In Defense of Cameron Wake's 2011 Season: "The Story of the Missing Sacks"

Only 1 more day till 2012 Training camp! Training camp gives us a chance to overreact to every Omar Kelly tweet about one of our 12 wide receivers making a great catch ("He'll be a Pro Bowl candidate!") or dropping a pass ("He's practice squad at best!"), and I look forward to it.

However, I decided that now is a good time to write one last FanPost about the past season before starting to look ahead. I'm going to discuss my favorite current Dolphins player, Cameron Wake, and his perceived "down-season" in 2011.

Quick summary: After leaving Penn State, he went from being an UDFA with the Giants, to paper-pusher at a financial firm, to CFL star, to pass rushing specialist in 2009, and then to Dolphins breakout star in 2010.

In 2010, he had 48 tackles, 14 sacks (including several clutch sacks at the end of games, notably at the end of the 2nd game against the Jets), and 3 forced fumbles. He went from unknown to Pro-Bowl starter. He was one of 3 Miami Dolphinswho made the NFL's "Top 100 of 2011" list. I'm a Dolphins fan living in Boston, and my friends who are Patriots fans were asking me about his background, impressed by his performance.

Then 2011 happened. The Dolphins' defense, predicted by many (including myself) to be a dominant unit, began the season by allowing hated rival QB Tom Brady to achieve a record breaking passing performance - which my Patriots-loving friends mocked me mercilessly for because I had predicted before the game that the Miami defense would embarrass Brady.

It was terrible to watch. Vontae Davis and Sean Smith were leaving the game with cramps, new starting FS Reshad Jones was blowing assignments left and right, Kevin Burnett was lost and confused after trying to learn Nolan's 3-4 scheme in a lockout-shortened offseason, Karlos Dansby was trying to cover Rob Gronkowski while being 20 pounds overweight, and no Dolphins players besides Wake were coming close to Tom Brady - all omens pointing towards the Dolphins' 0-7 start to the season.

Although Cameron Wake had 1 sack that Monday Night Football game against the Patriots, the story of the game (besides Brady's 500+ yards of offense) became that Patriot rookie first round offensive tackle Nate Solder had allegedly "owned" Cameron Wake.

From there, Wake would post the following stats in 2011: 42 tackles (down from 48 the year before), 8.5 sacks (down from 14), 0 forced fumbles (down from 3). And so the story was over, Cameron Wake had a down-year, right?

Yet, advanced statistical websites like Pro-Football Focus were saying Cameron Wake was the 16th best player in the NFL. What gives?

Summary of Pro-Football Focus: Wake finished 2011 Pro-Football Focus's highest-ranked 3-4 outside linebacker with the best grade as a pass rusher while also showing great improvement in his play against the run. Cameron Wake also went into pass coverage 53 times last year. His 81 combined sacks, hits, and hurries was the second-highest total of all defensive players. On average a pass rusher converts roughly 18% of their pressures into sacks. In 2010 Wake was a bit above average at 24.2%, and in 2011 Wake was a bit below average at 11.1%. Chances are Wake will get around the same amount of pressure and possibly more, as well as getting closer to league average next year in terms of converting pressure to sacks. This would mean Wake would be back to double digit sacks.

Summary of Football Outsiders: Cameron Wake of the Miami Dolphins drew 13 holding penalties in 2011, more than any other player by far (2nd place was a tie between B. Orkapo and L. Houston with 7). He drew eight holding penalties on pass plays, which was more than any other player had on all plays, pass and run combined. Wake also tied for the league lead in 2010 with nine total holding calls.

So the story of Wake's "missing sacks" in 2011:

1. Wake suffered from being a well known pass rushing threat the entire season but not having an elite pass-rusher opposite him. A great example of this phenomenon is Clay Matthews of the Packers, who became well known after being voted runner-up for Defensive Player of the Year in 2010 after getting 13.5 sacks. C. Matthews then finished 2011 with only 6.0 sacks.

Much like Wake, Matthews suffered because other teams spent the entire season game-planning to stop him on passing downs, and he didn't have an elite pass rusher opposite him to punish opponents for double teaming him.

(As a side-note, this is why I'm expecting a good year from Olivier Vernon. Jason Taylor at age 36 had 7 sacks, tying his season high since 2007, because teams will continue to double Wake until somebody on the opposite side steps up and makes them pay for it.)

2. Mike Nolan, in an effort to confuse opposing QBs as well as help our atrocious coverage of tight ends, dropped Cameron Wake more in coverage than the year before, robbing Wake of 53 pass rushing opportunities. Wake can't get sacks if he's chasing Aaron Hernandezdownfield.

3. Despite factors #1 and #2, Wake generated more total QB pressures in 2011 than he did in 2010. Unfortunately, he suffered from being held more by offensive linemen than any other pass rusher in the NFL.

He drew 13 offensive holding calls in 2011, which was 4 more calls than he drew in 2010, a year in which he also led the league in holding calls drawn.

He drew 3 more offensive holding calls on passing downs than the 2nd most held pass rusher, J. Abraham of ATL, and there probably were even more examples of Wake being held that weren't called as penalties (*cough* Nate Solder *cough*). A holding call isn't as good as a sack, but it's a sign that Wake was beating the lineman in front of him.

From what I've read, it looks like Wake will be used as a traditional DE in our new hybrid 4-3 scheme, where he'll be asked to set the edge against the run (an area where he has improved) and rush the passer more (an area where he excels). On passing downs, it'll be up to Wake to create pressure (which I'm happy about), and it'll be up to the safeties and linebackers to cover tight ends (*gulp*).

This is a FanPost and does not necessarily reflect the views of The Phinsider's writers or editors. It does reflect the views of this particular fan though, which is as important as the views of The Phinsider writers or editors.