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16 Aug 2013

Word of Muth: Previewing the Cowboys

by Ben Muth

After a long offseason, football is officially back on television. That means that it’s time for me to start getting ready to write about the good, the bad, and the shameful for three offensive lines. Rather than doing one big preseason preview, this year I’m going to do three individual previews for each of the teams I’ll be covering. The goal isn’t necessarily to predict how I think the offensive lines will play, but to give a brief description of why I chose them, what I’m most looking forward to watching, and what might be a cause for concern.

This year's teams will include the Philadelphia Eagles and the Cincinnati Bengals, but first up, let's look at the Dallas Cowboys.

Why They Were Chosen

This one is simple. I’m following the Cowboys because I just happen to live in Dallas at the moment and I enjoy writing about the teams I listen to talk radio hosts and callers talk about. It’s the reason I covered the Cardinals in year one of this column and the reason I covered the Titans in year two. (I didn’t cover the Cardinals last season, when I was again in Arizona, because I knew it would have turned me into a drunken Harry Doyle from Major League for 2,000 words at a time.)

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The good news is that there are plenty of reasons to focus on the Cowboys offensive line that go beyond my current mailing address. They drafted an offensive lineman in the first round, Wisconsin center Travis Frederick, and everyone thought it was a reach at the time. But Frederick is getting strong reviews in the preseason. The Cowboys also have third-year left tackle Tyron Smith, who is as physically gifted as any lineman in the NFL.

Then we have two guards returning from what was possibly the worst interior offensive line in the NFL: Mackenzy Bernadeau and Nate Livings. These two are thought of so highly in the organization that, after failing to sign one guard that decided to retire instead of play for America’s Team (Brandon Moore), they have been actively trying to coax another guard out of retirement (Brian Waters).

Lastly, let's not forget to mention Doug Free, the homegrown left tackle that was moved to the right side and had to take a steep pay cut just two years after signing a hefty extension. This offensive line may not the best I’ve covered, but they should be interesting. I can’t wait to see what exactly this thing will look like at the end of the year, because it could go a few different directions.

What I’m Most Looking Forward To

While I’m curious to see whether Frederick was simply a little overdrafted or a flat-out bust, what I’m really looking forward to watching is whether Smith can become a top-flight guy at left tackle.

When Smith was first drafted I remember being in the camp that thought he would struggle at first due to his age (he was just 20 as a rookie) and slight frame for an offensive tackle. So, of course, he came out and played really well as a rookie and was probably his team’s best offensive lineman despite the fact that he couldn’t legally enjoy a beer. Because he played so well and had such great athleticism, the Cowboys moved him to the left side, and he followed that faith up with a bit of a disappointing year in 2012. It’s not that he played poorly; it’s just that he didn’t make a real leap like a lot of second-year offensive linemen do (Nate Solder and Trent Williams, to give two examples). He was still the best lineman the Cowboys had, and certainly an above-average tackle, he just wasn’t as great as his first year might have lead you to hope. I'm intrigued to find out if Smith is going to be a solid left tackle or an All-Pro type player.

After watching a couple of games last year I will say that Smith certainly has the talent to be compared favorably to anyone. His feet are as good as anybody currently playing the position -- and I’m including my personal favorite pass setter Ryan Clady. He’s quick, he’s smooth, he’s fluid, he does everything you want from just a pure pass-setting prospective. The issue is that where Clady is a very good puncher, Smith is a fairly mediocre one.

Smith isn’t a massive puncher, and he doesn’t have a great natural anchor against a bull rush, so as a result he can get pushed around a bit. He’s athletic enough to recover from getting knocked off balance, but he really can get disrupted in his set and at times it threatens the integrity of the pocket. I think either a bigger punch or a quicker, more accurate punch, would go a long way towards him being the player a lot of people think he can be.

One thing I will say in favor of Smith’s hands is that while they aren’t very good initially, he is really good at hand fighting once he’s engaged a defender. He lacks that big punch that stuns people, but he does replace hands effortlessly when they get knocked down, and will knock a defenders hands down and regain inside leverage often. Here’s an example of Smith’s hand fighting from last season.

You can see that his lower body is in great position when he makes contact with the rusher. Wide base, inside-out relationship, and decent pad level. But his hands are initially wide, and because he doesn’t jolt the defender at all, the rusher is able to begin to long arm Smith towards the quarterback.

Once Smith feels that he has bad hands, he immediately chops down the pass rusher’s long-arm technique and brings him face first to the turf. This is like pass blocking judo, where you use the defender’s own move (in this case leaning into a long arm) against him. It’s a pretty play as far as pass blocking goes, and Smith made it look ridiculously smooth. If Smith does stuff like this consistently, I’m going to really enjoy watching the Cowboys line no matter what the other four guys are doing.

What I’m Worried About

I watch a lot of competitive cooking shows: Chopped, Top Chef, Master Chef, and others of that nature. One of the standard challenges in these types of shows is to break into teams of three-to-four people to create one dish. The catch is that only one person can be in the kitchen at a time, and you can’t communicate with your teammates before or during the competition. The results from these challenges are usually a mess. Sauces don't compliment the side dishes, or at least one item on the plate is horrendously overcooked. Stuff like that. The important thing is that the lack of communication makes it impossible to judge the individual chefs on what they might have been responsible for. This reminded me of watching the Cowboys interior line last year.

When I watched the Cowboys live last year, I knew the interior line was bad. What I didn’t realize was why it was so bad. Upon further review, a large part of it was because they were so bad at passing off stunts, game, and blitzes. I’m not sure if it was the fault of the center (either Ryan Cook or Phil Costa), the guards, or the scheme, but I do know that it was hard to get a read on the individual players because the unit as a whole seemed so dysfunctional.

This is from the Cleveland game in Week 11. I think center Bernadeau and guard Derrick Dockery are responsible for the nose tackle and the inside linebacker to the offense's right, but it’s hard to tell because of the way the play develops. After the nose tackle initially worked into the center, he countered towards the guard. Once Dockery felt the nose tackle work away at the snap, he immediately got his eyes to the linebacker. Once Bernadeau felt the nose work towards the guard as the play developed, he got his eyes towards the linebacker as well. You can see where this is going.

The result was the Cowboys effectively double teaming a guy that wasn’t blitzing and letting a 300-pound nose guard go essentially unblocked until it was too late. This kind of stuff happened way more than it ever should -- and this wasn’t even a stunt.

One thing I am confident about is that the center position had be addressed and that’s what the Cowboys did by taking Frederick in the first round. I’m not sure a rookie center is going to be enough to fix the issues Dallas had inside last year though. If Brian Waters is 70 percent of what he was in New England (where he was probably 85 percent of what he was in his prime) he would be a huge upgrade and worth going out to get. But if Dallas doesn’t get him, I’m not sure there will be enough X’s on the internet to dole out for the Great Shame of the Cowboys interior line.

Posted by: Ben Muth on 16 Aug 2013

36 comments, Last at 28 Sep 2016, 4:11pm by adamstrauss


by FrontRunningPhinsFan :: Fri, 08/16/2013 - 12:11pm

Glad to have you back for another season. I'm looking forward to my favorite article every week, and hopefully there will be plenty of coverage of the Bengals getting destroyed on Oct 31 since they're playing the Dolphins.

by justme_cd :: Fri, 08/16/2013 - 2:05pm

If you're listening to talk radio hosts in Dallas about the Cowboys, my little bit of unwanted advice is to avoid most of them except Bob Sturm. That guy is legit (as far as talk radio hosts go).

Looking forward to your work this year, Ben!

by Lance :: Sun, 08/18/2013 - 8:58am

I actually like the GAC guys.

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by theslothook :: Fri, 08/16/2013 - 2:59pm

Ben, this is probably asking way too much of you, but it would be great if you could also follow a defensive line or two and alternate your analysis. I know, after reading the evaluation of the good with Tyron Smith, I immediately wondered what the pass rusher in that pic should have done instead. If possible, maybe you could alternate weeks. Maybe...please :P

by justanothersteve :: Fri, 08/16/2013 - 3:23pm

I'm a little disappointed that you won't be following my Packers (I can say that. I'm an owner. :) ), especially since their swapping practically the entire line may be unprecedented. Of course, I'll still be looking forward to your excellent columns. I've probably learned more football on this site than I ever knew was possible, and you are one of the reasons I keep coming back.

by DisplacedPackerFan :: Fri, 08/16/2013 - 4:36pm

Well assuming things stay as they are, they will have two return "full time" starters, and they will be in different positions.

I believe the starting line tomorrow in St. Louis for preseason game #2 will be Bakhtiari, Sitton, EDS, Lang, Barclay. Sitton and Lang have swapped sides, EDS got 4 starts if you include playoffs. Barclay who has passed Newhouse on the depth chart at right tackle from what I heard from practice reports did get starts at right tackle but it was fewer than Bulaga had (6 with play offs vs 9). So if you consider each of the 5 spots a unique position then it's a completely new line, even if Newhouse gets the spot over Barclay since all of his starts were at LT last year.

I agree that it would have been great to get Ben's insight on all this. A rookie 4th rounder starting at left tackle, guards swapping sides, a former college tackle who took his first snaps ever as a center in 2011, an athletic tackle who looks great on one play and then not there at all on the next (I think he has issues with his hands but I don't think that is all of it). But I'll take all the great articles on other lines and take a line from Cubs fans "There's always next year!"

by LionInAZ :: Mon, 08/19/2013 - 7:56pm

I'm disappointed too. I'd love to hear how the changes in the Lions' OL impact the team this year, I'd rather see coverage of the Packers OL than of the Cowboys, simply because the Cowboys get much more attention than they merit from the media as it is.

by justanothersteve :: Fri, 08/16/2013 - 3:24pm

Aargh! Duplicate post.

by Will Allen :: Fri, 08/16/2013 - 3:42pm

I remember being shocked that the Cowboys thought their best option as a starting NFL center was Ryan Cook, a guy who has spent his entire pro career being hugely overestimated, from the day the Vikings (I blame Childress!)took an EXTREME reach to trade up and draft him in the 2nd round.

I don't know what people are thinking when they see an offensive line like that (and last year was a marked improvement) and say Romo has had an above average work environment to produce in.

by Karl Cuba :: Fri, 08/16/2013 - 4:01pm

Yes Will, because one year is the same as the whole of his career and Parcells left less behind than the Soviet Union in their retreat from Operation Barbarossa.

by Will Allen :: Fri, 08/16/2013 - 4:22pm

Hey, I knew that'd get your attention!

Like I said, the arrival of Smith actually meant things were a bit better. I will agree that Romo was fortunate to have Parcells as his coach for 3 years, about a half season when Romo was starting, and there was significant carryover into the next year, as there often is when a great coach leaves. I also think that given his druthers, and the available players, Parcells would have preferred to improve the offensive line, as opposed to investing in T.O.. I think Romo and Cowboys fans would have been happier, too.

(edit)Let us not mention one Roy Williams, either.

by c0rrections (not verified) :: Fri, 08/16/2013 - 4:25pm

Yes please spare us poor Cowboy fans having to hear about that indignity any further.

by nicomachus :: Fri, 08/16/2013 - 4:24pm

Phil Costa was their starting center but he was injured most of the season. Ryan Cook was his backup.

by Will Allen :: Fri, 08/16/2013 - 4:31pm

I shoulda' been more clear; I was surprised that he was still in the league.

by dryheat :: Fri, 08/16/2013 - 4:34pm

I missed this column tremendously. Welcome back.

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