by Ben Muth
It's a good thing Jerry Jones is keeping the roof closed at the new Cowboys Stadium, because the sky is falling in Dallas. After dropping their most recent game, the Cowboys are just 1-3. It isn't looking too likely that America's team will play at home in this year's Super Bowl, as many predicted in the preseason.
Dallas didn't ever have a lead on Tennessee Sunday, and the offensive line didn't help the team's effort early in the game. The Cowboys made some adjustments up front and played much better in the second half. Unfortunately, they had dug themselves in too deep to come back. Now Cowboys fans have to hope that the same thing won't be true for their 2010 season.
The biggest news up front from this Sunday has to be Leonard Davis getting benched in favor of Montrae Holland. Anytime the offensive line unit struggles in a game, like the Cowboys' did in the first half, something has to change. So I was anxious to see whether or not Davis really played that poorly, or whether he was simply the scapegoat for a struggling group. Davis deserved to get the hook.
When I watched the Cowboys game against the Texans, I thought Davis played well, but it seemed like he could struggle against quicker defensive tackles. Turns out, Jason Jones was that quicker defensive tackle. Jones seemed to be playing in a different gear than Davis in that first half.
The two sacks certainly stand out as low points, but even in the running game, Jones was firing off the ball and into Davis before he could get his first step in the ground and establish any kind of power. Jones was just too much for Davis to handle.
The first sack Davis gave up was a predictor of his later struggles. It was third-and-10 on the Cowboys first drive of the game. Dallas was in a man protection we'll call Base Weak. (Most teams call this protection by a number. I've heard everything from 21 to 84, but since most teams have a different number, and this is a really common protection scheme, we'll just call it Base Weak.)
The general rule for most man-based protections against a 4-3 defense is that the offensive line will take the four down defensive lineman and the Mike linebacker. The tailback will take the either the Sam (strongside) or the Will (weakside) linebacker, depending on whether the protection scheme is Weak or Strong. Since this is Base Weak, Marion Barber is responsible for the Will, making the Sam linebacker hot (hot means that, if the Sam linebacker blitzes, one of the receivers, probably the tight end, has to break his route short so the quarterback can get him the ball before he's hit).
|Figure 1: Base Weak Formation|
With all the schematic stuff established, we can focus mostly on Davis. Jason Jones was lined up in a three technique (outside shoulder) over Davis. Tony Brown was lined up as a shaded nose (on the center's shoulder). This meant that Davis was all on his own, because the center had to deal with a shaded nose. The center would make a call (something that starts with an L -- Larry, Lasso, Louie, Liz, Laser, Lion, even Liberace if that's your thing... and yes, people still go the wrong way) to indicate that he was working with the left guard. That means the center (Andre Gurode) and left guard (Kyle Kosier) would double team the nose tackle, but also watch the Mike (middle linebacker).
Davis should've known before that he wasn't getting any help, at least until the Andre Gurode had checked the Mike and secured the nose tackle. Only after doing both those things, could Gurode offer any help to Davis.
Davis proceeded to get beaten on very quick club-rip to the inside. In fact, Davis had been beaten so cleanly that, by the time Gurode had made sure the Mike had dropped and the nose had been secured, all he could do was bump into Davis and send him to the ground. When Jones clubbed Davis, it was so quick that he got shoulder to shoulder with Davis in one step.
Once a defensive lineman gets even with an offensive lineman's inside shoulder, it's all over. After all, not only is the defensive lineman probably (and in this case definitely) faster already, but he's going forward, and the o-lineman is moving backward. It was the kind of sudden move that a coach would see and worry about how an aging offensive lineman would be able to keep up with.
Of course, Davis wasn't the only one struggle in the first half. His partner on the right side of the line, Marc Colombo, also had his troubles against the Titans. Just like Davis, Colombo also gave up two sacks in the first half. But Colombo wasn't benched. I think there are two main reasons that Colombo was allowed to stay in the game. First, he was more effective at run blocking than Davis was. And second, and probably more importantly, Alex Barron is his backup. (That's the last shot I take at Barron until he plays in another game. I need to stop relying on him as a crutch.) It's also important to note that I think Colombo's sacks were generally technique lapses as opposed to fast-twitch-muscle shortages.
The first sack was just a case of stepping in the bucket right as he punched. A lot of times when you're trying to punch with your hands and kick slide at the same time, you can step underneath yourself and shorten the hoop to the quarterback. That's what Colombo did on the first sack, and that's what got him beat.
The second sack was just the result of a really nice spin move by Jason Babin. Colombo was on his heels a little on the play, but sometimes you just get beat by a good move. After all, Jason Babin gets paid a lot of money to rush the passer. When he gets a tackle one on one, he needs to win occasionally or else he won't be in the league very long.
With all this going on, I'm sure it was clear to Jason Garrett and the rest of the offensive staff that they needed to make adjustments at halftime. That's exactly what they did. They didn't pull out the win, but they mounted a comeback and might have pulled it out if it weren't for a couple of turnovers. There were more adjustments than just benching Davis, which turned out to be pretty minor considering he returned when Holland was injured later in the game. The major adjustments had more to do with scheme than personnel.
The first thing the Cowboys changed that I saw was keeping the backs in to block longer. When the Cowboys would run their core protections, Base Strong/Weak or 2/3 Jet, the running back would stay in and clean up any defender leaking through the line rather than releasing if his linebacker dropped into coverage. This seems so simple, and it is, but you would be surprised how many offensive coordinators stubbornly refuse to lose their check-down routes in order to bolster protection. For some reason, they would rather risk giving up a sack in order to keep a safety net that rarely results in more than four yards.
When you consider that it's pretty rare for multiple offensive linemen to get beaten cleanly on a single play, having one extra blocker makes a big difference. The Cowboys decided it was necessary to have the extra help from the backfield, and the difference was noticeable. With hindsight being what it is (20-20), one wonders if the Cowboys could have made this adjustment early in the first half. All it really involves is telling your running backs to help anyone who needs it instead of releasing on short dump offs.
The other adjustment was more of a schematic overhaul. The Cowboys started going with a lot more full-slide protections in the second half than they have shown all year. A full-slide protection is great for offensive linemen because it gives them just one gap responsibility. If someone makes a great move inside, it doesn't matter because you have help there. There are three main reasons why teams don't run full slide protections more often.
1. If you do it too much, the defense can see it coming and overload the edge that the line is sliding away from.
2. You can end up with a skill player, like a tight end or running back, on a defensive end.
3. To make it schematically sound, you have to keep two skill players in to block rather than one.
Jason Garrett and the staff were willing to put up with those pitfalls because the scheme kept their franchise quarterback upright.
|Figure 2: I-Formation Slide|
There were two different kinds of full-slide protections that the Cowboys relied on in the second half. The first one was a quick play-action pass out of the I formation. The Cowboys offensive line would slide to its left, with each man responsible for the gap to his left. The Dallas running backs would run an Iso (short for Isolation) play fake. Third tight end Scott Chandler (playing fullback) would then throw a cut block at the defensive end to get his hands down in case Tony Romo needed to throw quickly. Marion Barber or Felix Jones would be responsible for any remaining rusher coming off the right side.
It's a great protection when used sparingly, as the Cowboys demonstrated in the second half. But if they continue to run it, defenses will prepare for it, and they'll start finding ways to put really good pass rushers on the tailback. That is not a good matchup for the Cowboys.
The second run-slide protection, which the Cowboys used more often, was for longer developing pass plays. Dallas would usually run it out of a single-back formation. As with all other slide protections, the entire line would slide one way (let's say left since that was called far more often on Sunday).
|Figure 3: Single-Back Slide|
The tight end, Jason Witten or Martellus Bennett, would be responsible for the defensive end by himself. This is a better matchup than you would think, as long as your tight end can block -- and Witten can. Defensive ends spend so much time working on the timing of offensive tackles. When a tight end blocks them, they can lose their pass-rush rhythm. The running back is then responsible for any blitzers coming off the right side. These protections aren't revolutionary by any means, but they are a great change up, and a nice way to help a struggling offensive line.
There was one last adjustment that the Cowboys made in the second half -- they took the training wheels off of Doug Free. The first couple of times I've seen Dallas play, it seemed that they were protecting Free. There a lot of ways you can protect an offensive tackle in the passing game, and the Cowboys seemed to use them all. They would almost always slide to him, they would keep a tight end in, and they would chip. Rarely would Free be on an island. But in the second half of this game, the Cowboys gave some of the protection to Colombo and left Free on his own. I think Free really stepped up.
It's unfortunate that his one major mistake, a missed cut block that led to a pick, wound up being so costly. Other than the miscue, I thought Free was great all game, but especially in the second half when his team really needed him. Combine that with his solid run blocking, and it's very possible that the Cowboys have found themselves a legitimate NFL left tackle.