Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
12 Sep 2013
by Ben Muth
I think I speak for most people when I say that watching the Eagles on offense Monday night was exciting and absolutely electric. It was everything I hoped it would be when I chose the Eagles as one of the teams I would cover. I am really excited to talk about the Eagles in this space all year ... I just won’t do it this week. This week we’ll be discussing the Cowboys, because I assume everybody and their mother will write about Philadelphia, and this column will always try to zig as others zag.
First, the bad: The Cowboys running game looked poor. They ran for just three first downs and averaged less than four yards a carry. Living in Dallas, a lot has been made of how ineffective the running game was last year (31st in yards per game, 30th in yards per carry) and how a new play caller committed to running the ball (Bill Callahan) and a healthy DeMarco Murray would change it. One week in, the Cowboys still have a long way to go.
The Cowboys seem to have a running identity in mind. They want to use a lot of single-back sets with two tight ends and run the zone stretch. I always like when you can watch a team and identify some concepts they want to hang their hat on. It makes it seem like there’s a definite plan and direction. The problem in Dallas is that the Cowboys looked awful running the zone stretch, and I’m not sure their personnel is a good fit for what they want to do.
They had two big issues. First, their hat placement was generally poor. The key word in zone stretch is stretch: the goal is to stretch the defensive gaps past their horizontal breaking points. To do that you have to get your helmet outside the defender you are blocking, so he fights like hell to avoid being reached. As the defenders fight to prevent from getting hooked, you can push them wider and wider, until there are cutback lanes for the ballcarrier. The Cowboys did a poor job of this on Sunday, but this something that can and should improve as the season progresses.
Second, and more worrisome, is that Dallas was soft at the edges. I thought both James Hanna and Jason Witten really struggled to get any movement in the running game, and the result was a constricted running area for Murray. (Murray, by the way, looked really good. If he hadn't been making people miss the numbers would’ve been really ugly.) Witten was okay at times, but I thought Hanna was a consistent liability -- particularly in combination with other players. If you are going to run outside zone, you have to be able to at least threaten the edge of the defense, and I’m not sure Dallas has the tight ends to do that. It’s definitely something to monitor as the season progresses.
I thought there were some very encouraging signs up front for the Cowboys despite this. They played as a unit in pass protection. The Giants ran a fair amount of games Sunday night, and the Cowboys line did a nice job of passing them off between each other. If you recall my preview for the Cowboys in the preseason, my biggest concern was how disjointed the line looked at times. There were just too many unforced errors where guys would simply let rushers go thinking someone else was responsible for them. It’s too hard to protect the quarterback as it is; you can’t add to it by making mental lapses. On Sunday, Dallas looked like a much more cohesive unit.
I'm excited that the Cowboys are running a lot of man-based pass protections. Man protections are both simple (the offensive line has the four designated rushers and the Mike) and easily adjustable (the quarterback can make anyone on the field the Mike for the purpose of sending his best blockers to the defense’s best/most likely rushers). That means there are going to be a lot of instances of Tony Romo re-designating the Mike linebacker late, which we should be able to capture on tape. That will lead to a lot of interesting blitz pick-up diagrams this year.
Here, the Cowboys are in a man-scheme and you can watch Romo go through the process of pointing out Spencer Paysinger (No. 52) as the Mike (I didn’t get a screen grab of it) before changing the Mike to Jacquian Williams (No. 57). Travis Frederick parroted the call, and then Romo pointed out Antrel Rolle (circled) as a hot rusher. The Giants have both linebackers walked up in the A-gaps and are running a six-man pressure with a pretty intricate cross stunt on the offense’s right.
The guards and tackles are responsible for the four down linemen across from them, and Frederick is responsible for Williams, who is now the Mike. The running back has the Sam, and the split wideout is hot off the safety.
Right off the snap you can see Frederick and Murray get their eyes to their linebackers. Left tackle Tyron Smith immediately sees the defensive end lined up over him loop inside and comes down to bang Ron Leary off his man to pass off the twist.
As his man drops, Frederick (circled in frame two) begins to give ground while keeping his shoulders square. His job is to stay at the same depth as the guards so he can help with any inside moves to either side.
As the play develops, the running back makes an executive decision that his man is rushing at an angle that doesn’t make him an immediate threat. During the snap count Rolle crept towards the line and hit his blitz on the run. Murray peels off his man to take Rolle, who he feels is a more immediate threat. Since the quarterback should be throwing hot anyway, the goal is just to take a hit off Romo if possible.
Murray was right not to try to block Paysinger, since Paysinger’s job on this stunt is to occupy the guard so the defensive end can come free to the inside. But because Frederick has continued to get depth on his own, he’s right there to pick up what should be the free man on this stunt. Coaches will usually refer this as "falling into a stunt." If your offensive line can stay on the same plane they’ll be able to sort out just about any type of twist a defense can throw at it.
In the grand scheme of things this blitz pick-up doesn’t matter because Romo was throwing hot anyway. But it’s a really pretty play and points to good things for the future of this line (and particularly how the rookie Frederick can help them).
The other real bright spot for Dallas’ pass protection was Smith. Smith was matched up against Jason Pierre-Paul for most of the game and he flat-out handled him. He gave up a couple of pressures, but certainly won the battle. Any time an offensive tackle gets the best of a Pro Bowl-caliber edge rusher it's an achievement, but the circumstances surrounding Smith’s victory were even more encouraging.
Watching the game back it became immediately clear that Bill Callahan’s plan was to leave Smith one-on-one with whoever was lined up over him and focus any help he could elsewhere. It was amazing how often Smith was left on an island. The Cowboys run a lot of man-based schemes, so naturally the tackles will receive less help in general. But when backs did chip, they chipped towards the right side and Doug Free (who also played very well, surprisingly), and when the Cowboys did slide their line, they slid it away from Smith. Take a look at these screen grabs below.
Just look at the amount of space in some of those pictures between Smith and his linemates. Notice that there is never anyone looking his way to see if he needs help either. He is a volleyball away from nailing a Tom Hanks impression. And he more than held his own out there.
This was a big vote of confidence by the Cowboys coaching staff in the opening week and Smith absolutely delivered. A lot of people are starting to think left tackles are becoming overvalued in the NFL and I understand where they’re coming from to a certain extent. But if you do land an elite left tackle, it makes the rest of your line’s job so much easier. When you can neutralize a defense’s best pass rusher with one man, you can double at other spots and cover up some deficiencies. (And the Cowboys guards are currently deficiencies. I think that will be a common topic in this column.)
The issue is that average left tackles, or even good ones, aren’t quite good enough to give you this schematic advantage. Yet you have to draft and pay them like they do. It’s why there’s been a bit of blind side backlash recently. But if you do land a good one, it’s still an absolute game changer.
Considering he’s still just a 22-year-old (22!), I may have caught the Cowboys at the perfect time to watch the breakout season of the NFL’s next great left tackle. Like the rest of the Cowboys unit, he needs to improve as a run blocker -- though he did look great in space -- but boy am I excited to watch him as the season progresses.
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