Word of Muth
Dive into the details of offensive line play with a former all-PAC-10 left tackle

Word of Muth: The Big 'Boys

Word of Muth: The Big 'Boys
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Ben Muth

The Cowboys were 0-2 and in need of a win against the Texans. Not only were they facing an undefeated in-state rival, they faced an avalanche of media hyperbole: Their backs were against the wall, in a do-or-die game, and it was "put up or shut up" time (I think that cover most of the clichés). They needed somebody to step up and deliver a big game to get them off the mat (there's one more). What they got were a couple of guys coming up big to lead them to a really impressive win against a good Texans team.

Roy Williams and Tony Romo got the majority of the press, and perhaps deservedly so, but there were a lot of Cowboys that outplayed the guys across from them. Dallas' ability to execute its game plan well enough early to move the ball and put up some points forced Houston's defense to change their game plan, and that's when the big plays came in the fourth quarter.

The Cowboys offensive line did a great job giving Tony Romo time in the passing game. The Texans' game plan going in seemed to be to rush just four the majority of the time, dropping seven back into coverage. Unfortunately for Houston, Dallas comfortably handled its front four.

Marc Colombo was particularly good in pass protection. The majority of the time, it seemed that the Cowboys would slide to Doug Free's side, often leaving Colombo on an island. The veteran right tackle rose to the challenge, never getting cleanly beaten by his man on a drop back pass. Occasionally, he allowed some light pressure, but nothing Tony Romo couldn't avoid. Colombo made one notable mistake on a blitz where the Texans brought one more guy than the Cowboys could block. Rather than stay with Mario Williams (it was one of the few occasions where Williams was lined up over Colombo), Colombo decided to pick up the blitzing linebacker Zac Diles. Williams had a free run to Romo and forced an incomplete pass. No matter who Colombo decided to block, Diles or Williams, the other was coming free, but if he had decided to stay with Williams, Romo would have had a split second longer. It was a minor blemish on a very well played game.

Because Colombo played so well, the Cowboys were able to give the younger Doug Free a good deal of help in the passing game. This is not an insult to Free's abilities by any means. Most teams tend to slide the protection to their quarterback's blind side as is, especially when playing someone like Mario Williams. What Doug Free did a nice job of was always knowing where his help was and setting up accordingly. When a tight end was staying in to block, he would funnel Williams outside. When he knew Kyle Kosier was sliding with him, he made sure to take away any outside or up field rush. It wasn't a dominating performance by any means, but it showed that the inexperienced Free could be very effective against a good player in the right circumstances.

The interior guys all carried their weight as well. I was most impressed with Andre Gurode's performance. Probably more so than any other offensive lineman I've seen this year, Gurode was able to generate consistent and significant movement in the running game. Usually he was working with one of the two guards, but no matter who he was working with, whomever they blocked was going somewhere. Leonard Davis was solid in pass protection, but he seemed a little slow in the running game. Whether he was pulling or trying to reach a defensive tackle, he seemed to sort of lumber out of his stance, rather than explode. That being said, he was strong enough to make up for being a little behind, but he may struggle with quicker players in the future.

Kyle Kosier also did some nice things before his injury. He was very good in pass protection, helping Gurode with his hands and body presence while keeping his eyes on Doug Free, so he could leave and help Free at the first sign of trouble. But the best thing that Kosier did was pull in the running game. Kosier is excellent at keeping his shoulder square when he pulls across the line. That way, if a linebacker fills a hole quickly and surprises him, he is still in position to block him. It doesn't lead to devastating pancake blocks, but it does give the running back running lanes. When he got hurt and Montrae Holland came in, the Cowboys continued to move the ball, which is more a testament to Holland than anything else. I think he proved to the Cowboys that not all of their backup offensive linemen are liabilities (*cough* Alex Barron *cough*).

The result of all the Cowboys being so effective pass blocking Houston's front four was that eventually the Texans felt the need to blitz. This is when Tony Romo and his wide receivers really broke the game open. It seemed obvious that the Houston coaching staff was wary of blitzing early and exposing their suspect secondary to Dallas' playmakers. But after three quarters of trailing in the game and getting no real pressure on Romo the Texans needed to try something, so they tried to add linebackers to their pass rush. This is when the Dallas started to rip off huge chunks of yards in the passing game, and ultimately win the game. By handling Houston's front four so soundly, Dallas was able to make them adjust their game plan, and the result was a second half aerial show by Romo and the wide receivers.

The passing game looked great, but the running game was just effective enough to keep Houston honest, and that's something the Cowboys couldn't say about their two losses. What Jason Garrett and the offense really did a great job of was using a variety different formations and motions to put Dallas in an advantageous position.

Next, we'll look at two different formations the Cowboys used to run their best running play, the Lead Draw, and keep the Texans off balance. What makes this formation flexibility so great is that it doesn't change anything for your offensive line or running backs assignment-wise, but it gives the defense a lot more to think about.

First, a brief rundown of the Lead Draw play. It is a man-blocked play, with the fullback leading on the middle (or Mike) linebacker. One of the best features of the play is how easy it is to throw play action from, without giving away the pass. In fact, both of Roy Williams' touchdowns came off Lead Draw action in the backfield (there wasn't even a ball fake, just the backfield motion and blocking scheme is often enough).

Against a 4-3 defense, the offensive tackles are responsible for the defensive ends. To block them, the offensive tackles will take a very short pass set, usually just moving their outside foot, and then simply taking the defender where they want to go. If the defender wants to rush up the field, you take them up the field. If the defender slants inside, you take him inside. As long as the offensive tackle avoids penetration straight into the backfield, the runner can adjust off his block.

The three interior offensive linemen are responsible for the two defensive tackles and the weak side (or Will) linebacker. To block these defenders, the center will usually double team or combo block with one of the two guards and come up to the linebacker. It's important to keep in mind that there are very few true double teams anymore. Even blocks that start off as double teams are designed for one of the offensive linemen to come off to the second level and block a linebacker. The center will usually double team towards the nose tackle.

In 4-3 defenses, you identify the two defensive tackles as either the three-technique tackle (so called because he usually lines up on the guard's outside shoulder, which is a three technique. Think Albert Haynesworth when he was good and played hard.) or the nose tackle (a nose is often called a shade in a 4-3 defense because he is rarely lined up on the nose of the ball, usually he shades to one side of the center). With the center combo-blocking with one guard on the nose/shade to the Will, that leaves the other guard one-on-one with the three-technique defensive tackle. The guard who is on his own is left with pretty much a straight drive block.

Once the four down linemen and Will are blocked, that leaves just the strong side linebacker (or Sam) and the Mike. The tight end is responsible for the Sam linebacker. How he blocks the defender is up to him. He has to find the best way to release around the defensive end to get to the linebacker. As long as the tight end gets there, there is no wrong route.

Figure 1: Cowboys Lead Draw

As previously mentioned, the lead blocker (usually a fullback) is responsible for leading up on the Mike linebacker. This block is probably the most important of the play. If the fullback can root the middle linebacker out of the hole, it's usually pretty successful. If the Mike comes up and stuffs the lead back completely or comes off quickly, the play is usually a very short gain.

The play is typically run to the tight end side out of an I formation. On the second play of the game (Figure 1), the Cowboys ran it with a very slight difference in the formation. They still lined up in an I formation, but they simply flexed Jason Witten out. Flexing the tight end means lining him up about three or four yards outside of the tackle. Because Jason Witten is such a talented receiver, the Texans were forced to adjust their alignment to take care of him.

They could have rolled a safety down and kept their linebackers in the box, but because of Houston's struggles against the pass this year, they decided to walk the Sam linebacker out. This means that Jason Witten and Jason Garrett have blocked the play-side linebacker simply by alignment. By moving him outside four yards, you have basically eliminated one defender from the point of attack. It seems simple, and it is, but it's one less thing that can wrong on a running play.

The other formation the Cowboys ran the Lead Draw out of was much more creative. (Figure 2) The Cowboys have two athletic tight ends, who give them flexibility in formations.

Figure 2: Lead Draw from Flex

One formation they ran a lot against the Texans to take advantage of this was a trips formation with a flexed tight end (Martellus Bennett) and another tight end (Witten) in a hip position. A hip position is about a yard outside and a yard deeper than the offensive tackle. It's called hip position because you're right off the tackle's hip. (As I keep telling you, it's a simple game.) A wide receiver splits out wide.

Once again, the Texans have to adjust to the passing threat. So, the Texans walked the Sam out again to cover the flexed tight end. And now instead of having a fullback lead up on the Mike linebacker, the Cowboys had Jason Witten lead up on him. This is actually an easier block because the Mike linebacker doesn't see a tight end coming from the hip position as easily as he would an I formation fullback. By changing up the formation you have now taken one linebacker out of the play completely and made the most important block of the play much easier. That is what game planning is all about -- putting your players in the best situation to succeed.

Now, you might be wondering why the Cowboys' running game wasn't more successful. If their o-line played great and their scheme was solid, what was the problem?

I think what they did in the running game was enough to keep Houston from completely ignoring the running threat. But if I had to point to a reason why the running game didn't put up more impressive numbers, I would say it was the guy who got the majority of the carries. Marion Barber looked a step slow, and he looked surprisingly easy to bring down. I thought there were a couple plays where there seemed to be a hole or a running lane that Barber was just too slow to get to. As a result, a potential 10-yard gain would turn into a four-yard gain. I wouldn't be surprised to see more of Felix Jones and Tashard Choice as the season goes along.


32 comments, Last at 02 Oct 2010, 12:11am

1 Re: Word of Muth: The Big 'Boys

Great article, thanks Muth. Good to see Free progressing well, and I'd agree that LG is one position where the Boys have decent depth, unlike OT.

(I think your diagrams may need to be flipped-- seems like Figure 1 is actually what you refer to as the latter more creative TE formation, and Figure 2 is the more basic one)

2 Re: Word of Muth: The Big 'Boys

And yes, 18-- 18!-- touches for Marion Barber versus 8 for Felix is insane. Not sure what Garrett's bias towards Barber is. I got it last year (kinda) when Felix was dinged up, but he's healthy now. No need for this. Felix is a comparable pass protector and he's infinitely more skilled as an open-field runner and receiver. MB3 is averaging 3.5 YPC, even with a heavy dose of 4th quarter runs against the Texans defense. Not good stuff.

6 Re: Word of Muth: The Big 'Boys

Nevertheless, thanks for including the diagrams. (And fix the center's symbol, please)

Ben's writing is clear and interesting enough that the diagrams aren't necessary, and should never be the focus of the article. But in the right place, a diagram or two can make the writing even better.

I learn something new with each article in this series. I didn't know the "take them where they want to go" aspect of blocking for a draw. It makes sense. It's clear. But I had never thought about it that way.

Thanks, Ben. Great job again.

17 Re: Word of Muth: The Big 'Boys

Agree with the thanks on the diagrams. They are not the icing on the cake, they are the little decorative candies on top of the icing.
And I agree with another commenter--DO NOT LET ANYONE GET THEIR HOOKS IN THIS! Ben, if you ABSOLUTELY need the money, negotiate a contract that they MUST let you write it without content editing (obviously grammar editing still could be needed).
This is a great example of FO content getting better, and even improving greatness by adding something else to make it even better.

32 Re: Word of Muth: The Big 'Boys

Not to harp on the diagrams anymore (but really there's nothing else to complain about in this article. Great stuff!), but if the Cowboys ever run the play from the formation in the second diagram they're going to get flagged for an illegal formation for leaving the LT uncovered.

- Alvaro

7 Re: Word of Muth: The Big 'Boys

sweet column.

quick question....you talked about the SAM backer walking out a bit to cover the TE. would it be common for the QB to audible out of the lead draw and into a TE pass if the SAM didn't back out?

9 Re: Word of Muth: The Big 'Boys

Was there something about the Texans defense that lead to the TE being lined up in the hip position to be more beneficial, or this something we can expect to see a lot of in following weeks? Did they try it against the Bears (I can't remember myself)?

If it works so much better is there any reason to even line up in I form?

14 Re: Word of Muth: The Big 'Boys

Maybe it's because the SAM will figure out, that the hip-TE is comming. This eliminates the surprise element. I'm guessing (FB vs. MIKE) > (TE vs. MIKE) - after all the FB blocks for a living.

Or it could be that if/once the MIKE reads the draw, the angles of the play allows him to shoot through the hole, and blow the play up - the hip-TE will just never make it to the spot.

15 Re: Word of Muth: The Big 'Boys

For Dallas, it's more TE>FB or at least FB=TE. Witten is the team's best backfield blocker, we just don't like to use him there as much because of his obvious skill as a receiver. There isn't really a true FB on the roster anymore, with Deon Anderson's injury-- Gronkowski is progressing well at the position, but he's more of an H-back than simply a FB. Martellus Bennett is similar to Witten-- great blocker, can line up in the backfield (despite his height), but also a receiving threat.

Basically, Garrett uses his TE/FB/H-Back positions pretty interchangeably, because his personnel allow him to.

16 Re: Word of Muth: The Big 'Boys

Your point about the Mike being able to shoot the gap makes sense.

I wasn't really talking about TE vs FB, just why not always line up the blocker you want in the hip position be it a FB or TE.

18 Re: Word of Muth: The Big 'Boys

The overwhelming dominance of the I form running game in the NFL is a perpetual pet peeve of mine. For years teams used different backfield alignments to change up blocking angles and pressure different gaps in the defense. Then (or so it seems to me) Dallas drafted an amazing offensive line in the 90s and dominated out of the I by preventing teams getting any reads from the formation. The difference between most NFL teams' running games and the 90s Dallas teams is a dominant group of blockers together with a HOF WR who prevented safeties getting comfortable in the box. So now half the teams in the league slavishly line up in the I and smack the running back into a wall of lineman for two yards and then the coaches start bitching about how the linemen need to perfect their blocking techniques. Why not force the defense to show its hand in gap alignment and contain before the snap and then use their tendencies to bugger them up? Why line up both back in positions which makes it nigh on impossible to run any route that isn't into the flat or a short circle? What happened to multi-purpose sets like the Pro, Far and Near sets that allowed at least one back to release to a seam route or even a post or an eight if the back is skilled enough.

Rant over (if anyone has a reason why the I Formation now dominates then please lets hear it).

22 Re: Word of Muth: The Big 'Boys

Maybe not all teams use their backs as receiving threats?

Related rant--the Bears under Ron Rivera used to motion their fullback out wide in what seemed like 15-20 snaps a game, yet they never threw a single pass in his direction, nor did QB Bears even look at him... I never understood that either.

13 Re: Word of Muth: The Big 'Boys

I'm just joining on the salutes. Absolutely brilliant. The illustrations is the dot over the i.

19 Re: Word of Muth: The Big 'Boys

By the end of the year these columns could / would / should be packaged as a seperate book regarding line play.


20 Re: Word of Muth: The Big 'Boys

Not disrespecting any of the other writers on here who are all excellent but I think when you get people who've played the game at a high level or coached a position for that matter writing about the game I think everybody learns something.

21 Re: Word of Muth: The Big 'Boys

If there is anyone out there who is keen on learning the finer aspects of OL play, I can highly recommend the COOL (Coaches of Offensive Line) Clinic DVDs and manual. They meet once a year in Ohio and it's a who's who of OL coaches. Paul Alexander (Bengals) runs it, and you will have your mind blown by what they discuss.

24 Re: Word of Muth: The Big 'Boys

I love this column, reminds me of Every Play Counts back when it was available here and great.

27 Re: Word of Muth: The Big 'Boys

Love what your doing it's a great breakdown and learning tool. I can't wait for next week.

28 Re: Word of Muth: The Big 'Boys

Here's a quote from Pro Football Focus on the Cowboys/Texans game:

"One player who had a hard time was RT Marc Colombo (-3.8). While Doug Free (+1.7) giving up just one pressure is a real signal of intent on his talents, it was disappointing to see Colombo give up three quarterback hits and a further two pressures. As the season progresses we’ll look for a healthier Colombo to play better."

This opinion of Colombo's game obviously flies in the face of what Muth says above. Very frustrating to read so many different takes on player performance on so many different sites. How can one know what to believe, especially in situations where we can't watch every game?

29 Re: Word of Muth: The Big 'Boys

Well it sounds like the Cowboys were leaving Colombo on an island, while they were giving Free more help.

Given that PFF thinks they can distill how an offensive lineman has played into a single number, I'm going to side with Muth on this one.

30 Re: Word of Muth: The Big 'Boys

"No matter who Colombo decided to block, Diles or Williams, the other was coming free, but if he had decided to stay with Williams, Romo would have had a split second longer."
Wasn't Diles the inside rusher on that play? I thought that the general idea was to take the inside rush threat over an outside -- so, didn't Columbo make the correct decision?