As we spend 2 weeks at Cowboys Training Camp in Oxnard, California, I will continue doing the regular features on this very Cowboys-heavy blog (11 for '11 and Splash Plays), but now we will begin analyzing position battles and other more relevant training camp issues.
One I wanted to tackle today was something that won't get near the ink of the fictional "window" of the Cowboys or the handling of Dez Bryant, but it is far more interesting to me than either of those well-discussed items.
That is, how well will the Cowboys tackle position be fortified with the flip-flopping of Tyron Smith from Right to Left tackle, and Doug Free going the opposite direction? How can a rookie hold up against the gauntlet of studs that will come his way on Romo's blind side, and just as important how will Free respond to having a very difficult year at left tackle in his 1st season under his new hefty contract?
Let's use this email as a jumping off point:
My question – Everyone raved about Tyron Smith last year and criticized Free. To me, it looked like Smith benefited from having Kosier next to him…..and Free was a little more lost without Kosier. Free had a good year with Kosier next to him in 2010. What do you think?
Jerry Jones and I have a large philosophical difference in opinion when it comes to football it seems, and I have noticed this since I have started covering his team in 1998. It appears that he places a premium - whether in money or in draft picks - on skill position players well above players on the two lines of scrimmage. Whereas, aside from the obvious position of Quarterback - I feel the exact opposite about the game of football. I believe, even in 2012 where there is more passing than ever, that this is still a game that is usually won by the team with the better pass protection and ability to destroy their opponent's pass protection.
The greatest example of this is the Giants, despite uneven QB play for large swaths of the last 5 years have managed to win 2 Super Bowls, largely because they have been able to generate a dominating pass rush group that never seems to need a blitz in its attack. When you can easily drop 7 men in coverage, then you don't have to have great defensive backs - and they don't. They simply enjoy a rotation that reduced Aaron Rodgers to a poor facsimile of himself last January.
Regardless, as Jerry Jones has continued to spend his most important assets on defensive backs, wide receivers, and running backs, I have spent a lot of time typing protests on this blog about the fact that the Cowboys need to invest in their lines more. They need to help DeMarcus Ware destroy passing attacks and they need to give Tony Romo a chance by being able to hold off the Giants pass rush.
And in 2011, it happened. The Cowboys had a Top 10 pick, and they resisted the urge to do anything other than what the situation call for by taking a fantastic offensive lineman prospect, Tyron Smith. Smith's rookie season certainly came with a fair amount of lessons, but there was a ton to like from one of the youngest players in all of the NFL. Here is what I documented back in January about his rookie campaign:
RT - Tyron Smith - 641 pass plays - 8 sacks: A world of expectations have been placed on Tyron Smith, and he took every single snap he could this season at right tackle. From day one, teams tried to confuse him with stunts and blitzes to make his rookie head spin. He also was victim to some old tricks with one pass rush move setting up another. He had Calvin Pace beat him in Week 1, Ryan Kerrigan in week 3. Willie Young bull rushed him on to his back to end the Lions game, Andre Carter went clean around his flank in game 5. Then Jason Babin used two inside spins to get him in Philadelphia and Trevor Laws stunted around him to get a 3rd in that forgettable night against the Eagles. But, here is the great news. Starting in the 2nd half of the year, as the rest of the line was crumbling, Tyron was figuring it out. Kerrigan got him again in Washington and Michael Bennett did get his flank in Tampa Bay, but that was it. All of the troubles against the Giants were not because of right tackle. In his first 7 games, Tyron game up 6 sacks. In his last 9 games, he only conceded 2. His upside is immense and he is only getting better.
Meanwhile, let us offer the reminder of how Doug Free's season went the opposite way:
LT - Doug Free - 641 pass plays - 10 sacks: Free started the season very well coming off his new contract. In the first 4 weeks of the season, Free was not involved in hardly any situations that led to sacks. Andre Carter went around his edge in New England, as did James Hall of the Rams, and Trent Cole of the Eagles. There was one blitz awareness issue in the game at Washington that led to London Fletcher's sack, but otherwise a very strong month of November. But, in December, Free was just beaten over and over again (6 of his 10 sacks in December). In fairness to Free, Jason Pierre Paul was dominating the rest of the league, too, but against the Giants and JPP, Free was eaten alive. 4 sacks in 2 games just from the left tackle spot and Trent Cole got him again in Dallas. In all, I had Free as the primary blame in 10 sacks this season, but with 2 against Cole and 3 against Pierre-Paul (and 1 more against Chris Canty) meant that 6 of his 10 sacks allowed were against the Giants and Eagles. Free sees the toughest match-up nearly ever Sunday, so, I am not here to suggest he is doing a lousy job, but it does appear that he might be more of a right tackle in the long term.
So, as we head to 2012, the decision has been made on the switch. The Cowboys did the right thing in getting Smith a year under his belt before throwing him to the 2nd most important position on the offense. This assignment should not be taken lightly and it won't be. The NFC East is a spot where there is no place to hide for either tackle. The edge rushers in the division are awesome. In New York, it is Justin Tuck and Jason Pierre Paul. In Washington, it is Ryan Kerrigan and Brian Orakpo. And in Philadelphia it is Jason Babin and Trent Cole.
Not only that, but now the interior of those defensive lines are improving as well. Fletcher Cox will join Cullen Jenkins on the interior in Philadelphia. And the Giants will add Shaun Rogers and Marvin Austin returns from missing an entire year. How the Cowboys continue to avoid major investment on their offensive line's interior suggests to me that they didn't watch much of last December's game tape. That is the only explanation that I can come up with, because I still believe guard-center-guard is a major place of concern for a team that could have fortified that substantially with the 2012 draft. Instead, they took a very talented corner and hope that what they have is good enough in front of Romo.
Back to Bob's email. Did Tyron benefit from having a better guard next to him than Free did? Well, what is interesting is that Free's play was better when Bill Nagy was the left guard. Nagy was really struggling and the position improved when Montrae Holland was brought in to replace him after his injury. And in December, Free was just over-run with a pass rush that had exhausted him. Smith, meanwhile had a clean December which says quite a bit given what was happening all around him.
I think the caliber of the guard can affect the tackle, but for the most part, it is line calls and blitz pick-ups more than it is the ability to simply stay in front of your man. I don't think Kosier was helping Smith very much blocking-wise. It appeared that they took the training wheels of Smith early and left him on an island. With his long arms and great recovery, he showed he had great quality.
But, let's not kid ourselves. Left tackle is harder to play. There are fewer occasions where you have a tight end next to you. And, with Trent Cole, Brian Orakpo, and Jason Pierre Paul usually over there, it is a harder assignment. He also will see plenty of Julius Peppers and James Harrison when those teams come to Arlington. He will get beat this season. But, I think he will emerge quite well, because he is that good.
Free, on the other hand, will have to rebound. His confidence was not done any favors last December. And, even though right tackle is not regarded the same way, in today's NFL, the good teams have two edge rushers and the right tackle is going to have to deal with Ryan Kerrigan, Justin Tuck, and Jason Babin. And if you think that is a picnic, you need to watch those players more often.
I am curious about how Romo deals with all of this. As we have seen on the blog in the last few weeks here and here, Romo was starting to hear footsteps quite a bit and he would bail out of the pocket before he had to on some occasions. It appeared he was expecting Free to lose his battle rather than wait for Free to lose. So, he was spinning away and actually making some of his best throws of the year, but to run an efficient offense where you can spread the ball around, you have to believe in your protection. I am curious if this adjustment will actually result in Romo being able to sit in the pocket a bit longer and be able to find something downfield that turns into a nice gain.
It all looks good right now, but 37 days from now in New York that will certainly be tested.