The DC Times

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

By Jonathan Bales

Grading the ‘Boys in 2010, Part II: Outside Linebackers

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Jonathan Bales

Last season, I argued that the Cowboys had the league’s top outside linebacker duo.  DeMarcus Ware’s dominance and the emergence of Anthony Spencer in 2009 made the Cowboys’ pass rush outstanding.

That changed in 2010, however, as Spencer was never really able to get going.  He recorded only five sacks on the season and, in the beginning of the year, even struggled against the run.  Meanwhile, second-year outside linebacker Victor Butler came on strong.  After receiving a “D+” run defense grade from me last season, Butler bulked up and proved he can be a complete player in the NFL.

As was the case last year, my outside linebacker grades will be composed of three parts: run defense, pass-rushing, and pass coverage.  Since pass coverage is a secondary focus of the linebackers, it will be weighted less in the final grades.  The small sample size of of plays in which 3-4 outside linebackers are in coverage means two things:

  • The final grade will be weighted heavily toward run defense and pass-rushing (5:4:1 pass-rushing : run defense : coverage).
  • Pass coverage grades will be one of the few grades we determine by the “eye test”, i.e. game film, as opposed to pure statistics.

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

Grades

  • DeMarcus Ware

Run Defense: A-

Ware played over 150 less snaps in 2010, yet he totaled more tackles and missed less than in 2009.  His dominance against the run is what makes him the best 3-4 outside linebacker in football.

Pass-Rushing: A

Ware led the NFL in sacks, recording them at a higher rate than in 2009.  His quarterback hits were down (likely due to stringent roughing-the-passer penalties), but his pressures increased by about 10 percent.  His 56 pressures tied last year’s mark and ranked second in the NFL behind Tamba Hali.

Pass Coverage:  A-

Ware isn’t asked to drop into coverage often (only 11.5 percent of all pass plays), but he’s solid when he does.  According to Pro Football Focus, Ware allowed just 27 yards on 11 attempts that came his way in 2010.  Not bad considering he covers players that are generally quicker than him.

  • Anthony Spencer

Run Defense:  B+

Spencer regressed in all aspects in 2010, but it wasn’t as if his run defense was atrocious.  He still recorded 11 more tackles than Ware, although that number (53) was down from 67 in 2009.  Spencer also missed 10.2 percent of tackles he attempted–not a horrible number, but not “A” quality either.

Pass-Rushing:  B-

Spencer’s pass rush clearly deteriorated in 2010.  I’m not exactly sure what caused it, but my guess is a combination of decreased productivity and a somewhat small sample size.  Remember, sacks (the glory stat for 3-4 outside linebackers) are somewhat fluky.  For example, Spencer’s pressure rate actually increased by 33 percent this season, yet his sack rate decreased by 30 percent.

Pass Coverage:  B-

Spencer was in coverage more often than ever in 2010 (29.4 percent of all pass plays–nearly three times the rate of Ware).  Spencer isn’t quite as athletic as Ware and it shows when he’s in space, as he is often a step or two behind the man he’s covering.

  • Victor Butler

MT% = Missed Tackle Percentage

Run Defense:  B+

Butler turned a blatant weakness into a strength in 2010, as his run defense improved substantially.  After missing 20 percent of tackles he attempted in 2009, Butler didn’t miss on a single tackle this season.  Actually, he recorded the highest tackle rate of any outside linebacker (he made a tackle on 7.6 percent of snaps, compared to 5.6 for Spencer and 4.5 for Ware).

Pass-Rushing:  A-

It’s no secret that I consider pressures to be a better indicator of a pass-rusher’s skills than sacks.  Sacks are incredibly important, but pressures more adequately indicate how often a pass-rusher is doing his job.  In 2010, Butler recorded the highest pressure rate of any outside linebacker and a sack rate near that of Ware.

Pass Coverage:  B

Butler was only in coverage 19 times this season, allowing 11 total yards on four completions.  He has the skill set to be the Cowboys’ most effective outside linebacker in coverage, but we need to see a larger sample size.

Final Grades

1. DeMarcus Ware: A (94.0)

  • 2009 Grade: A (94.0)

2.  Victor Butler: B+ (89.8)

  • 2009 Grade: C (76.0)

3.  Anthony Spencer: B (84.6)

  • 2009 Grade: A- (92.0)

Conclusions

In my opinion, the outside linebacker spot for the Cowboys saw the player with the greatest improvement from 2009, and a player with one of the biggest drop-offs.  Butler’s emergence as a complete player should be the impetus for more playing time in 2011.  If I was the coach of the Cowboys, there would be an open competition in training camp for the starting gig opposite Ware.  If that happens and Dallas gives each man a fair shot, I would expect Butler to come out the Victor.

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19 Responses to Grading the ‘Boys in 2010, Part II: Outside Linebackers

  1. Mark Watkins says:

    That is encouraging to read about Butler. I’m hoping that Spencer improves next season too. Are you intentionally analyzing the Cowboys best positions first, out of curiosity, because TE and OLB are probably the two greatest strengths right now? I’d like to get your opinion on Manusky and the other candidates for DC Jonathan, when you can get around to it.

  2. JJ says:

    Jonathan

    I truly hope you are right on Butler. His playing time was so limited that you hope he could be a major contributor with more PT. If you are accurate, then the Cowboys do not have to reach for OLB in draft or FA.

    Spencer just seemed off this year. He was sucked inside on many outside runs this year…just seemed to play with less intensity. I suppose to Mark’s question on DC…the ability to revive Jenkins and Spencer will be one of the areas to watch.

    Thanks.

  3. willis says:

    Good stuff as usual.

    I’m wondering how much Spencer’s lack of sacks has to to with the amount of time he spends in coverage on pass plays. He had 1/3 of the sacks as Ware, but conversely spent 3 times as many plays in coverage. Given that these are all passing plays, generally the time when pressure gets to the quarterback, I’m wondering if this was a key element in his lack of production.

  4. Trent says:

    My first thought is: “What can we get in trade for Spencer?”

    Last year, we could have gotten a lot; hopefully we still can.

    I know most of you won’t want to sacrifice depth, but I don’t think we can fill the holes in our starting lineup without trading some guys that we would want to keep otherwise.

  5. Tyrone Jenkins says:

    Great analysis.

    Question 1): did Williams – the OLB playing Williams – play any downs of statistical importance? (i’m assuming he didn’t as he wasn’t represented here).

    Question 2): you mention that Butler’s pressure rate was the highest of all Cowboys OLBs and his sack rate was statistically equal to Ware’s. I read in ESPN the magazine that D Ware has the most offsides penalties of all OLBs in the league (not sure if that’s true or not). How does Ware grade out better than Butler on pass rush (A vs A-) given that? How did the penalties factor in?
    Don’t get me wrong, Ware is a better OLB than Butler by far but just from a statistical standpoint, Butler looks to be at least equal if not better as far as RATE of sack/pressures.

  6. Scott says:

    haha Butler the Victor, see what he did there? lol

  7. Mark–I wasn’t doing that on purpose actually..just kind of randomly choosing positions (although I was interested in seeing Butler’s numbers myself). I will post something on the DC candidates for you tomorrow.

    JJ–Things could change if Butler gets more snaps, but I love what I see from him. I think more PT would only help.

    Willis–Spencer spent 172 snaps in coverage compared to 66 for Ware. Although that is almost three times as many snaps, the “extra” 106 rushes would increase Spencer’s rush total by 25.7 percent. If he recorded sacks at the same rate in these extra snaps, his most likely sack total would have been six instead of five. Thus, I don’t think the increased rate of coverage snaps is to blame for Spencer’s lack of production.

  8. Trent–I don’t think the value will be great enough. Spencer is still a valuable piece of the puzzle, but he is coming off of a down year. It would be like selling a stock after it has hit rock bottom. You want to sell at its peak, and right now the pick the Cowboys could acquire for Spencer wouldn’t justify moving him.

    Tyrone–Thanks. Williams played only 30 snaps–far too few to rack up substantial numbers. Ware’s grade was higher than Butler’s because, although my grades are primarily efficiency-laden, overall production still counts for something. The ability to be efficient over a long period of time means something. Butler will need to prove he’s consistent in the future. Plus, Ware recorded a higher sack and QB hit rate.

  9. Thanks for catching my poor attempt at a joke, Scott.

  10. starred4life says:

    Very nice article. Can’t wait for the inside linebacker breakdown. I’m especially interested in how Lee graded out. Of course it’s his rookie season. I’d expect his stats to improve towards the end of the season (along with his playing time).

    I don’t know if I want to look at the safety break down. It might be too painful, with all the big plays we seemed to give up week after week. But I wonder if there was anything positive to take from this season, as far as the secondary is concerned. Did Ball’s game improve as he gained experience? In the Arizona game, for example we held Fitzgerald without a catch for 58 minutes (before we gave up a big play). That’s pretty hard to do for any secondary (even if it was against Skelton).
    As you break that down I’d be interested to know if you saw any improvement. Was there a noticeable difference in the pre/post Pasquiloni secondary performance (other than interceptions)?

  11. Vince_Grey says:

    Those are pretty high grades overall for probably the most important position in a 3-4 defense. One that gave up over 27 points per game on average. All I can say is if this group got “A’s” and high “B’s”, there better be some “D’s” and “F’s” in there somewhere before this is over!

    Seriously, (Well, I was serious, but in a joking sort of way) my eyeball test just did not show Ware consistently pushing the pocket and pressuring the way your stats seem to indicate. It was like… he’d make a sack, then all but disappear for awhile. Kind of like a home run hitter who knocks out 30 HR’s but has a .220 average with a ton of strikeouts. Yes, he had a couple of good games, but… I don’t know. Again, I say that much of that was likely due to the bad play(ers) around him, but still.

    I recall when Charles Haley was here. He never had a ton of sacks himself, but he seemingly was always around the QB, pushing and harassing. Just didn’t see that kind of pressure much out of Ware or Spencer this year.

  12. Mark Watkins says:

    That’s a great point Vince. It did seem like Ware’s intensity was down at times this season. I don’t know whether he played through some lingering injuries, if the schemes and/or surrounding players inhibited him or if he was just demoralized by the lackluster play of the team, but it just didn’t feel like he was as dominating as last year.

  13. Starred–I’m interested in Lee’s numbers too. The cool thing about crunching the numbers is there’s no room for subjectivity. Now that all of the stats are tallied, I’m just as excited as you guys to see how they turn out when I put it all together. Of course the final grading is somewhat subjective in nature, but it isn’t completely arbitrary.

    As far as improvement from Phillips to Pasqualoni, I can tell you I did see that, but I’m not sure if it is truly a result of the switch or simply correlated. The Cowboys played SO poorly under Phillips that, with the talent they have (yes, they’re still talented), improvement was a near necessity. Regression to the mean.

    Vince–They are high grades. I knew Butler was efficient, but I didn’t know it was to such a high degree. I really think he deserves that grade. Spencer’s grade isn’t outstanding, but it isn’t horrible either. I think we sometimes fall victim to expectations. . .Spencer’s were so high in the offseason that anything other than a Pro Bowl-type year is viewed as a failure. He didn’t play to his capabilities, but he wasn’t horrible either.

    And while I didn’t expect Ware’s total pressures to be equal to that of last year (from the eyeball test), that’s why I do the numbers. It’s always cool to find numbers that fly in the face of conventional wisdom. I tally all stats myself and I feel confident that my methods remained steady from ’09.

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