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

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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Dallas Cowboys’ Five Biggest Strengths Heading Into 2010 Season

Jonathan Bales

The Cowboys are loaded with talent this season and a popular pick by experts and casual fans alike to be the first team to play a Super Bowl in their home stadium.  The defense ranked No. 2 in the NFL last year and looks even better so far in the preseason.  The offense was second in yards in 2009 and just added a receiving threat that was arguably this draft’s most explosive offensive weapon.

It is the list of players (and coach) below, however, that makes up the core of the 2010 Cowboys.  Without further ado, the five biggest strengths for Dallas this season. . .

5. Coach Wade Phillips

Wade Phillips as a strength!?  You bet.  You won’t hear much of this on ESPN, but Phillips is the perfect coach for this Cowboys team.  He doesn’t yell a lot, but that’s not a bad thing.  It is actually a misnomer that players respond well to being screamed at. . .the illusion lies in the correlation/causation dichotomy I’ve talked about in the past.

In fact, Phillips non-aggressive approach allows the few times he does yell to actually mean something.  Going off into a tirade isn’t commonplace for Phillips, so when he does it, his message really gets across to the players.

Further, Phillips is one of the best defensive coordinators in the NFL.  The Cowboys were second in the NFL in total defense last season due in large part to Phillips taking over control.  Hopefully, he’s in Dallas to stay.

4. One of the league’s best cornerback trios

I ranked Mike Jenkins and Terence Newman third in my list of the league’s top starting cornerback duos.  Both players had All-Pro seasons in 2009.

I  provided Newman with a “B+” overall grade and Jenkins with an “A-” overall grade, putting them at 10th and 8th on the team in our overall rankings, respectively.

Although nickel cornerback Orlando Scandrick struggled somewhat last season, he is still one of the better third cornerbacks in the league.  Don’t forget that he often gets picked on due to the caliber of play exhibited from Newman and Jenkins.

Scandrick has also been the team’s best cornerback thus far in the preseason.

3. The league’s top set of skill position players

Imagine the frustration of opposing defensive coordinators when they try to game plan for the 2010 Dallas Cowboys offense.  The running game is one of the league’s most efficient, so that must be contained first.  Do you focus on Marion Barber up the middle and in the passing game, or Felix Jones on counters and other misdirection plays?  What do you do about the Tashard Choice/Felix Jones combo in “Razorback” formation?

But won’t selling out to stop the run leave you vulnerable against pass?  Miles Austin’s presence alone, whether he is outside or in the slot, is enough to force defenses to play honestly.  Leave him single-covered and you risk getting beat deep on any one particular play.

How about the rookie?  We still need to see a lot from Dez Bryant, but every sign points to him being a legitimate threat on offense, even in his first season.  If you focus on Austin, Bryant surely has the skill set to beat you.

And then there’s Roy Williams.  Fans were undoubtedly uninspired from his play last season, but believe me when I say this man has regained his “swag.” I explained in a previous article why this isn’t a “new” Roy Williams, but instead, we are finally obtaining a glimpse of the “old” Roy Williams–the University of Texas variety.

Don’t forget Williams also scored seven touchdowns last year and is still a threat on in-breaking routes, such as slants and skinny posts.  His game should actually be a nice complement to that of Austin & Bryant.

So suppose you have the requisite defensive line and linebackers to somehow halt the run without placing a safety in the box.  You can just sit back in Cover Two and stop the outside receivers, right?

Not a chance.  Disregarding the fact that Austin figures to be a terror in the slot this season, the Cowboys also have another pass-catcher roaming the middle of the field.  His name is Jason Witten, and he’s been arguably Dallas’ most reliable receiver over the last few seasons.  He hauled in 94 balls last year and he’s the final guy I’m mentioning. . .pretty scary stuff, huh?  Don’t forget the Cowboys also figure to utilize Witten more in the red zone this season.

2.  DeMarcus Ware & Anthony Spencer

If my “A” and “A-” overall grades for Ware and Spencer didn’t show how important they are to the ‘Boys, perhaps my ranking of the top 105 players in the NFL did.

Either way, the dominance of Ware and Spencer make the jobs of the men at No. 4 on this list much easier.  Ware led the league in pressures (by far) and Spencer set the pace for quarterback hits (by far).

Further, both players are outstanding against the run.  The importance of their presence cannot be overstated.

1. Tony Romo

I’ve used the following Michael Irvin quote a few times in various articles, but it really sums up my feelings on Romo:

Can we get Drew Bledsoe back out here (for) just a week so you guys can really fall back in love with Tony? Let’s put Drew Bledsoe back out here, because sometimes when you have a pretty girl for awhile, you forget how pretty she is. But when you throw the ugly girl next to her, you say, ‘No, I’m really doing well.’ Maybe we need to bring Drew out so we know we’re really doing well.

And Romo really is the “pretty girl” at the party.  How so?

Well, I could try to impress you with Romo’s 4,483 yards or 26:9 touchdown-to-interception ratio, but the truth is, Romo just needs to do what it takes to win in 2010.

And he’s done that in the past, posting an incredible 38-17 record to date. Of course, as fans, we want playoff wins.   We expect Romo to get to the playoffs.  But let’s not forget that these expectations only result from our overwhelming confidence in Romo.

Did we expect the same for Quincy Carter or Chad Hutchinson?  How about Ryan Leaf? Clint Stoerner?  Drew Henson?   How about the incomparable Brad Johnson, whose three-game stint in 2008 (should have) showed us how important Tony Romo is to the Dallas Cowboys.

This time, let’s not wait for a Romo injury before we realize his importance.  It’s easy to call for the backup when things aren’t going as planned, but true fans–the loyal ones–stick by their guy during times of adversity.  On which side of the fence will you be this season if the ‘Boys stumble out of the gate to a 4-4 start?  Will you be screaming for Kitna?  Or will you support your quarterback, knowing he is the most vital piece to the home Super Bowl puzzle?


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Dallas Cowboys Times’ Final 2009 Player Rankings

We have concluded our “Grading the ‘Boys” Series, with the final offensive player rankings below.  You can find each individual offensive position study here: quarterback, running backs, tight ends, wide receivers, offensive line (run blocking), offensive line (pass protection), and each individual defensive position study here: defensive linemen, inside linebackers, outside linebackers,cornerbacks, safeties.

It all comes together in our final 2009 rankings.

A few notes before reading:

  • This is not a comprehensive list of everyone who played last season, but rather those players who participated in enough plays to gather statistically significant results.
  • It is also not a ranking of the best players, but rather a list of the most important players to the team (as we see it) in 2009.
  • Lastly, players listed in blue are those we expect to improve in 2010.  We anticipate a decline in production from those players listed in red, and neither a vast improvement or deterioration in play from those listed in black.

T1.  QB Tony Romo:  94.0 (A)

Threw only six interceptions over final 14 regular season games

T1.  Demarcus Ware:  94.0 (A)

Tallied a ridiculous 56 quarterback pressures last season–20 more than any other outside linebacker in the NFL

T3.  TE Jason Witten:  93.0 (A-)

Team averaged nearly two full yards-per-attempt better when he was in route (9.3 yards) versus blocking (7.4)

T3.  WR Miles Austin:  93.0 (A-)

Dropped only 2.2% of balls and tallied an incredible 10.4 yards-per-attempt

T3. RG Leonard Davis:  93.0 (A-)

Average of 4.57 yards-per-carry when at point-of-attack is outstanding for guard; also gave up lowest negative run percentage

6.  Anthony Spencer:  92.0 (A-)

Racked up 28 more tackles and 1.77 times the hits-per-rush as Ware

7.  C Andre Gurode:  91.0 (A-)

Solid in the run game and yielded least pressures and hits of any lineman–could be most crucial component of line in 2010

T8. Mike Jenkins: 89.8 (A-)

Allowed just 49.1 percent completion rate and led all cornerbacks in yards-per-attempt, deflections, and interceptions

T8. RB Felix Jones:  89.8 (A-)

Surprisingly the team’s top runner after contact (3.3 yards-after contact per run); averaged an incredible 10.0 yards-per-carry on 22 counter runs

10. Terence Newman: 88.2 (B+)

Thrown at less than any cornerback in 2009 (9.49 percent of all snaps) and a supremely underrated tackler (65 tackles, 8.5 percent missed tackle rate)

11.  Keith Brooking:  87.6 (B+)

Solid numbers against both the run and pass (led all inside linebackers in tackles, tackle rate, and yards-per-attempt against), but most important grade was ‘A’ in leadership

12. RB Tashard Choice:  87.3 (B+)

Team-high 31.8% of runs up the middle and 5.8 yards-per-carry in that area could make him the 2010 short-yardage RB

13.  Jay Ratliff  87.0 (B+)

Led all linemen with a .82 percent sack rate from the nose tackle position

14.  LG Kyle Kosier:  85.4 (B)

Perhaps offense’s most underrated player–led offensive line with just one sack yielded in 2009

15.  Igor Olshansky 85.0 (B)

Probably higher on this list than others would like, but acquired a solid 33 tackles last season–11 more than Spears

16.  Bradie James:  84.1 (B)

Missed only three tackles (3.4 percent) all season

17.  Deon Anderson:  83.0 (B-)

Team averaged a remarkable 5.6 yards-per-carry with him on the field–only 3.7 with John Phillips at fullback

Click “page 2” below to continue reading.

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Grading the ‘Boys, Part IX: Outside Linebackers

It is no secret that the Cowboys have one of the best (if not the best) outside linebacker duos in the NFL.  Demarcus Ware is perhaps the most valuable player on the entire team, while Anthony Spencer really emerged last year as a dominant pass-rusher.

Behind Ware and Spencer, however, the Cowboys are a bit thin.  Second-year players Victor Butler and Brandon Williams are the primary backups, with Williams yet to have played a snap in the NFL.  Butler showed some flashes last season as a pass-rusher, but he has a long way to go to become a complete outside linebacker.


That transformation is not impossible, though, as Spencer proved last season.  Unlike Butler, Spencer was a naturally gifted run-defender.  He was still solid against the pass, but had yet to “get over the hump” in terms of sacks.  That changed a few weeks into last season as Spencer erupted, particularly over the final half of 2009.

Spencer’s emergence is proof that if you continue to do the right things and put yourself in position to make plays, the sacks (the glamor stat for 3-4 outside linebackers) will come.

Of course, defending the pass is a two-way street for 3-4 outside linebackers, as they must also drop into coverage from time to time.  Spencer performs this task the most frequently of the Cowboys’ outside linebackers, dropping into coverage on nearly one-fourth (23.9 percent) of all pass plays (and 14.9 percent of all snaps in general).

Thus, our 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 the linebackers were in coverage, however, 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

MT %= Missed Tackle Percentage

  • Demarcus Ware

Run Defense:  A-

Ware’s run defense is often overshadowed by his incredible ability to rush the passer, but it is important to remember that his pass-rushing numbers are the result of his above-average run-stuffing skills.  Ware missed 7.14 percent of all tackles–a solid number and just slightly worse than Spencer.

Pass-Rushing:  A

Ware had a “down year” by his standards and still racked up 15 sacks.  That alone is remarkable.  The most incredible statistic of Ware’s 2009 season (and perhaps the most dominant statistic in the entire NFL last season), however, was his 56 quarterback pressures.  That was by far the best among outside linebackers.  The NFL’s second-best pressure total last season?  36.  Spencer had just over half the pressures of Ware and still finished 9th in the league.  Simply incredible.

Pass Coverage:  A-

Ware is actually very underrated in coverage.  Although he understandably rarely drops back (only 8.1 percent of all snaps), he doesn’t allow big plays when he does.  According to Pro Football Focus, Ware allowed just two yards in coverage in all of 2009.  Two yards.  Let that soak in.

  • Anthony Spencer

Run Defense:  A

Some of you may disagree, but we believe Spencer is superior to Ware (and perhaps the best 3-4 OLB in the league) against the run.  Spencer racked up 67 tackles last season (28 more than Ware), while missing just 6.94 percent of all tackles he attempted. His ability to maintain his top-notch run defense while improving his pass-rushing skills was a major key to the defense’s success in 2009.

Pass-Rushing:  A-

Despite pressuring the quarterback far less than Ware, Spencer actually tallied more hits on the quarterback.  This is a bit of a “fluky” stat, but still important to his success.  Spencer accumulated .055 hits-per-rush last season–1.77 times Ware’s rate.  Expect Spencer’s sack total (9) to take a huge leap forward in 2010.

Pass Coverage:  C

Spencer drops into coverage more than any of the Cowboys’ outside linebackers (14.9 percent of all snaps).  Thus far, Spencer has been just about average when he is in coverage.  Generally matched up against a running back, Spencer is understandably over-matched on just about every snap he drops back, but we’d still like to see him become just a bit more fluid with his hips.  Similar to his early-career pass-rushing results, Spencer is just a hair away from making big plays in coverage.

  • Victor Butler

Run Defense:  D+

We all knew Butler would be a pass-rush specialist to start his career, so this poor grade in his rookie season comes as no surprise.  Coach Phillips used Butler well last season, as he rushed the quarterback on a higher percentage of snaps (63.2 percent) than any other outside linebacker.  Butler’s sample size of tackles is too small to generate meaningful conclusions regarding his missed tackle rate of 20 percent, so this grade is more a result of our film observations.

Pass-Rushing:  B

Butler did a solid job in his rookie season of getting to the quarterback.  Although he only played 125 snaps, his .038 sacks-per-rush was best on the team.  Expect his quarterback pressures and hits to rise in 2010.  It is imperative that either he or Brandon Williams is able to give Ware and Spencer a breather from time to time.  Both of their snap counts were far too high last season.

Pass Coverage:  C

Again, Butler’s snap count was too low for him to accumulate meaningful coverage statistics (particularly because he dropped back on only 8.0 percent of snaps).  He does have the athleticism to become effective in coverage, so right now it is just important for him to gain experience.

Final Outside Linebacker Grades

1.  Demarcus Ware:  A (94.0)

2.  Anthony Spencer:  A- (92.0)

3.  Victor Butler:  C (76.0)

Conclusions

The lack of depth (or at least experience) behind Ware and Spencer made us believe the Cowboys might address the outside linebacker position in the draft, perhaps as early as the first round.  As it turned out, the Cowboys didn’t even select an outside linebacker.

The Cowboys obviously stuck to their board, taking the best player available at each spot.  Thus, it is difficult to say whether the absence of a rookie pass-rusher is more the result of that strategy or their confidence in Butler and Williams.  It is likely a combination of both.

If Ware or Spencer are injured for an extended period of time, we think the Cowboys could be in trouble.  Butler has shown he can be an adequate pass-rusher, but those skills are only useful if you are able to stop the run.  We have a feeling teams will run right at Butler if he is in the game, thus making his ability to get to the passer a moot point.

Butler does have the natural ability to become a solid outside linebacker, assuming he puts in the work.  Brandon Williams is also a bit of an X-factor for Dallas.

Let’s hope that Butler and Williams are able to learn from Ware and Spencer and the mystery that currently surrounds them eventually transforms into confidence in their ability.