Dec 24, 2011; Dallas, TX, USA; Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick (7) scrambles away from Dallas Cowboys linebacker Anthony Spencer (93) in the third quarter at Cowboys Stadium. The Eagles beat the Cowboys 20-7. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-US PRESSWIRE

Dallas Cowboy Anthony Spencer, the NFL's Other OLB's, and ProFootball Focus Stats

A few weeks ago, I got into a discussion with some Cowboys fans about Anthony Spencer. The major disagreement was whether or not Spencer was “average”.  Although Spencer may not be an elite pass-rusher, he is much better than average.

Dec 17, 2011; Tampa, FL, USA; Dallas Cowboys outside linebacker Anthony Spencer (93) in action against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the first quarter at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Douglas Jones-US PRESSWIRE

In a previous article on Spencer, we compared his production in 2011 with DeMarcus Ware’s. The overwhelming conclusion from that analysis was that if Ware is an All-Pro, then Spencer must be a lot better than average, but a proper consideration of whether he is average requires a comparison with the rest of the OLB’s in the NFL.

There are at least ten other NFL defenses that use the 3-4 formation as their base defense: Miami, San Francisco, Kansas City, Green Bay, Pittsburgh, Washington, San Diego, Houston, New York Jets, and Arizona.

According to, there were 19 players who played OLB in a 3-4 system for more than 50% of the snaps in 2011.

As with the previous analysis, the grades from PFF are not used, since they are partially subjective.  The statistics can all be verified, so that is all that is used.


The Advanced Statistics from ProFootballFocus (organized by sacks):

 Name  Team # of snaps Sacks QB Hits QB Hurries Tackles Assists Stops
 DeMarcus Ware DAL 913 20 8 44 27 8 42
 Tamba Hali KC 1009 12 10 41 45 7 40
 Connor Barwin HST 986 12 18 24 28 7 26
 Brian Orakpo WAS 956 10 6 43 37 7 32
 Cameron Wake MIA 904 9 20 52 34 3 32
 James Harrison PIT 681 9 11 23 38 7 38
 Ryan Kerrigan WAS 1056 9 12 36 40 9 33
 Jason Taylor MIA 530 7 12 16 11 4 11
 Justin Houston KC 773 6 3 13 45 2 32
 Clay Matthews GB 970 6 21 40 37 7 35
 Brooks Reed HST 799 6 6 23 28 7 29
 Sam Acho ARZ 575 6 0 12 22 4 17
 Anthony Spencer DAL 939 6 9 35 53 11 39
 Ahmad Brooks SF 967 6 8 37 28 9 28
 Calvin Pace NYJ 977 5 8 23 57 5 44
 Shaun Phillips SD 641 4 5 20 26 10 22
 Clark Haggans ARZ 885 4 6 25 33 8 22
 Erik Walden GB 918 3 14 22 41 11 19
 Travis LaBoy SD 647 1 4 13 26 10 15

How Do Spencer’s Stats Compare to other OLB’s?

Pass Rushing:

Dec 14, 2008; Irving, TX, USA; New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning (10) is sacked by Dallas Cowboys defensive linemen Chris Canty (99) and Anthony Spencer (93) in the third quarter at Texas Stadium. Mandatory Credit: WILLIAM PERLMAN/THE STAR-LEDGER via US PRESSWIRE

1. Spencer was tied for 9th among OLB’s with 6 sacks in 2011.  His 6 sacks tied him with other well-known OLB’s like Clay Mathews in Green Bay and Ahmad Brooks in San Francisco.

2. The only team with two OLB’s that both had 6 or more sacks was Miami: Jason Taylor had 7, and Cameron Wake had 9.  So, if you were to compare Spencer to the 2nd best OLB on all the other teams, Spencer had more sacks than all of them except Jason Taylor in Miami.

(Editor’s Note:  Thank you to Jon Vantrease for pointing out that Washington also had 2 OLB’s with more than 6 sacks, and a couple teams had, like Dallas, one OLB with over 6 and one with 6.)

3. Anthony Spencer was also tied for 9th place in QB hits with 9.

4. Spencer was 8th in QB hurries with 35.

Other Relevant Stats:

When we look at the other, non pass-rushing stats, Spencer fares much better.

1. He was second, to only Calvin Pace of the NY Jets, in tackles, with 53.  Pace had 57, but the next closest to Spencer was Tamba Hali with 45.

2. Spencer led all OLB’s with 11 assists.

3. Anthony Spencer was tied for 5th in the NFL, among all defensive players (not just OLB’s), with 4 forced fumbles.

4. In what might be the most important and revealing statistic – “STOPS” – Spencer was 4th among OLB’s with 39.  Pace led the NFL with 44.

ProFootballFocus defines the “STOP” as:

Any defensive solo tackle that constitutes an offensive failure (including sacks).”

The Significance of the “STOPS” Stat:

Nov 22, 2009; Arlington, TX, USA; Washington Redskins running back Rock Cartwright (31) is tackled by Dallas Cowboys linebacker Anthony Spencer (93) at Cowboys Stadium. Dallas beat Washington 7-6. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-US PRESSWIRE

It is hard to imagine a much more important stat than “stop” the way they define it.  If Ware is the best OLB in the NFL, as I certainly believe he is, and he made 42 solo tackles including his sacks that resulted in offensive failures, it seems inconceivable that Spencer got so close to Ware at 39 if he was only average.  While sacks are certainly the best possible outcome, making these ‘stops’ seem very like a reasonable and reliable criteria for evaluating an OLB’s overall ability (the only thing that it doesn’t cover is turnovers).


If you can think of a single statistic that would be a better indicator of a OLB’s play-making abilities or a more accurate measure of a OLB’s impact on a football game than “STOPS”, I would love to hear about it.

I have often argued that tackles are an extremely poor way of evaluating a defensive player.  The basic objection is that a terrible defense that gets scored on all the time will necessarily have defenders who have to make a high number of tackles.

The beauty of ProFootballFocus’ “stop” stat is that it eliminates all the meaningless tackles from the solo stops that had a direct impact on the game.

It is difficult to overstate the significance of those 39 stops made by Spencer, or the fact that DeMarcus made 42, and the NFL leader (Calvin Pace) only had 44. Anthony Spencer made more tackles than any OLB in the NFL, except Calvin Pace, with 53.  An impressive 39 of those 53 tackles were “STOPS”.

If you think about the importance of the ‘stop’ category, Spencer’s statistics suggest that his overall play is much better than the average OLB in the NFL regardless of the number of sacks he had.

This look at Anthony Spencer will conclude in a few days when Spencer’s ability to disrupt the opposing QB will be considered in more detail and then compared to other OLB’s who play the 3-4.

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Tags: Ahmad Brooks Anthony Spencer Brian Orakpo Calvin Pace Cameron Wake Clay Matthews Dallas Cowboys Demarcus Ware Is Anthony Spencer "Average"? Jason Taylor ProFootballFocus Ryan Kerrigan The Wright Perspective

  • Jon Vantrease

    The Redskins and the Texans had OLB’s who both had 6 or more sacks according to the #’s you’re using.

    • C. Joseph Wright

      You are right. My mistake. Thank you.

  • Cowgirlcas22

    Great article and nice research. What really stuck out to me was Justin Houstons numbers. JJ passed on him in the 4th round to draft Arkin. In almost 200 less snaps his numbers were very compatible with Spencer. He did this as a rookie who was a DE in college and had to convert to a 3-4 OLB during a lockout season. Thats why he only had 10 starts. These are the kinds of things that pain me. I had Houston Mocked for the Cowboys. He is making rookie 4th rnd money and we just gave Spencer 8.8 mil. I look for Houston to break out this year. Another JJ goof.

    • C. Joseph Wright

      I don’t know much about Houston, but I am curious now about his numbers in the next article which tries to measure pass-rushing efficiency. The only big difference is QB hurries (13 vs. 35). But good point, his 32 stops tie him for 8th with Cameron Wake and Brian Orakpo.

  • Cowgirlcas22

    BTW Houston had 32 STOPS in 6 less starts and 6 sacks the same as Spencer

  • californy

    I saw the number on Spencer and too be honest I was not impress with those number what so ever. You know that I love tackles, I want these LB to get a minimum of 6 per game, that come out to 96 per season. That not a lot to expect. Navarro Bowman in 3-4 had 8.93 as ILB, and 143 last year. Cleveland had a 4-3 LB get 10 per game last year at 166 tackles per season. I do agree with yoiur classification on how you perceived tackles, if the tackle is not for negative yardage it has little or no value to me either.

    • C. Joseph Wright

      I think you are using a different kind of “tackle”. Like you said, Navarro plays ILB, so it has little to do with the article. If you define “tackle” as not including sacks or assists, the NFL leading OLB, Calvin Pace, had only 57.

  • californy

    I believe Spencer talent skill level would be better as a 4-3 DE. I want to see him more as a pass rusher this year. I hope RR utilizes him this way. I dont think Spencer is a special player like Ware, but at the same time I dont even think we seen the best of Spencer just yet.

  • californy

    I can expect Spencer sack number to go to about 12-15 per year if he was a fulltime DE. The pressure will go up alot also. Who know maybe he would get more pressure playing on the strong side of the line. Spencer may lead the league as DE in this catagory.

  • californy

    I am on the fense with Spencer, I am neutral on his play. I expect more from all my player including Ware. I would like to see more player in the rotation; Player like Hamilton, Butler, Ratliff & .Lissemore. We need to create a stronger rotation to keep all these player fresh throught out the game.

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  • Dallas3026

    The idea of the ‘stop’ stat is interesting. Great post. I have always thought that Spencer was under-rated.

  • Erasmus

    I am looking forward to the “pass-rushing efficiency” post. I never understood why people didn’t appreciate Spencer more. He makes plays in every game. He is better than he gets credit for.

  • Cowgirlcas22

    @C.J You cant really expect a rookie learning a new position in a lock out
    year to match a long time vet Like Spencer in every category, My point
    is, under those circumstances, he was among the top in the league for a
    fraction of the cost of Spencer, and can only improve. I am curious to
    see how he does after a full offseason. The fact remains, if you compare
    the value of Houston to what we got out of Arkin, it’s laughable to say
    the least. Spencer was a 1st round pick and I don’t think he even
    started as a rookie. I don’t really remember he’s been here for a while.
    I am willing to bet that Houston ends up a much better player in the
    long run.

  • Bob

    Woodley and Harrison had 9 sacks apiece for the Steelers last year.

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