Throwback Thursday: How disruptive was the 2016 Cowboys defense?

Football is a team sport. On both offense and defense, much of your job is dependent on the 10 other guys around you. The quarterback needs his offensive line to block and his receivers to catch the ball. A corner needs his defensive line to generate pressure so they aren’t forced to cover for 10 seconds.

There are, however, a few moments where individuals are given the chance to shine and make plays on their own. So recently I started to wonder what would be a good way to track the individual plays that are being made on the defensive side of the ball.

Play-Making Opportunities

On defense, you have one goal: stop the offense from scoring. There are different means to that end, but the end goal is always the same. On defense there are really six tracked statistics that definitively show an individual disrupting the opposing offense:

QB Hits (QBH)

Hitting the quarterback hurries his decision and changes the velocity and trajectory of the pass.

Forced Fumbles (FF)

Forcing a fumble stops the current play in its track, and changes the entire tenor of the moment, putting all 22 players into a free-for-all pursuit of the ball.

Passes Defended (PD)

A deflected pass effectively ends the play without a positive result for the offense.

Tackles For Loss (TFL)

A tackle for loss by its very definition pushes the offense further away from its goal, while also eliminating a down.

Sacks (SKS)

Same as a tackle for loss, only typically more devastating in the yardage lost for the offense.

Interceptions (INT)

Interceptions are the ultimate individual disruption on defense as it completely ends the drive for the opponent no matter the circumstances.


These six stats are what I’m going to call “disruptions.” It doesn’t necessarily mean the opposing offense was stopped, but all six statistics are examples of individual players disrupting rhythm and increasing their team’s chances of stopping the offense. They are making plays, which is all you can really ask.

It’s also important to remember that some positions are going to be given more opportunities to be individually disruptive than others. A really good defensive end can sack the quarterback, register a QB hit, force fumbles, penetrate and pick up a tackle for loss, or bat down a pass at the line of scrimmage. A really good corner may never get thrown at or be sent on blitzes, making it difficult for him to register any of the six statistics in a game.

I’ll be charting disruption statistics for all 32 teams this season in 2 different ways:

Disruptions (DIS)

This will be a simple tracker of disruptions. If you register one of those six statistics, you get one disruption. So a player with two sacks, a tackle for loss, and a pass defended would have four disruptions.

Value-Added Disruptions (VAD)

Tracking disruptions is good from the point of objectivity; it’s all math, without any interpretation. But some of those statistics are admittedly more disruptive to the offense than others, so I’ll be tracking disruptions from a subjective standpoint as well with value-added disruptions.

Interceptions – 3.0 points

This is the most disruptive thing an individual can do to an offense.

Sacks – 1.5 points
Tackles For Loss – 1.25 points

Sacks and tackles for loss both move the offense further back, while also eliminating a down, but sacks register as more valuable on my charting. This is because of: A) the amount of yards typically lost on a sack vs. a tackle for loss, and B) sacks can disrupt the most important position on the field (quarterback) even after the initial play (wear and tear, psyche, etc).

Passes Defended – 1.0 points

The net yardage is zero on a pass defended, but every instance is a prevention of positive yardage and eliminates a down.

Forced Fumbles – .75 points
QB Hits – .75 points

These are both disruptive plays, as I talked about above, but both of them have ambiguous results. The four other disruptions we have listed are by their very definition negative results for the offense. With forced fumbles and QB hits, you are disrupting the offense’s play, but the result of the play is left up to chance. The offense could recover the fumble and pick up extra yards, or the ball may have still had enough to get to the receiver on a QB hit. These are valuable disruptions of the offense, but they rank below the other four because of chance.

2016 Cowboys

So let’s take a look back at the 2016 Dallas Cowboys defense and how each player performed in the areas of individual disruption. I’ll break these up by position groups for the reasons I mentioned above about opportunities to be disruptive.

Defensive Line

As you can pretty clearly see, David Irving was the most disruptive player on the Cowboys defensive line last season, totaling 29 disruptions and scoring 28.5 on value-added disruptions. His 16.7 snaps per disruption was the highest rate on the team.

Benson Mayowa registered the third-most disruptions on the defensive line with 13, but his team-leading 6.0 sacks boosted him to a VAD of 16.25.


It’s important to group these statistics by position when you take a look at Sean Lee’s numbers. Lee had a fantastic year, but his snaps per disruption were 74.8, which is much higher than any of the defensive lineman. That does not mean any of the defensive lineman had a better year than Lee.

Lee’s 13 disruptions is boosted to a 15 VAD score thanks to 10 tackles for loss in 2016, which is a number that more falls in line with what we saw last season.

Perhaps most impressive about these numbers is just how effective Justin Durant was in 2016. Durant tallied 7 disruptions in 278 snaps, meaning Durant averaged a disruption every 40 defensive snaps. Compare that to Anthony Hitchens who had just .5 more disruptions than Durant, but played more than double the snaps.

Defensive Backs

Orlando Scandrick had a tough year in coverage, but his all-around game translated to a number of plays being made. Scandrick had 14 disruptions in 2016, and produced the greatest frequency with a disruption every 45 snaps.

Byron Jones has been criticized for his play-making, but the numbers show that may be somewhat of a myth. Jones leads the secondary in disruptions and VAD with 15 and 17.5 respectively.


Overall, no Cowboys defender was more individually disruptive than David Irving, and it wasn’t particularly close. Irving led the Cowboys in disruptions, snaps per disruption, value-added disruptions, and snaps per value-added disruption. Benson Mayowa, Orlando Scandrick, and Justin Durant were all very efficient play-makers in 2016, and Byron Jones delivered a strong overall performance, tying for second in disruptions, and holding second place all to himself in value-added disruptions.

Jack Crawford, Anthony Hitchens, and Brandon Carr were the least efficient players in their respective position groups. There were only five Cowboys who played defensive snaps in 2016 without registering a disruption: Zach Moore (10 snaps) Mark Nzeocha (16 snaps) Kavon Frazier (36 snaps) Kyle Wilber (49 snaps) and Leon McFadden (56 snaps). Wilber did force a fumble in 2016, but it came on a special teams play.

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