Dallas Cowboys 2011 Pass-Rush: Marcus Spears and Co. Enough at Defensive End?

Jonathan BalesAnalyst IAugust 1, 2011

ARLINGTON, TX - JANUARY 9:  Marcus Spears #96 of the Dallas Cowboys reacts in the first quarter against the Philadelphia Eagles during the 2010 NFC wild-card playoff game at Cowboys Stadium on January 9, 2010 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Much to the dismay of plenty of Cowboys fans (myself included), the ‘Boys have passed on acquiring a premiere free agent defensive lineman.  

After allowing Stephen Bowen to walk and surprisingly re-signing Marcus Spears, the Cowboys added free agent Kenyon Coleman.  

With Igor Olshansky still around to give us unwarranted post-tackle dances (unfortunately no post-sack dances seem likely) and free agent Jason Hatcher’s status with the team uncertain (I think Dallas needs to bring him back at this point), they are left with a whole lot of perceived run stuffing ability at defensive end...and a big lack of pass-rushing skills.

In my 2010 Defensive Linemen Grades, I provided Olshansky and Spears with C and B- run defense grades, respectively.  

Both players are known as “run stuffers,” although their play seems to indicate they’re both average against the run.  Despite defending the run on 51.6 percent of his snaps, for example, Olshansky recorded a tackle on just 3.8 percent of plays.

Spears’ tackle rate (6.1 percent) was certainly better than Olshansky’s, but he also played almost solely in running situations (61.5 percent of his snaps came against the run), thus the mediocre run defense grade.  

Even Hatcher, who played against the run on just 38.0 percent of snaps, recorded a higher tackle rate than Olshansky.

It isn’t like Spears or Olshansky make up for their lackluster play against the run by being forces in the passing game.  Both players failed to record a sack in all of 2010.  

On top of that, the duo combined for three total quarterback hits and 12 total pressures.  For comparison, Bowen tallied 27 pressures by himself.

Now, I understand the role of 3-4 defensive ends—particularly those in Wade Phillips’ version of the defense—are not asked to be playmakers.  Their role is to eat up blockers, so guys like DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer can make plays.  

Still, the jobs of the players in the secondary would be a whole lot easier if Olshansky, Spears and Co. could provide just a little more pressure on the quarterback.

But what about Kenyon Coleman?  Could he give the ‘Boys the defensive end pass-rushing ability they covet?  

According to Pro Football Focus, that won’t be happening.  Although providing Coleman with the 10th-highest run defense grade of all 3-4 ends in 2010 (but one still worse than Spears), PFF rated Coleman as the 25th-best pass-rusher of the group.

Not stellar considering they graded just 42 players at the position.  For comparison’s sake, I listed Coleman’s 2010 stats below.

You can see that Coleman recorded a 2010 tackle rate (9.5 percent) far higher than any Cowboys’ defensive end.  His 54 tackles were nearly 2.5 times as many as Olshansky’s 22.  

Of course, Coleman played in Rob Ryan’s 3-4 defense last season. One that allows defensive linemen to freelance a bit more than Phillips’ scheme.  

Plus, the Browns were losing a lot of contests in 2010 and Coleman played against the run on 368 of his 567 snaps (64.9 percent). A rate much higher than any Dallas defensive end.

Based solely on the numbers (which I admit can be misleading), I would have given Coleman a B+ run defense grade and C- pass-rush grade.  Will he be significantly aiding the Cowboys’ pass-rush efforts in 2011?  It doesn’t appear likely.

So where do the Cowboys go from here?  While they do have an All-Pro-caliber nose tackle who has the ability to create chaos in the opposition’s backfield on a weekly basis, I find the lack of talent at defensive end concerning.

If I was an offensive coordinator, I would double Ware and Jay Ratliff, forcing either Anthony Spencer or a defensive end to beat me.  

We know the latter position isn’t going to do it, so that’s an awful lot of pressure to put on a currently under-performing Spencer.

Bringing back Hatcher might be a smart move right now for Dallas.  The team needs some kind of pass rush from the end position, and Hatcher, while clearly not outstanding, is superior to Olshansky, Spears or Coleman in that department.  

Plus, there isn’t really much left in the free agent market.  Former Packers defensive end Justin Harrell and veteran Ty Warren, who both have 3-4 experience, are probably the best of the bunch.  

Dallas could also try to convert a talented young player like Amobi Okoye to defensive end, although the risks and learning curve there wouldn’t seem to be worth the trouble.

Then there’s the fact that Ratliff reported to camp at a lean 285 pounds.  While he has dismissed the weight, claiming he played in that range last season, perhaps it’s a sign that Rob Ryan plans to add a “true” nose tackle and move Ratliff to end.  

While the pass-rush from the nose tackle position would suffer, the team’s defensive end production would skyrocket.

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