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Dallas Cowboys Defensive Ends: Will There Be Enough Pass Rush in 2011?

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Jonathan Bales

Much to the dismay of plenty of Cowboys fans (myself included), the ‘Boys have passed on acquiring a premiere free agent defensive lineman.  After allowing Stephen Bowen to walk and surprisingly re-signing Marcus Spears, the Cowboys added free agent Kenyon Coleman.  With Igor Olshansky still around to give us unwarranted post-tackle dances (unfortunately no post-sack dances seem likely) and free agent Jason Hatcher’s status with the team uncertain (I think Dallas needs to bring him back at this point), they are left with a whole lot of perceived run-stuffing ability at defensive end. . .and a big lack of pass-rushing skills.

In my 2010 Defensive Linemen Grades, I provided Olshansky and Spears with ‘C’ and ‘B-‘ run defense grades, respectively.  Both players are known as “run-stuffers,” although their play seems to indicate they’re both average against the run.  Despite defending the run on 51.6% of his snaps, for example, Olshansky recorded a tackle on just 3.8% of plays.

Spears’ tackle rate (6.1%) was certainly better than Olshansky’s, but he also played almost solely in running situations (61.5% of his snaps came against the run). . .thus the mediocre run defense grade.  Even Hatcher, who played against the run on just 38.0% of snaps, recorded a higher tackle rate than Olshansky.

It isn’t like Spears or Olshansky make up for their lackluster play against the run by being forces in the passing game.  Both players failed to record a sack in all of 2010.  On top of that, the duo combined for three total quarterback hits and 12 total pressures.  For comparison, Bowen tallied 27 pressures by himself.

Now I understand the role of 3-4 defensive ends–particularly those in Wade Phillips’ version of the defense–are not asked to be playmakers.  Their role is to eat up blockers so guys like DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer can make plays.  Still, the jobs of the players in the secondary would be a whole lot easier if Olshansky, Spears and Co. could provide just a little more pressure on the quarterback.

But what about Kenyon Coleman?  Could he give the ‘Boys the defensive end pass rushing ability they covet?  According to Pro Football Focus, that won’t be happening.  Although providing Coleman with the 10th-highest run defense grade of all 3-4 ends in 2010 (but one still worse than Spears), PFF rated Coleman as the 25th-best pass rusher of the group. . .not stellar considering they graded just 42 players at the position.  For comparison’s sake, I listed Coleman’s 2010 stats below.

You can see that Coleman recorded a 2010 tackle rate (9.5%) far higher than any Cowboys’ defensive end.  His 54 tackles were nearly 2.5 times as many as Olshansky’s 22.  Of course, Coleman played in Rob Ryan’s 3-4 defense last season–one that allows defensive linemen to freelance a bit more than Phillips’ scheme.  Plus, the Browns were losing a lot of contests in 2010 and Coleman played against the run on 368 of his 567 snaps (64.9%)–a rate much higher than any Dallas defensive end.

Based solely on the numbers (which I admit can be misleading), I would have given Coleman a “B+” run defense grade and “C-” pass rush grade.  Will he be significantly aiding the Cowboys’ pass rush efforts in 2011?  It doesn’t appear likely.

So where do the Cowboys go from here?  While they do have an All-Pro-caliber nose tackle who has the ability to create chaos in the opposition’s backfield on a weekly basis, I find the lack of talent at defensive end concerning.  If I was an offensive coordinator, I would double Ware and Jay Ratliff, forcing either Anthony Spencer or a defensive end to beat me.  We know the latter position isn’t going to do it, so that’s an awful lot of pressure to put on a currently under-performing Spencer.

Bringing back Hatcher might be a smart move right now for Dallas.  The team needs some kind of pass rush from the end position, and Hatcher, while clearly not outstanding, is superior to Olshansky, Spears or Coleman in that department.  Plus, there isn’t really much left in the free agent market.  Former Packers defensive end Justin Harrell and veteran Ty Warren, who both have 3-4 experience, are probably the best of the bunch.  Dallas could also try to convert a talented young player like Amobi Okoye to defensive end, although the risks and learning curve there wouldn’t seem to be worth the trouble.

Then there’s the fact that Ratliff reported to camp at a lean 285 pounds.  While he has dismissed the weight, claiming he played in that range last season, perhaps it’s a sign that Rob Ryan plans to add a “true” nose tackle and move Ratliff to end.  While the pass rush from the nose tackle position would suffer, the team’s defensive end production would skyrocket.

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10 Responses to Dallas Cowboys Defensive Ends: Will There Be Enough Pass Rush in 2011?

  1. Tyrone Jenkins says:

    I noticed you included the QB hit stats of Bowen (27) but failed to mention that was primarily out of a 4 down lineman look on 3rd downs…it’s one thing to say you understand that the base 3-4 of Wade Phillips doesn’t really “allow” Spears and Olshanks to get at the QB but it’s another to say they played poorly because of it. Could the Boys have benefited from a greater pass rush from the ends – of course. But let’s remember that it wasn’t their job. Asking them to do that last year would be like asking the NACSAR crew chief to drive the car a few laps. He could probably do it fairly well but he’s not a driver. Spears and Ols weren’t brought in to rush the passer. Ware, Spencer and to some degree Brooking and James were. Spears and Ols are average 3-4 DEs. Bowen, I think (and so do the Redskins) are above average. There’s a reason why he received more $ from the Cowboys last year in his RFA tender, why he was a higher priority for re-signing and why he eventually got $10 mil more than Spears in an offer from the Skins (albeit the Skins overpay erbody).

    But my point is that the real problem wasn’t really Spears and Ols production – it was scheme. Your stats of Kenyon Coleman are very telling – average 3-4 DE in a scheme that produced 3 sacks and 2.5 times the tackle rate. From that, I take it that Spears will be fine. So will Coleman.

    I’m not sure if Ols has the athleticsm to stunt, drop into coverage, etc. that RR will ask him to do, but if he does, I’d expect greater production from him too.

    Either way, I think the Boys are set at DE and NT. W/ Brent and Lissemore, as backups learning the scheme, I think Liss is poised to unseat Ols in his position and Brent to be a GREAT backup and eventual replacement to Rat.

  2. Scott says:

    Yeah I think the answer is really in the scheme. Hopefully, doubling Ware and Ratliff will be easier said than done because Ryan will be moving them all over the line (in general and pre-snap), mixing up assignments, and making it very confusing for offensive linemen to call protections, and getting more one-on-one opportunities for the best pass rushers.

  3. Rick says:

    Apparently, the team IS bringing back Hatcher.

    I hope this means the end of Olshansky. Kenyon Coleman, according to the numbers, is a better version of him that’s more familiar with the scheme. We know Hatcher can contribute in sub-packages, and I think Lissemore has potential as a nickel rusher as well. Plus the team will probably run some plays with Brent at nose and Ratliff at end.

    So, no real need for Olshansky. Hopefully the Wade’s Texans will take him off our hands. If not, I wouldn’t be too upset with straight cutting him.

  4. JJ says:

    Good to be back talking football and the Cowboys. Frankly, if Garrett was not coach and these transactions were happening under Wade, I’d be demoralized from a defensive standpoint. Jerry is known to place far too much credibility in a coach or player (i.e. We don’t need great players, we have Wade Phillips or Rob Ryan or Chan Gailey…insert whomever).

    I tend to give the team the benefit of the doubt but the defense looks very below average. They may stop the run but unless there is some consistent pass rush, you are leaving receivers scattered against the same secondary group that was torched last year. There are unproven players on defense that could surprise but thus far, the Cowboys have just replaced Bowen with Coleman. Outside of Ware and Ratliff, when you look at the D, it’s hard to believe the Cowboys are so cash strapped as their defense is full of players close to being past prime (Newman, Brooking, James), role players (Coleman, Spears, Igor, Sensi) or players that we can’t figure out (Jenkins, Spencer).

    I was hoping for more speed and athletic ability in the defense and count me in as “very concerned and praying for miracles.” I would never discount the Cowboys doing something great this year but I now envision 2011 defense:

    DL: Spears/ (DE Stud gained in draft)
    DT: Ratliff/Brent
    ILB: Carter/Lee
    OLB: Spencer/Ware (watch out for Butler)
    CB: Jenkins, a stud CB in draft, Scandrick (if resigned)
    S: Another adventure…maybe AOA and Elam?

    The draft and hoping for some amazing gems as UFA has never been so important. I agree with others…have Wade take Igor and go after Warren. I’m glad the team is making a commitment to getting younger…I just wish Witten and Romo were about 5 years younger as well.

  5. Brandon Butcher says:

    Why are you concerned about the pass rush of our ends? We run a 3-4 scheme in which ends are a glorified DT. The majority of our pressure (especially in Ryan’s defense) will come from our backers. The ends jobs are to be run-stopper and we should only reasonably expect 3-5 sacks from our ends (each starting ends that is).

  6. Kris says:

    I would like to see Spears move inside regardless of Ratliff’s weight. He plays like a nose tackle, they might as well make it official.

    I think Sean Lissemore would add more to the rotation than the not so run stuffing Olshansky.

    If you look at how the cowboys allocate their draft picks since the transition to the 3-4 you can see the onus is in the linebacker department.

    Linebackers
    1 rounders: Ware, Carpenter, and Spencer
    2nd: Lee and Carter
    3rd: Jason Williams

    D Lineman
    1st: Spears
    2nd: none
    3rd: none

    I hope the Cowboys use a high draft pick on the d line next year but I’m not holding my breath.

  7. Vince_Grey says:

    I agree with TJ that scheme and effort was a large problem with the entire defense last season. And, since it all starts up front, better and more aggressive play from the front three (That STILL sounds weird saying that. I miss the 4-3.) would have a domino effect on the entire D.

    I also think that experimenting with placing Spears at NT and Rat at DE would be a very interesting move, as well as one I believe would be very productive.

    Personally, I’ve never been high on Spears, at least when factoring in his draft position and salary, but he has the size and strength to play at the nose, and there’s no question in my mind that JR would be a dominant DE in a 3-4.

    I’m pessimistically optimistic that Ryan can get a solid year out of Olshansky. As he’s over 300 pounds, we might consider playing him some at NT as well.

  8. JJ says:

    Brandon

    The theory that the Defensive Ends are just there to “absorb” linemen and be run stoppers is there as a cover for the lack of ability for them to create pressure. Most would say that a nose tackle is even more of a run stuffer and a “clogger” than DEs, yet, because Ratliff creates pressure, you don’t here that much.

    The DEs in a 3-4 can create pressure if they had the skills to do so, particularly, in passing situations. Yes, their primary duty is run stopping and freeing the LBs but that does not preclude pass rush ability. I was concerned that this puts far too much pressure on Ware and Spencer (who has yet to show consistency).

    However, Coach Ryan may elect to bring the up-and-coming Victor Butler on the field along with Spencer and Ware in passing situations and go to a Ware and Ratliff on the ends with Brent and Spears as Defensive Tackles with Spencer and Butler as outside LBs. That allows for more pressure.

    In summary, if the Cowboys had just one pressure DE, it would give opposing offenses fits when they tried passing on 1st and 2nd down.

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  10. OmarJ says:

    idon’t know why they didn’t pursued shaun ellis, he’s better than coleman, and has played 3-4 with rex whom also runs a complex attacking 3-4
    too late now he’s with the patriots

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