other positions are generally comparable due to the equality of their on-field duties.  For example, whether the Cowboys have Alan Ball or Michael Hamlin in the game at free safety, their duties will likely be the same.

The rotation that is employed amongst defensive linemen, however, creates more situational roles for each player.  Defensive ends Igor Olshanksy and Marcus Spears, for example, are on the field a lot more during run downs than pass downs.  Thus, their statistics are not necessarily 100 percent compatible with those of Jason Hatcher and Stephen Bowen.

To combat this potential problem, we will weight each player’s overall grade to more properly reflect their personal contributions and duties.  The run and pass defense grades for both nose tackles (Jay Ratliff and Junior Siavii) will be weighted equally in determining their final grades.  For defensive ends Spears and Olshansky, it will be 3:2 run-to-pass, and for Hatcher and Bowen it will be 3:2 pass-to-run.

As always, the charts below display the best statistics within a particular group circled in blue, and the worst in red.

Grades

Nose Tackles

  • Jay Ratliff

Run Defense:  B+

We really don’t need statistics to tell us how dominant of a player Jay Ratliff can be on the football field.  Due to the nature of the position, nose tackles generally have a tough time racking up statistics.  Their primary goal is to eat up blocks and allow the linebackers to make plays.

Ratliff is so dominant, though, that he is able to overcome these limitations.  He is very “undersized” for a nose tackle, but uses his speed and athleticism to gain an advantage on blockers.  Pass-rushers gain glory through acquiring sacks, but Ratliff is just as solid against the run.

Pass Defense:  B+

As you can see, Ratliff’s sack rate of .82 percent was the highest of any Cowboys’ defensive lineman in 2009 (including the ends).  We know he would like to improve upon both that number and his total quarterback hits and pressures, but he is no longer an unknown commodity.  Opposing coordinators game-plan for him, meaning his statistics are even more impressive when you take into account the constant double-teams he faces.

Note:  If you are wondering why Ratliff didn’t receive an “A” in either category, it is because he committed eight penalties.  Expect that number to decrease in 2010.

  • Junior Siavii

Run Defense:  C+

Siavii’s snaps were certainly limited in 2009 (just 184 all season).  Still, he was able to tally 12 tackles, or one on 6.52 percent of all plays.  That is the best number of any Cowboys’ lineman, but it is important to remember that Siavii’s limited snaps mean he is always fresh and at full energy.

Pass Defense:  D

Siavii really struggled against the pass last season.  He was unable to record any sacks or quarterback hits, and just two quarterback pressures.  The Cowboys could really be in trouble if Jay Ratliff gets injured for a significant period of time.  The major drop-off from Ratliff to Siavii was probably a factor in the Cowboys drafting DE/DT Sean Lissemore.

Snaps: Spears-535, Bowen-478, Olshansky-648, Hatcher-386

Defensive Ends

  • Marcus Spears

Run Defense:  B

Soon after drafting Spears, it was apparent that his forte is stuffing the run.  His run defense is far superior to his pass-rushing ability, leaving some to label him as a ‘bust.’  It is the ability to stop the run, though, that allows guys like Demarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer to tee off on quarterbacks and rack up the sacks.

Spears’ tackle rate of 4.11 percent is solid, and he committed zero penalties all season.

Pass Defense:  C-

Spears is out of the game in a lot of pass-rushing situations, so we would expect his pass defense numbers to be a bit down.  Still, we would love to see him pressure the quarterback on more than 1.87 percent of all plays.

  • Stephen Bowen

Run Defense:  C

Before watching the film, we thought Bowen was more stout against the run than what we ended up seeing.  Bowen recorded just 13 tackles all year (only Hatcher’s tackle percentage was worse).

Pass Defense:  B-

Bowen’s pass-rushing skills surprised us.  His sack and quarterback hit percentages led all defensive ends, and he wasn’t far behind in quarterback pressures.  He is a better rusher than Spears–perhaps one of the reasons the Cowboys were interested in trading Spears.

  • Igor Olshansky

Run Defense:  A-

Olshansky was brought into Dallas to stop the run, and he did just that in 2009.  He quietly was one of the Cowboys’ better free agent acquisitions in recent years.  His 33 tackles are outstanding for a defensive end.  We can count on one hand the number of times Olshansky got beat at the point-of-attack, meaning he often paved the way for the linebackers to make plays (in addition to his own).

Pass Defense:  C-

There is no doubt that Olshansky is a run-stuffing specialist.  His .62 quarterback hit percentage was the worst among defensive ends.  Still, Olshansky isn’t on the field during passing situations, meaning whatever he lacks in pass-rushing skills he makes up for in his ability to stop the run.

  • Jason Hatcher

Run Defense:  C-

We were quite disappointed with Hatcher’s 2009 performance against the run.  Hatcher’s seven total tackles was worst among defensive ends and his 1.81 tackle percentage was by far the worst among all defensive linemen.  Hatcher is a talented player, so we would expect these numbers to improve in 2010.

Pass Defense:  B

We always say that quarterback pressures are more indicative of a pass-rusher’s success than sacks (as evidenced by Spencer’s long sack drought).  Hatcher recorded only one sack last season, but he led the entire defensive line in quarterback pressures and quarterback pressure percentage.  Simple regression to the mean tells us that if Hatcher gets 17 quarterback pressures again in 2010, he will undoubtedly acquire more than one sack.

Final Defensive Line Grades

1.  Jay Ratliff  B+ (87.0)

2.  Igor Olshansky B (85.0)

T3.  Jason Hatcher B- (80.2)

T3.  Marcus Spears B- (80.2)

5.  Stephen Bowen C+ (79.8)

6.  Junior Siavii C- (71.0)

Overall, the Cowboys’ defensive line is adequate but not stellar.  Nose tackle Jay Ratliff is an All-Pro player and nearly stoppable inside.  With the attention he draws, you would hope the results of the defensive ends would be a bit better than what we observe.

Having said that, it is important for people to realize that 3-4 defensive ends are never going to put up big numbers.  They are the offensive guards and centers of the defense–they are quite important, yet gain little respect.

The Cowboys addressed the defensive end spot in the seventh round with Sean Lissemore out of William & Mary.  He is a high-motor guy who members within the organization are describing as “Ratliff-like.”  If that is even close to being true, the Cowboys found a gem.

Lissemore should be able to contribute at all the defensive line spots.  He could eventually become the primary backup to Ratliff inside.

With Spears, Bowen, and Hatcher all restricted free agents, expect defensive end to top the Cowboys’ list of needs for the 2011 draft.

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17 Responses to Grading the ‘Boys, Part VIII: Defensive Line

  1. Chris says:

    This is fantastic work guys. Keep up the great work. I’ve been part of Blazersedge for awhile and that’s a huge site. This stuff is on par with that. The comments will come

  2. Thanks for reading Chris.

  3. john coleman says:

    No real surprises here to me, except penalties. The fact that two guys played the whole year with zero is great. Also with Ratliff, the number was way high. I would expect most of his were offsides, trying to get the jump. He may have been a little tired as well, with 80-85% of the reps coming his way. That is too many plays. Which gets me to where I am going. Seems to me we need to give Lissemore and Aumavae real looks, and send Siavii packing. Also what about moving Olshansky inside for a few plays? He seems to be pretty much immovable at the point of attack. We have the DEs to allow him to do it.

  4. The problem with cutting Siavii is the Cowboys would be without a true NT backup, but your idea of moving Olshansky inside is a good one. He is the strongest player on the team and I think he has the mindset to thrive inside. Never thought of that, but good idea.

    I’ll tell Jerry.

  5. David Mark says:

    I disagree with your methodology of differentiating between DEs based on pass rushing and run stopping skills and then weighting their scores accordingly. You rightfully didn’t do it for NTs, but I think for the wrong reason.

    You should (and normally do) score players against a consistent, objective standard. A good all-around DL (DE and NT), who can play 3 downs effectively, should be that standard. There are DEs in the NFL who can play 3 downs effectively, they just don’t happen to play for Dallas.

    So the Cowboys situationally substitute DEs only because the don’t have any good all-around DEs, not because it’s a normal part of the 3-4 defensive philosophy. They substitute in order to hide this weakness…a vulnerability opposing Offensive Coordinators can successfully exploit (r.g. passing on “run” downs, etc).

    The end result of your DL scores is you compare apples (NTs) to oranges (DEs). NTs gets an unweighted score while DEs get a weighted score. Mr every-down Ratliff is only 2 pts better than 1-trick-pony Olshansky? Really? I think if I were Ratliff, I wouldn’t be too happy with that evaluation.

  6. I see your points, but I still disagree. Yes, Ratliff is a beast because he can do it all, but we can’t downgrade the defensive ends because they aren’t asked to do it all.

    For example, Olshansky is a run-stopping DE. Obviously, he doesn’t have the opportunity to rack up a lot of QB sacks and pressures. If we were to grade the players solely on our ‘objective’ statistics, Olshansky would receive a much lower score because he doesn’t have the chance to rack up pass-rushing numbers.

    If Olshansky (for whatever reason) was allowed to play the whole game, he would obviously accumulate better numbers against the pass (as he would be in the game in a higher percentage of passing situations), but that wouldn’t make him a BETTER player. He is what he is, regardless of his playing time.

    This last point is the same reason we attempt to judge players not only total yards, tackles, catches, etc., but on efficiency. It isn’t a player’s fault (relatively speaking) that he doesn’t get to play a ton. Of course better players generally play more often, but Phillips loves to rotate defensive linemen.

    I think the primary reason you see Ratliff with so many snaps isn’t totally due to his play, but rather to the lack of a sufficient backup.

    In any event, good comment. Keep forwarding any qualms you have with our methodologies.

  7. john coleman says:

    I understand the thinking about Siavii, but Jay Rat is not the typical NT to start with. Give the rookies a chance. BTW love the analysis. Opinions are fine, but backing up points with hard numbers is hard to argue with. We have to do something to help Ratliff. He is taking way too many snaps. We are shortening his career.

  8. Thanks John. Yeah, I would love to see Ratliff slide down from 850 snaps to about the 700 range. I will be the first to admit the 184 snap sample size for Siavii isn’t COMPLETELY statistically significant, but you’d still expect a bit more production during that time. Let’s see what Lissemore’s got at NT.

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