The Dallas Cowboys struggled to get to the quarterback at times during the 2016 season. There were times they came up with the big play, like against Tampa Bay. And there were times, cough-Green Bay-cough, where they came up empty. Heading into this offseason, we knew that the Dallas Cowboys needed to do something about their pass rush.
In what quarter, though, do they need to improve in the sack department?
I looked at Pro Football Reference to see just where Dallas ranked in terms of sacks by quarter and I was a bit surprised by the numbers. Perhaps you will be too.
First Quarter Notes
- Looking at the chart you’ll see that in the first quarter, Dallas was abysmal at getting to the quarterback.
- The league average for sacks in the first quarter was 6.9. Three is just horrendous.
- 18 of the NFL’s 32 teams had more than the 6.9 league average.
- Something shocking to take away from this is that the Denver Broncos also had only three sacks in the first quarter of games. The difference is that Denver ranked 3rd in the NFL in total sacks, while Dallas ranked 13th. The Broncos made up for it elsewhere.
- Dallas was the second worst team (to the New York Jets) in amount of yards given up per play in the first quarter. This led to shorter 3rd down distances, making it more difficult to think pass only.
- With the keep away, ball-control style Dallas plays, the defense isn’t on the field as much and sees fewer opportunities to rush the passer.
Second Quarter Notes
- In the second quarter they were about average (10.03) with their 10 sacks.
- I’ve always believed that if the Dallas Cowboys could just be average on defense, with their offense, they would be a contender.
- While they were average at sacking the quarterback, they were well behind the league leader, the Carolina Panthers, and their 19 sacks.
Third Quarter Notes
- The league average for sacks in the third quarter was 8.5. Dallas finished just above the league average here with 9.
- As they did in the first quarter, the Arizona Cardinals led the league in third quarter sacks with 14.
Fourth Quarter Notes
- Dallas’ 18 sacks in the fourth quarter ranked second only to Denver’s 21.
- Dallas was well ahead of the league average of 11.09 sacks.
- This success is a testament to the Cowboys’ ability to get a lead. When a team has a lead, they will see more passing situations, which leads to more opportunities to create pressure and sacks.
So, what are we to make of all this?
As you can tell by the chart, the second and fourth quarters’ league leader had many more sacks than the first and third quarters’ league leader. Likely do to the frequency of passing that happens in the last two minutes of the half, with teams in hurry up mode.
Like most teams, the defense can rush the passer better when it has a sizable lead. The split second it takes to diagnose the play prevents a pass rusher from getting up field to the quarterback when they have to think run also. When teams have to pass, defensive coordinators and pass rushers can get after the quarterback without having to think about the run.
While the fourth quarter numbers look good, watching the games, we know that the team can be more consistent in creating pressure. They were good at coming up with the big play most of the time, but there were also times when the quarterback had forever to throw the ball.
Where Can the Cowboys Improve?
Arizona, who led the league in sacks in 2016, finished inside the top seven in the NFL in total sacks per quarter. They were consistently good regardless of the time of the game.
The Dallas Cowboys need to be better at getting to the quarterback. Whether it’s the first quarter or the fourth quarter. If they can stop the run with greater consistency in the first three quarters, then they should get teams in longer third down situations. That will create more sack opportunities.
To become a championship defense, the Dallas Cowboys are going to have to be more consistent at getting to the quarterback. While the defensive line has a lot of question marks at this point, there is also a lot of promise.