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.
- 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.
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.
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
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).
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.
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)
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.