How the Dallas Cowboys' Defense Can Thrive Without DeMarcus Ware

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How the Dallas Cowboys' Defense Can Thrive Without DeMarcus Ware
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Unless you’ve turned off the radio, unplugged the television, and sworn off the Internet since Monday morning, you know that Dallas Cowboys defensive end DeMarcus Ware is highly doubtful for Week 7 and, according to some reports, out up to a month.

No matter how you slice it, that’s a blow to the Dallas defense.

Ware is a once-in-a-generation sort of player for the ‘Boys, so his presence will surely be missed. At a position of as much importance as defensive end, the Cowboys desperately need to find a way to replace Ware’s production.

Here’s how they can (and can’t) do it.

 

Ware’s Age

It’s always challenging to argue that a future Hall of Fame inductee is in the midst of a decline, but that’s really what we’ve seen with Ware. If there’s one reason to think that the Cowboys can potentially hold down the fort while Ware is out, it’s that he hasn’t been a truly dominating player for a couple years.

Yes, Ware is still a remarkable talent, and yes, the ‘Boys will obviously miss him. But take a look at Ware’s production coming into 2013.

The rate at which Ware has gotten to the quarterback and brought down ball-carriers has decreased of late. Again, he’s still playing at a high level, but not a there’s-literally-nothing-we-can-do-to-replace-him sort of level.

And if we look at Ware’s production relative to the typical pass-rusher, we see he’s aging at a standard rate.

Ware’s numbers have obviously been superior to your average defensive end or outside linebacker, but in terms of the percentage of his peak production that he’s capable of providing at age 31, Ware is falling right in line with others at his position.

So while the Cowboys don’t have anyone sitting on the bench who can match Ware’s level of play, at least they don’t need to replace Ware circa 2008.

 

Kyle Wilber’s Outlook

Defensive end Kyle Wilber will be getting the start in place of Ware.

To date, Wilber has played 156 snaps in the NFL. Here’s how his pressure rate compares to Ware and Anthony Spencer over the past two seasons.

Wilber’s numbers are relatively volatile just because he hasn’t played many snaps, meaning another pressure here or there would increase his pressure rate much more than it would for Ware or Spencer. Even so, it’s worth noting that he hasn’t produced at an elite rate in the same way that Victor Butler (yes, Victor Butler) did during his time as a backup in Dallas.

Wilber doesn’t have an elite skill set or measurables, either. He has average height and arm length with slightly above-average quickness (4.31 short shuttle).

When you add it up, there are not many reasons to be excited about Wilber right now.

Could he crush it while Ware is down? Sure, but there’s not much evidence to justify believing that he actually will at this point.

 

Calling in Reinforcements

It’s worth noting that the ‘Boys recently signed Jarius Wynn—formerly of the Packers, Titans, and Chargers, as Bryan Broaddus of DallasCowboys.com points out. Wynn is 6’3” and 285 pounds with defensive end/defensive tackle versatility. He has 7.5 sacks since getting drafted by Green Bay in the sixth round, and there’s not much pressure of which to speak.

Wynn’s pressure rate has increased over the years, but he’s produced just one season (2012) with decent pressure.

The ‘Boys also have Caesar Rayford and Edgar Jones on the roster, although neither figure to provide meaningful contributions.

 

Selvie’s Time

So with the Cowboys’ primary backups unlikely to replicate Ware’s production, whom can they count on?

It might be time for starting defensive end George Selvie to step up.

Last week, I profiled Selvie. Although Selvie is a former seventh-round pick who’s been cut by three teams, there are some signs that point to Selvie being special. In addition to his dominant college production—he has more tackles for loss since 2000 than anyone in Division I football—Selvie has 34.5” arms.

That’s pretty rare for a guy who stands 6’4”. Here’s a breakdown of the arm length for every 6’4” player who attended the NFL Scouting Combine in 2013.

At 34.5”, Selvie falls just outside the 80th percentile for arm length, which has proven to be a really important predictor of success for pass-rushers.

Plus, Selvie’s playing better than his numbers suggest.

He has three sacks through six games, which is decent, but Pro Football Focus has tracked him as tallying 17 pressures (subscription required). I’ve found that sacks tend to add up to one-quarter of pressures over the long run, so Selvie’s most likely sack total after six games is actually four or 4.5.

With games against some weak right tackles on tap, starting this week in Philadelphia against struggling rookie Lane Johnson, look for Selvie to get back on track and pick up some of the slack in Ware’s absence.

 

Blitz, Blitz, Blitz

If the ‘Boys can’t get significant pressure with some combination of Selvie, Wilber, Jones and Rayford, they’ll probably need to send extra rushers a bit more often than normal.

Well, they’re in luck.

Over the next three weeks, the ‘Boys play quarterbacks who have struggled badly against the blitz. Check out the passer rating versus five or more rushers for the Cowboys’ next three opponents. I used 2012 data from Pro Football Focus to obtain a larger sample size than what we have through just six weeks of play.

Eagles quarterback Nick Foles, Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford and Vikings quarterback Josh Freeman (who figures to start for Minnesota by Week 9) were all really poor against the blitz in 2012, registering passer ratings between 60 and 75.

So if the Cowboys can’t generate organic pressure, they’ll need to send extra rushers against some quarterbacks who might not be able to consistently beat the blitz.

But let’s just hope Ware is healthy when Dallas travels to take on Drew Brees in Week 10.

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