The Dallas Cowboys must work to improve pressure, not sacks in ’20

Sacks are a poor thing for the Dallas Cowboys to focus on improving, it’s pressure they should seek.

The Dallas Cowboys underwhelmed in the sack department last season. Despite boasting two of the better edge rushers in the NFL (DeMarcus Lawrence and Robert Quinn) the Cowboys only collected 39 sacks as a team, which was good for just 19th in the league last year. It’s safe to say we all expected more from the team and many are now calling for an emphasis on sacks heading into next season.

It’s understandable expectations have risen. With Gerald McCoy and Aldon Smith added to the roster, Tyrone Crawford back from injury, Randy Gregory hopefully back from suspension, and Tank’s regression to the mean, a top-10 finish is expected in 2020. But maybe we’re focusing on the wrong things. Maybe sacks aren’t what we should be striving for in 2020…

Dallas Cowboys should focus on “Pressure”

Sacks, like interceptions, are an unstable stat dependent upon a handful of factors which are often independent of defensive player’s actual execution. That’s why using sacks as a benchmark isn’t advisable. Instead, we should be pushing for “pressure” because pressures are a stable statistic, they have nearly the same impact of a sack, and they are what inevitably lead to sacks and turnovers.

Sacks have a way dominating our valuation of players. Did DeMarcus Lawrence have a down season in 2019? Sure, but it wasn’t because his sack totals were down, it’s because his total pressures were uncharacteristically low. With more pressures come more sacks. Focusing on the latter is a recipe for disaster but working to improve the former will inevitably lead to those sack totals rising. They also lead to a significant drop in passer performance.

I know this all to be true yet I’m guilty of doing exactly what I’m preaching against. When someone talks about a pass-rusher the first thing I do is check how many times they’ve sacked the QB. Only after that do I go searching the hurries, hits, and pressure totals.

A big reason focusing on sacks can be so dangerous is because only make up a tiny percentage of plays. Let’s use last season’s sack leader, Shaquil Barrett, as an example. Barrett had a tremendously productive season, sacking the QB 19.5 times.

The problem is he played 889 snaps last year which means we’re forming the bulk of our opinion on him based on just two percent of his plays. If we look at his 51 pressures instead we can see that makes up twice as many plays as his sacks, plus they are more stable, and they’re less dependent on the opponent (his are also less spectacular which indicate he won’t repeat those sack numbers next season).

Not only do pressures greatly impact the passer and often lead to sacks, but they also increase the chances of the ball getting intercepted. Not too long ago Pro Football Focus did a deep dive into how pressure impacts interception rate. Looking at the top 37 QBs they compared interception numbers from a clean pocket vs from a pressure situation. They found the interception rate bounces up from 1.8 percent to 3.1 percent when pressured. The INT rate nearly doubled.

The best teams in the NFL pressure the passer about 35 percent of the time. And the league average QBR when pressured drops to a staggering 21.2. That’s much more significant impact than if we just look at sacks.

Fun fact also courtesy of PFF: Dak’s QBR when pressured is 33.6 which is 7th in the NFL

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Pressures is what defensive coaches try to create, not specifically sacks, because sacks are a result of consistant pressure – not the other way around. Pressure also creates “hidden” victories (like a drop in passer rating and increase in INT rate) and is more sustainable year to year, so at the end of the day we should all be talking about pressure, and leave the sack talk to the casuals.

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