As many of my esteemed colleagues offer worthy coverage of the OTA's and the amusing things football players say in the last week of May, I will start a new series today that will bridge over the next few weeks to attempt to answer questions posed by many this spring.
Today's will require a few days to work through. It is, "Is the Cowboys offensive line the best in the NFL?" As La'el Collins suggested, could they even become the best OL in the history of the NFL?
Now, let's be clear. They are very good. So much so, that the Cowboys have allowed DeMarco Murray to walk away and their front office and fan base seem to have limited concerns about whether it will affect their product. The reason is that with all of the highly touted and selected draft picks that make up this line, surely there is no OL in football you would trade for the one right here in Dallas.
But, how good are they really? If we are going to discuss the best in the league (I will not even address the idea of being the best in NFL history until the 1st question is satisfied that they are really the best in 2014 or 2015), we are looking for a line that runs a game. One that can run block with great effectiveness and success and also one that can pass protect with the same effectiveness and success.
Only Seattle had more rushing yards per game and only Seattle and Miami had more rushing yards per carry. Both of those teams use a zone read to get their QB running, something the Cowboys do not use at all. Russell Wilson ran for 849 yards, Ryan Tannehill ran for 311, and Tony Romo had 61 yards. When the Cowboys run, there is little deception. It is declared, and then the ground and pound begins. I am more than satisfied to declare the Cowboys one of the very top teams at running the ball in 2014, as best tested with the simple premise that it didn't appear anyone could "load up on the run" and stop them.
But, OL play is much more than that. In fact, in a passing league, you could argue the run blocking is less than 50% of the proposition. Can you pass protect? Here was an exchange I saw the other day on twitter from one of the Eagles writers - Jimmy Kempski - when he was discussing the Dallas' OL:
Now, Jimmy may be a guy who loves his Eagles. In fact, he is. He makes no secrets about his allegiances when he writes. But, admitting that, I still think he does raise a valid point that I have been thinking since January: The Cowboys OL is very good. But, to be great, they will need to pass protect better than they did in 2014. Because for all of the great things they accomplished, Tony Romo was sacked 40 times in 18 games, including 10 times in the 2 playoff contests. For a team that did not throw near the league average, that is too many. And for a team that had a QB who elusively escaped many more sacks, that is way too many if we are going to discuss the best OL in the league.
They allowed 30 regular season sacks. 20 teams allowed more sacks, and a few teams - Jacksonville (71) and Washington (58) allowed way, way more. But, 30 teams attempted more passes than the Cowboys. Only Seattle threw fewer passes. Therefore, we look at sack rate. What percentage of passes are sacks? 5.9% in Dallas. The league average was right there at 6.3%, where the Cowboys finished 16th. 11 teams had a sack percentage of lower than 5%, so you could easily argue that the Cowboys would need to drop 5-10 sacks off their tally to be considered a top team in pass protection.
That isn't to say they are lousy. But, it is to say they are average. Jimmy appears to have a real basis for what he is saying above.
They are 21st in most sacks allowed. They are 31st in most pass attempts. They are 16th in sack percentage. They allow a sack once every 16.9 pass attempts. Peyton Manning, that magician in Denver, gets sacked once every 36.7 pass attempts and Joe Flacco is once every 30 attempts.
This may not be the most air-tight way to evaluate your offensive line, but given the nature of football, there isn't a perfect way, short of sitting down with each sack and trying to figure out what the issues are. And that is why this next project is on my list.
For the next few weeks, I am going to grab the 40 sacks of 2014 and try to sort through where this team is being attacked. In our heads, when there is a sack, we imagine someone just getting beat by a fierce pass rusher. But, when we look at these, I think you will find that the Cowboys were attacked by deception and schemes more than they were beaten straight up.
If they wish to be the best in the NFL in 2015, then the sacks will need to come down. They will be attacked in new and exotic ways to get Tony Romo on the turf and off the field on 3rd Downs. So, let's start this week with the first month of the season and look at the 8 sacks that were surrendered in the first 4 weeks.
First a disclaimer: The analysis below is not meant to be exhaustive for each play. There is context that could require massive write-ups on each sack, but in the interest of time, let's do this short and sweet. I will try to identify the bust on each sack, but sometimes, it will be a guess as we do not know specific assignments. We are trying to get this right, but invariably, some of you will see the same play and reach a different conclusion. Cool?
Then, let's begin:
|#1||SF||1/8:15||2/1/2||4||94 - J Smith||77 - T Smith/Romo|
This is a play we all remember from Week 1 where it was the run-pass option that Romo decided to opt to the pass. Trouble is, most every other set of eyes was sure it was going to Murray and a Touchdown was going to be rather automatic. It was a math decision and one that Romo wanted back in retrospect. That said, Tyron Smith is given most of the bust here as he did not impede Justin Smith at all and you can tell by his body language that he is quite disappointed in himself. You could easily give part of this bust to Romo as well, so we will split this one.
|#2||SF||3/6:45||2/10/28||4||94 - J Smith||68-Free/70-Martin|
Here is one that is a bit tricky for me. I think when you first see Justin Smith come all the way from RDT around the left side on a "pirate stunt", you want to blame Doug Free alone. But, I think when you look a bit longer, you see Free's dilemma. He has to hand off #59 to Martin, but Martin doesn't see it. Martin is supposed to hand #91 to Frederick, and take #59. Free is supposed to hand off #59 and slide to #94. But, because nobody is waiting to accept #59, Free is left with 2 guys. No matter what he decides, the other guy is going to crush Romo. Therefore, despite Free looking like the clear culprit, I think Martin - in his first NFL start - was likely identified by the coaches as needing to handle this better the next time.
|#3||SF||3/3:14||2/12/39||4||55-Brooks||77 - T Smith|
This one is easy. Tyron Smith just got flat-out beaten badly. He set to the outside and Brooks just dips inside and crushes Romo. I think we forget how mediocre Tyron was last September right off his new contract. He got way better when the season matured, but in those first 4-5 games, something didn't look right with the exceptional left tackle.
Here is Doug Free being beaten pretty soundly by the very impressive Jurrell Casey. Look how Casey gets into his chest and throws him aside. Romo tries to escape, but he can't quite save the play on 3rd and long.
|#5||TENN||1/6:51||1/10/42||5||92 - Pitoitua||68-Free|
Here is Free being beaten off the snap on a play-action pass play where Romo sees Witten releasing but doesn't have the time. Free just can't close off the B-Gap to his inside and Ropati Pitoitua gets one of his rare sacks because he is hardly touched.
You may not remember this, but this was the 3rd sack of the 1st Quarter in Game 2, meaning the Cowboys had given up 6 sacks in the first 5 Quarters of the season. That is a pace that is incredibly disturbing. This one was the first time it happened against a real blitz as this 6-man pressure caused some issues in 6 on 6 blocking. DeMarco gets his guy right in the middle, but on the right side, Casey #99 is against Leary and #59 is against Frederick. Frederick gets the LB blocked so well, that he basically impedes Leary and it turns into a stunt, leaving Casey with a free run at Romo. I don't think the plan was to run a stunt, but it worked out well. I will charge this to Leary, but this might have been a simple stroke of bad luck.
This one isn't easy. First, it is a Tennessee exotic rush that basically keeps the guard-center-guard just standing there as the flanks are attacked by edge guys and defensive backs. To find fault in this play, we must watch DeMarco Murray try to stand his ground against the DB from the far left of the screen and basically get pushed into Romo, who tries to stay alive and runs right into the other DB from the other side, 31-Pollard. Pollard gets the sack, but really didn't do much except meet Romo in the escape zone. If Murray can stick to his spot, then Romo can stand in there. You know you are going to get the trickiest looks on 3rd and long, and the Titans schemed a nice one here.
|#8||NO||4/8:56||3/6/24||5||32 - Vacarro||68-Free|
This is New Orleans dialing up a really trick look here, too. As you can see, on a lot of these blitzes, you are just trying to cause confusion. And the Saints did it well here as Doug Free sees 2 guys coming at him and tries to figure out the biggest threat. He chooses wrong, because DeMarco is over there to take his guy - the outside threat. Free has no way of knowing that beyond blind trust, but the general rule of thumb is that you take the inside guy when you are in doubt. If he takes the man in the B-Gap and leaves the C-Gap for Murray, this gets blocked up. I understand Free's decision, but it appears to be the wrong one as Murray looks confident in his outside role.
So through the 4th game, Free has busted on 3.5 sacks, Tyron 1.5, Leary and Murray get 1 each, and Romo and Martin each get 0.5 sacks.
Next time, weeks 5-8 and the rough night against the Redskins.