In last week's article on the Cowboys' five most underrated players, I argued that many people have misconceptions about Anthony Spencer's worth to the team. Spencer is perhaps the top run-defending outside linebacker in the NFL, and he has also generated more pressure as a pass rusher than many people believe.
The truth is that until Spencer's sack numbers improve, he won't receive the credit he deserves. Luckily, I think Spencer is in store for a big year. Here are the top five reasons you'll see Spencer post a career-high sack total in 2012 ...
5. He'll drop into coverage less frequently.
Although it may seem like Spencer rushes the quarterback on every pass play, that's far from true. Over the last three seasons, he has actually dropped into coverage on 27.5 percent of pass plays. In comparison, DeMarcus Ware has been in coverage on only 12.9 percent of pass plays over that same period.
With defensive coordinator Rob Ryan simplifying the defense just a tad this season, I think you'll see Spencer drop into coverage less frequently. With the addition of two play-making cornerbacks outside and superior pass coverage at the inside linebacker spot, the 'Boys will probably run fewer zone blitzes, i.e. Spencer will rush the quarterback more often.
Spencer played 167 snaps in coverage last season. If his coverage rate drops to around 20 percent of pass plays in 2012, he'll have around 50 extra opportunities to get to the quarterback. Even if his career sack rate remains steady, that equates to about one extra sack based on defensive scheme alone.
4. A full offseason under Rob Ryan should do wonders.
Many people forget that the lockout hindered Ryan's ability to properly install his defense last season. Ryan admitted he should have limited the complexity of his defense with reduced preparation time. With a full offseason to learn and master Ryan's scheme, the entire defense, especially the pass rush, should be much improved in 2012.
3. Spencer could see fewer snaps.
Spencer played in every game last year, but he still saw fewer snaps than in any season since 2008. That could be a good thing. With Victor Butler potentially playing more downs and rookie Kyle Wilber grabbing some of Spencer's early-down snaps, Spencer should have fresh legs whenever he's on the field. If you see Spencer's total snap count in the range of 900 by season's end (he played 939 snaps last year), there's a good chance his sack total will actually be the highest it has ever been due to increased efficiency.
2. He's in a contract year.
A lot of people were unhappy when the Cowboys applied the franchise tag to Spencer, but it was the right move. Sure, Spencer will make $8.8 million in 2012, but it buys the organization a year to see if they want to extend a long-term deal to the outside linebacker.
In the meantime, you'll see the best Spencer you've seen since he came into the league in 2007. Out to prove he's worth a long-term commitment, Spencer is a motivated player in a much-improved defense.
1. Spencer's pressures are high.
I told you last week that Spencer pressures the quarterback at a rate that's right in line with some of the league's better pass-rushers. Since 2009, the top 15 pass-rushing outside linebackers have averaged 30 pressures per year. Spencer has tallied the exact same number. Actually, Spencer has the same number of pressures as Pittsburgh's James Harrison over the past three seasons.
The problem has been bringing down the quarterback, not actually reaching him. Spencer's career sack rate of 20 percent is below the league average of 25.7 percent. Sack rate is one of those stats that tend to even out over time, meaning Spencer has just been pretty unlucky in terms of sacks.
There's nothing to suggest Spencer can't physically bring down the quarterback once he's there. He doesn't possess the same type of athleticism as Ware, but an increase in sack rate is still likely in 2012. If Spencer's pressures remain steady and his sack rate improves to match the league average this year, he'll record right around eight sacks.
Now throw in extended time in Rob Ryan's defense, increased snap efficiency, and less time in coverage, and you have the makings of a season with double-digit sacks.