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Jan 1, 2012; East Rutherford, NJ, USA; New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning (10) unloads pass before Dallas Cowboys outside linebacker Anthony Spencer (93) gets to him at MetLife Stadium. New York Giants defeat the Dallas Cowboys 31-14. Mandatory Credit: Jim O

Dallas Cowboy Anthony Spencer, Pass-Rushing Efficiency, and the NFL's OLB's


As explained in Parts 1 & 2, the attempt to evaluate Dallas Cowboy Anthony Spencer was based on determining whether it was fair to say he was “average” (and whether Jerry Jones committed a ridiculous mistake by paying him 8.8 million for the 2012 NFL season). Part 1 compared Spencer to DeMarcus Ware, Part 2 compared Spencer to the other OLB who play in a 3-4 defense; both concluded that Spencer was much better than average.

Part 3 is an attempt to find some statistical way (other than sacks) to measure pass-rushing efficiency.

January 8, 2012; Denver, CO, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison (92) during the first quarter of the 2011 AFC wild card playoff game against the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-US PRESSWIRE

A Different Way of Measuring Pass-Rushing Skills:

When you look at all of Spencer’s stats from 2011 compared to the rest of the OLB’s in the NFL, his pure pass-rushing numbers are all in the top 10, but they are reasonably close to ‘average’.  But, when you look at his total production (tackles, forced fumbles, and ‘stops’) Spencer is very close to the league leaders in all of those categories.

As previously argued, it is unfair to judge a player’s pass-rushing ability based solely on the number of sacks. While not always as good as a sack, hitting the QB and hurrying the QB are sometimes even more valuable than sacks. Pressures often result in penalties for grounding, interceptions, etc., so while they are not sacks, they are still pretty important.

In an effort to concoct a statistic that would be a more accurate reflection of a player’s pass-rushing skill, I created a new category of statistic called “Frequency of QB disruptions“.

The category of “Frequency of QB disruptions” is based on sacks, QB hurries, and QB hits.  The stat is created by adding all the sacks, hurries, and hits together, and then dividing them by the number of snaps that player was actually rushing the passer (as opposed to playing the run or falling back in coverage.)  The result is a number that tells you how often the player “disrupts” the QB by sacking, hitting, or hurrying him.

The numbers for sacks, hurries, and hits came from

# of snaps Total QB #of plays per
Name #Snaps rushing QB Sacks QB Hits QB Hurries Disruptions QB Disrupt.
 James Harrison 681 206 9 11 23 43 4.79
 Cameron Wake 904 519 9 20 52 81 6.4
 DeMarcus Ware 913 476 20 8 44 72 6.61
 Brian Orakpo 956 390 10 6 43 59 6.61
 Tamba Hali 1009 459 12 10 41 63 7.28
 Clay Matthews 970 501 6 21 40 67 7.47
 Ryan Kerrigan 1056 451 9 12 36 57 7.91
 Anthony Spencer 939 400 6 9 35 50 8
 Shaun Phillips 641 271 4 5 20 29 9.34
 Justin Houston 773 206 6 3 13 22 9.36
 Jason Taylor 530 345 7 12 16 35 9.8
 Calvin Pace 977 382 5 8 23 36 10.6
 Ahmad Brooks 967 555 6 8 37 51 10.88
 Travis LaBoy 647 197 1 4 13 18 10.94
 Connor Barwin 986 598 12 18 24 54 11.07
Sam Acho 575 211 6 0 12 18 11.7
 Brooks Reed 799 471 6 6 23 35 13.45

The chart above is based on the frequency with which OLB’s get a “QB disruption”.  A ‘QB disruption’ is when a defensive player gets a sack, hits the QB, or hurries the QB.  The figure in the far right column, “# of plays per QB disrupt”, is simply the number of snaps each player was actually rushing the passer divided by the total of ‘QB disruptions’.  That stat indicates how often a player disrupts the QB.

The data suggests the following:

Nov. 18, 2010; Miami, FL, USA; Miami Dolphins linebacker Cameron Wake (91) sacks Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler (6) and causes a fumble during the first half at Sun Life Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-US PRESSWIRE

1. The most elite of the pass-rushing OLB’s in the NFL (DeMarcus Ware, Cameron Wake, and Brian Orakpo) disrupt the QB about every 6.5 times they set out to rush the passer.

2. The incredibly efficiency of James Harrison is impressive, but it is also fairly easy to dismiss as an anomaly (likely explained by the fact that he only rushed the QB on 206 snaps, while the vast majority of the other players rushed the passer over 400 times).

3. If the three OLB’s mentioned above are the upper echelon of pass-rushers in the NFL because they all disrupt opposing QB’s approximately every 6.5 times they rush the QB, then the second tier of pass-rushing OLB’s must include Ryan Kerrigan, Clay Matthews, and Anthony Spencer.  All three of them disrupted the QB every 7.5 – 8 times they rushed.  Tamba Hali (at 7.28) may be in his own group.

4.  Anthony Spencer disrupted the QB once every 8 times he was pass-rushing.  All of the players who disrupt the passer more frequently than Spencer are generally considered elite players.


I started out doing research about Anthony Spencer with the intention of disproving the claim that he was “average”.  Looking at the evidence compiled, it now seems that not only is Spencer much better than average, he might be awfully close to elite. Most Cowboys fans unconsciously judge Spencer by comparing him to Ware, so it will probably come as a surprise to realize just how good Anthony Spencer really is.  Think about it:

1.  Yes, he only had 6 sacks.

2. Only 1 OLB in the entire NFL, Calvin Pace (57), had more tackles than Spencer (53).

3. Spencer forced 4 fumbles in 2011; only 4 players forced more, and none of them were OLB’s.  Other OLB’s that also forced 4 fumbles include: Ryan Kerrigan, Tamba Hali, and Sam Acho.

Play-makers cause fumbles.

4. In the all-important stat of “STOPS“, Anthony Spencer is the 4th ranked OLB with 39. The NFL’s leader had 44.

Play-makers get stops.

5. When it comes to rushing the passer, Spencer appears to be fairly effective. The rate at which he ‘disrupts the QB’ suggests he is just as good as many of the big name OLB’s in the NFL.  Spencer may not be in the same class as Ware, Orakpo, and Wake, but he is part of the next group that includes Kerrigan and Matthews.  Spencer also disrupts the QB much more frequently than Jason Taylor, Ahmad Brooks, or Calvin Pace.

Play-makers disrupt the QB.

Dallas Cowboy fans may not be able to see it, but Anthony Spencer is closer to elite than “average”.

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