Each week, we want to examine one crucial component of each Cowboys game and break it down with the new "All-22" game film that is available on NFL.com as part of their Game Rewind subscription.
It is an amazing resource for fans who have hoped for years to now have this information at their fingertips. It won't reveal everything, but it will offer us way more information than we have ever had before. With that in mind, I want to pick something from each game and break it down with some level of thoroughness. It could be one play or a sequence of them, or in this case, it is a key matchup in the game that helped determine the outcome.
This week, I wanted to take a snap-by-snap look at the Cowboys new left tackle, Tyron Smith, as he takes on one of his biggest tests. When you are a left tackle in the NFL, there are no easy match ups, but to return to the site of the final crime in 2011 - a place where Tony Romo was sacked 6 times and could have been sacked more - and the Super Bowl Champion, New York Giants.
As we are all aware, Jason Pierre Paul is already amongst the most fearsome sack machines in the NFL, and he has only played 2 seasons. Only 14 players have over 20 sacks since 2010, and Pierre-Paul is the youngest player on that list. It stands to reason that he might be on the verge of passing many on that list of 14 as he gains more NFL experience. He is already good at 23, but the football world wonders where he will be at the age of 25 or 26.
Meanwhile, the Cowboys have a QB who solves many of their pass protection issues on his own. It is simply wild speculation to tabulate how many sacks Tony Romo avoids with his uncanny movement with the ball in his hand, but let's just say everyone concedes that Drew Bledsoe would have never survived the last several Cowboys offensive lines.
But, a significant statistic that goes all the way back to the start of Romo's career still exists today. The night he became the Cowboys QB (October 23, 2006), Romo was on the receiving end of 6 Giants sacks. Since that night, when the Cowboys concede 4 sacks or more, they are 3-14. 5 sacks or more? The Cowboys are 0-8 since 2006. You simply cannot win in the NFL without the ability to pass in the NFL. And you cannot pass in the NFL if your QB's health is in danger.
Pass protection is not just about sacks, either. It is about allowing your wide receivers time to run routes that are down the field. If it takes longer to run a route down the field, then defensive backs do not have to respect your deep routes. They know that pressure is forcing the ball out of the QB's hands early. Therefore, they can sit on the short patterns and jump routes. That is when most Pick-6's happen.
In the summer, I spent some time sizing up the swap of Tyron Smith and Doug Free from one side of the line to the other. And I believe that a large part of the move happened because of Free's inability to hold off the rush of JPP and Trent Cole. Just like Michael Vick and Robert Griffin, if you are going to play your division rivals every year twice, you had better start planning your season with the best ways to deal with them. Slow linebackers will not contain mobile QBs, nor will a left tackle that struggle in pass protection.
Before we get to the game, let's also discuss one more item. That is, that looking at sack results is a poor way to evaluate play. Sacks are a big deal, but if you are an offensive coordinator, you want to be proactive about sacks, not reactive. In other words, you need to game-plan around what causes sacks. So, if I think Doug Free cannot block Jared Allen, then, I game plan to never ask him to do it. I line up Jason Witten next to Free and I keep Witten in to help. I have a RB behind him that will chip Allen back to the inside before he releases into his route. If my goal is to never allow a sack to Allen, I can do that. But, it will cost me two other offensive players to help Free throughout the game. My goal is to win the game, not to shut-out Allen. Therefore, I have to deploy my players in a way that helps me score points. And that is why a left tackle who gives up 1 sack in a game but never needs help might have more value than a left tackle that gives up 0 sacks but needs lots of help. And as we look at film, we are not only evaluating his performance, but, equally important, we are looking to see how much help he gets.
In scouting circles, sometimes that is called training wheels. "He had training wheels on, but now we are taking them off", describes a young tackle that was getting help all of the time, but now he is on an island. Mano y mano. Taking on Pierre-Paul all by himself as he attempts to protect Romo's blindside.
Let's see how he did:
Drive #1: Smith has uneventful 1st Drive, receiving some help on the 3rd Down play as Felix Jones chips Osi Umenyiora who was heading on an inside stunt.
Drive #2: Play #2, Smith suffers a false start penalty against JPP. Later, on 4th and 1. when Vickers is stopped short, it appears the "C gap" is left unattended by Jeremy Parnell who was the tackle-eligible on Smith's left. Antrel Rolle who is very impressive against the run is able to split that gap and affect Vickers on his way to the pile, and the play is doomed. Smith seemed to carry out his down block assignment on the play.
Drive #3: Smith is seeing plenty of Umenyiora, as the Giants are moving Pierre-Paul up and down the line to look for matchups against Doug Free and Ryan Cook. On the Romo interception, Smith has driven Osi behind Romo and across the far hash. For him to recover and ultimately make the tackle of Michael Boley (albeit illegal tackle) is both a testament to his athleticism and his hustle. Two Giants defensive backs had a chance to block Smith but quickly made a business decision to get out of his way and he horse-collared Boley. It cost him 15k, but perhaps was a play that made all of the difference in the outcome. It took points off the board for the Giants and if ever there was a worthy penalty, there it is.
Drive #4: This is the first time Tyron is flat-out beaten by Pierre-Paul. With 6:52 to go in the 2nd Quarter, DeMarco Murray is running to Smith's side. JPP fakes inside and Smith responds. This allows Pierre-Paul to catch Smith leaning and rips around him to hammer Murray in the backfield. If anything seems to give Smith trouble, it is the quick inside move. Jason Babin killed him on it last year, and when he starts worrying about it, then, the counter gets him, too.
Below, Smith vs JPP on Ogletree TD with 1:07 left in 2nd Quarter
Romo's movement keeps play alive - 1:07 left in 2nd Quarter
Drive #5: First play is another false start as he is leaning to run the zone stretch right. Smith is demonstrating a real impressive ability in the run game to finish his blocks down the field. Also, he can get multiple guys as he moves. He is quite an athlete. In the 2 minute drill, the Cowboys send Felix to chip another time, but he has received almost no help in the 1st half. With 1:07 left in the half, Romo helps Smith out by feeling Pierre-Paul turning the corner from the blind side. Smith is doing all he can, but if Romo doesn't step away, this might have ended poorly. Instead, Romo's movement opens up the throw to Ogletree in the endzone, and a near disaster turns into a touchdown.
2nd Half -
13:42, 3rd Quarter - Smith caught leaning outside
13:42, 3rd Quarter - JPP uses that lean and beats Smith inside
Drive #6: 13:42, Smith is caught guessing that JPP is going outside, but Pierre-Paul heads back inside and beats Smith. Romo unloads quickly to flank and Murray, and no damage is done. As athletic as Smith is, Pierre-Paul's quickness is shocking at the snap. At 13:00, Smith again is beaten, as JPP fakes inside, Smith responds, and then Pierre-Paul swims to the outside. Luckily, the draw runs right past him, but you can see that Smith is now guessing and is a bit off balance. At 10:42, Umenyiora appears to have the edge, but Tyron recovers well and pushes him well past Romo. There is no question that Smith deals with Osi much differently. On plays against #72, there are almost no issues at all.
Drive #7: 2:53, maybe I spoke to soon on Osi. Umenyiora goes with the straight bull rush and pushes Tyron right into Romo. But, Romo, demonstrating wonderful awareness breaks the pocket and picks up 9 yards. We saw Smith lose the bull rush battle last season to Detroit's Willie Young. This time, he does just enough.
Drive #8: Now in the 4th Quarter, at 11:27, we see a rare occasion where Tyron is on the ground on a stretch zone play. I say that because unlike his predecessors, this is a real rarity for Smith. Marc Colombo and Leonard Davis spent tons of time on the ground, and Tyron keeps his feet very, very well. This is a key in the run game. Do not lose your feet, because a 325 man laying on the ground is a great way to stop your running back. At 9:08, there is yet another false start from Smith, also on another run play. It is interesting that his false starts seem to precede run plays, not pass protection.
Drive #9: The Cowboys execute the 4 minute drill and Smith carries out all assignments very well.
Overall: 3 false starts and a few pressures. But, this is the type of game you would hope your left tackle could be capable of pulling off, but to do it in his first start at that position is very impressive. He was beaten a few times and is obviously concerned about giving up the edge, so there will be some pass rushers that will attempt to use the inside counter move to beat him. But, the Cowboys hardly helped him the whole game. He was on an island and did very well. 57 snaps and he kept Pierre-Paul from dominating the game and Osi was hardly even mentioned.
I think the Cowboys fretted all off-season about how they would deal with the New York front. It wasn't perfect, but it was much better. Smith will get picked apart for his flags, but I am not worried about those. They can get cleaned up easily. What would worry you is if he was routinely beaten or needed lots of help. He was neither. The Cowboys sent help to Free's side or allowed "Scat" protection (just 5 OL protection - no RB or TE help). He had his training wheels fully removed and did very well.
This is the first of many battles. Part of being a left tackle is that there are no weeks off. Every single Sunday, you will see a guy who is a great pass rusher and he only has to beat you once or twice to do his job. You have to beat him every snap to do yours. With Trent Cole, Julius Peppers, and Brian Orakpo down the road, there are going to be good days and bad, but Smith looks like the real deal, false starts or not.