by Ben Muth
Welcome to the first Word of Muth of 2014. I hope you all had a safe and happy new year. This week we’ll take a look at the elimination game that had been building for what seemed like an eternity: Eagles versus Cowboys. Just like the first game between these teams, it was a lower scoring matchup than the defenses involved would have lead you to believe. In the end, Philadelphia’s offense made just enough plays (and Kyle Orton threw just enough interceptions) to get the win and the NFC East crown.
One thing I will say for the Cowboys defense is that they had a clear game plan and stuck with it. Up front they wanted to give the Eagles movement without having to send additional rushers. I think the plan worked early as the Cowboys’ stunts gave Philadelphia some issues up front. Dallas did a nice job of getting pressure in Nick Foles' face to force some off-target throws and the slanting made it hard for Philly’s linemen to get to the second level in the running game.
Eventually Philly settled in and started to pick up the Dallas games consistently in the second half. I don’t think Monte Kiffin failing to adjust cost his team the game -- it was just a case of superior talent from Philadelphia eventually overcoming a solid game plan.
Here the Eagles are running an inside zone play with a slice concept added from the hipped tight end. The Cowboys are running a very common blitz where the defensive end and three-technique crash inside and the two linebackers (both the Sam and Mike) to that side come from the outside.
The Cowboys do a nice job of disguising the blitz pre-snap and catch the Eagles off guard as a result. Right guard Todd Herremans completely whiffs on the slanting defensive tackle and almost falls down. You may also be able to see the problems coming: Herremans needs to climb to the Mike linebacker, but the Dallas defensive end is slanting right towards the right guard.
Herremans gets picked by the defensive end and the Mike is now unblocked in the hole for the defense. This play is a good example of how most zone plays aren’t really true zone plays, at least in terms of how you might think of them. They are really a series of pre-determined combination blocks where everyone generally moves in the same direction. Here the Eagles have combo blocks with the tight end and right tackle, and with the right guard and center. By assigning specific defenders before the snap, you allow the offensive line to be much more aggressive, since they're attacking specific players rather than a general area. The issue is that it’s hard to pass off defenders with offensive linemen that you weren’t planning on working with before the play.
If Dallas had shown the stunt pre-snap, Philly could have made a call to make it a true zone-blocking play where everyone just steps playside and lets the defense sort itself out. It would’ve been softer, but since the defense is moving horizontally rather than vertically at the snap you can get away with a little softness. When teams recognize stunts pre-snap and make the right call, it typically leads to huge runs. But because Dallas disguised the stunt well, Philly was left with a situation that was just about impossible to block.
Which is why it helps to have really good players to cover for the times when you get out-schemed. Elite running backs, the ones that are worth a first- or second-round draft pick, all have the ability to make a guy miss in the hole. LeSean McCoy is probably the best in the NFL at that, and the move here was just ridiculous.
Up front, I think Jason Peters’ performance was pretty indicative of the Eagles offensive line as a whole last week. I didn’t think he looked very good in the first half: he gave up too much penetration on inside stunts from the defensive ends on pass plays, which made Foles look uncomfortable for the majority of the early going. He also got beat across his face once or twice in the running game. But as the game went along, he realized what the Cowboys' game plan was, and adjusted to have a very nice second half. He played particularly well in the ground game, and he destroyed a couple of defensive backs when he got the chance, which is always appreciated in this space.
Before we head off into the playoffs, I do want to wrap things up with Cowboys offensive line. Dallas will enter 2014 far better off up front than they were when they entered 2013. The biggest reason for that is that they now have two players under the age of 25 that look like long-term answers.
People scoffed at the Travis Frederick pick when it occurred. "First round is too early for a center!" was (and is) the thinking, but he started all 16 games as a rookie and acquitted himself well. It was a reach, but they got a solid player at a position of need. There have been worse crimes against football committed by Dallas general manager Jerry Jones.
Frederick does a great job of climbing and blocking people on the second level in the zone running game. He also has the quickness to consistently reach a shaded nose tackle without any help from a guard, which I think is one of two skills that separate the elite centers from players who are Just A Guy. The other skill is, of course, Lombardi trophies.
Just kidding, judging individual players on Super Bowl trophies is idiotic. The other skill is being able to hold up in pass protection against head-up nose tackles and walked-up linebackers without having guard help to either side. I don’t think Frederick is able to do that just yet.
Frederick can still struggle with bigger and stronger defensive tackles in one-on-one situations. Dontari Poe pushed him around when Kansas City played Dallas in Week 2, and he was hardly the only one. But overall there’s a lot more good than bad on his short resume. I’m not sure I’d want to put him one on one for an entire game against a top-10 defensive tackle, but I’d say his rookie season has to go down as an absolute success for Dallas.
The other young tent pole in the Dallas front five is Tyron Smith. I probably generally overrate every offensive lineman I see just because I understand how difficult their jobs are. And, X of Great Shame aside, I generally enjoy writing about positives more than negatives. So with that caveat out of the way, I think that at the age of 22 (he turned 23 in December), Tyron Smith had the best season I’ve seen from an offensive tackle since I started writing this column. This is my fourth year writing for FO. In that time I’ve covered the Texans with Duane Brown and Eric Winston, the 49ers with Joe Staley and Anthony Davis, the Bengals with Andrew Whitworth and Andre Smith, the Patriots with Nate Solder and a healthy Sebastian Vollmer, the Chiefs with Branden Albert and Eric Winston again, the Saints with Jermon Bushrod and Zack Strief, the Redskins with Trent Williams (as a rookie, but still), and the Cardinals with the immortal Levi Brown (LOL). That’s pretty good list to be at the top of.
I’ve spent most of my time discussing Smith covering his pass blocking -- and with good reason, because he’s great at it. The Cowboys leave him on an island, usually on the opposing team's best pass rusher, and let him do his thing. Smith’s "thing" is being insanely athletic for his size with the ability to crumple guys with just his punch. I haven’t really gotten into his run blocking too deeply in this column. Smith isn’t an absolutely dominating run blocker (like Staley or Winston before his back problems, for instance) but he’s a good one. Particularly on outside zone plays run right behind him.
That image shows absolutely textbook technique and ability. Smith fires off the ball and gets his helmet outside of the defender (frame 1). The defender feels this and starts to try to work back outside into his gap (frame 2). Smith allows that and does a great job getting his inside hand right under the defender’s armpit (frame 3). Because of the hand placement, Smith has awesome leverage when he goes to throw the defender further outside. Because Smith is a physical freak, he’s able to toss the defender (300-pound Fletcher Cox) like a sack of flour and finish the play on top. An absolutely dominating play from a dominant player.
Aside from the two building blocks, the Cowboys have Doug Free. Barring a cap-motivated release, Free will certainly be the starter at right tackle again next year, but probably isn’t seen as a lock to be a long-term fixture for Dallas. Free played very well this year and considering he did it for the Cowboys it seems likely he would get a generous extension like everyone else in the organization has in the previous decade. The problem is that the Cowboys already overpaid Free once. Following an above-average 2010, Jerry Jones gave him a big extension. Free’s play regressed immediately and he became one of the worst and most overpaid tackles in the NFL for two years.
Before this season started Dallas restructured Free’s deal, handing the veteran a hefty pay cut. Free’s play rebounded and in my eyes he is now a bargain for the last year of his contract (2014). I can’t imagine the Cowboys, who are in salary cap trouble as it is, will extend Free before his contract runs out, so that means he will hit the market as an unrestricted free agent after next year. If he plays like he did this year he’ll have some decent interest and it may be hard for Jerry to open up his wallet again for someone that hasn’t handled a big paycheck well in the past. That’s why I’m not sure Free is really seen as a building block in Dallas.
The guard spots are where things got a little shaky this year. At left guard, Ron Leary is fine. He’s not a great player -- or even a good one -- but he’s a guy you can stick out there for 16 games that won't kill your offense. He struggles with quickness from pass rushers and he’s not great at passing off stunts, but he’s a solid enough run blocker that plays hard. Look around the league and see how many offensive lines have complete sieves on them, and you will learn to accept "not bad" as a compliment. I imagine Leary is young and cheap enough to be Dallas’ left guard for at least the next couple of seasons.
The right guard is Mackenzy Bernadeau. Bernadeau is someone the Cowboys tried to replace all offseason, and they finally succeeded by luring Brian Waters out of retirement. But when Waters get injured for the season just a few games into 2013, they had to turn back to Bernadeau. I think Bernadeau is the Cowboys worst starting offensive lineman, though it’s close between him and Leary. He isn’t great at the second level and he struggles to throw cut blocks, which makes him a poor blocker on the backside of outside zone plays. This is a bad combination for the Cowboys, who run the outside zone play a lot, and have a left tackle whom they like to run behind. Considering he’s under contract, reasonably affordable, and the Cowboys have bigger needs elsewhere, I bet Dallas brings back Bernadeau as well and goes with continuity up front. But he is a guy you will always be looking to replace with a late-round draft pick or an undrafted free agent find.
Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by the Cowboys offensive line this year. Considering the state of offensive line play in the league, I’d think you could easily slot Dallas into the upper half of offensive lines and I would push for the top 10. Considering where they have been in recent years, I think that has to be encouraging for Dallas fans.