Dallas Cowboys: Why sacks are a poor way to evaluate DeMarcus Lawrence

ARLINGTON, TEXAS - SEPTEMBER 22: Demarcus Lawrence #90 of the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium on September 22, 2019 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
ARLINGTON, TEXAS - SEPTEMBER 22: Demarcus Lawrence #90 of the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium on September 22, 2019 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images) /

Far too many Dallas Cowboys fans are discrediting DeMarcus Lawrence’s season simply because his sack totals were below average. Here’s why that’s a mistake…

Some claim just because DeMarcus Lawrence only tallied 5.5 sacks last season it somehow means he played poorly. The reality is that couldn’t be further from the truth because sacks alone are a pretty poor way to grade pass-rusher performance.

From a sack perspective, DeMarcus Lawrence had his worst season since 2016. But from a full evaluative perspective, DeMarcus once again proved himself to be the defense’s best player and a guy the Dallas Cowboys are lucky to have.

While sacks are the ultimate goal of a pass-rusher, it’s an unstable statistic that can be grossly misleading if relied upon exclusively. Tackles for loss, QB hits, hurries, and pressures must also be evaluated because history shows all of these pass-rushing metrics better illustrate pass-rushing effectiveness and have proven to be considerably more stable than tracking the fickle sack column.

Welcome to Part 2 of a 2 part series that seeks to shed light on and discredit singular use of unstable stats like interceptions and sacks. Last week we discussed Byron Jones and proved he’s a considerably better cornerback than his paltry interception totals indicate. I urge you to follow the link directly below to catch up.

light. Related Story. Why interceptions are a poor way to evaluate Byron Jones

Today we’re going to look at DeMarcus Lawrence and evaluate his play last season. Was 5.5 sacks disappointing? Of course it was! Does that mean he wasn’t still a great pass-rusher? Of course it doesn’t! By looking at the big picture we can see D-Law was every bit as good as he’s been throughout his career. He may not have gotten home as often as we’re used to, but the attention he demanded and backfield penetration he achieved indicate the sack total was a fluke and a positive regression to the mean can be expected in 2020.

The Big Picture

We know DeMarcus Lawrence is one of the most well-rounded defensive ends in the NFL. He’s as strong against the run and defending the screen as he is rushing the passer. He’s a true “war daddy” for this defense. But let’s be honest, DE is about pressuring the QB and forcing turnovers. That’s the primary reason D-Law makes $21 million per season, after all.

sacks are the ultimate goal of a pass-rusher, it’s an unstable statistic that can be grossly misleading if relied upon exclusively.

Even when we focus solely on the pass-rushing aspect we see DeMarcus is much better than his sack numbers indicate and one of the best rushers in the NFL.

Ask around who the best pass-rusher in the NFL is and most evaluators will tell you it’s Khalil Mack. Like Lawrence, Mack commanded a ton of double-teams last season and like Lawrence, Mack performed well even though his sack numbers were lower than we’re accustomed to.

In 2019 Mack racked up 8 tackles for loss, 14 QB hits, 30 hurries, 6 QB knockdowns, 45 pressures, and 8.5 sacks. That’s all pretty comparable to Lawrence who logged 10 TFL, 16 QB hits, 13 hurries, 10 QB knockdowns, 29 pressures, and 5.5 sacks.

Now, comparing D-Laws numbers to his 2017 and even his 2018 season we can see a decline. So it’s fair to say Lawrence didn’t accomplish as much last season as he did the two seasons prior. But even that isn’t an indictment on his level of play. It just proves his results weren’t the same level of awesome. And looking below at his double team rate (EdgDTR), we can see why.

As you can see above, DeMarcus was one of the most double-teamed players in the NFL last season. Despite those double teams he was one of the most effective in applying pressure within 2.5 seconds. It’s actually pretty amazing.

Sacks are a QB stat

The difference between a sack and a pressure or a hurry, often comes down to how long a QB stands in the pocket, not the speed and effectiveness of the pass-rusher. Sack totals are also impacted by number of double-teams faced, which side the play going, and most of all – the QB.

Majority of sacks are attributed to the QB – not the offensive line. The phrase, “Sacks are a QB stat.” speaks to who is really to blame for a sack. Multiple studies, and years of data, have been collected and the findings are season sack totals typically stay the same year-to-year for QBs – regardless of how good their O-lines are.

Even if a QB switches teams, his sack totals follow him. Revamped O-line? Sacks totals stay the same. One of the reasons why is good offensive lines often lead to greater trust and more time spent in the pocket. This doesn’t mean ALL sacks are the QBs fault – it just means QBs usually have a greater impact than the O-line.

I discussed this last season praising Dak Prescott for his evolution in the pocket. He defied the odds and improved his pocket awareness – thus reducing sacks against him.

light. Related Story. How Dak Prescott Improved his Sack Rate

DeMarcus Lawrence was top-3 in pressure rate

Now, in cases the pass-rush arrives in less than 2.5 seconds, we know it’s the O-line that’s to blame and the pass-rusher to credit. No QB should expect pressure that early in a dropback. Next Gen Stats tracked these under-2.5 second pressures and guess who finished No. 3 in the NFL? DeMarcus Lawrence.

Next. Trending Again: Dallas should replace Jeff Heath with this guy. dark

While D-Law fell well short of his sack expectations, he was top-3 in pressure rate. Additionally, when looking at all the relevant pass-rush data we can see Lawrence was much more effective than his paltry sack numbers indicate.

  • Published on 01/31/2020 at 12:01 PM
  • Last updated at 01/31/2020 at 11:46 AM