by Ben Muth
I watched the Cowboys-Falcons game live this past Sunday and felt I came away from it with a pretty good understanding of how the game went. Dallas came out and dominated early on the performance of a dominating offensive line. Then the Falcons adjusted when they realized Brandon Weeden was terrified of throwing it downfield or outside the numbers. Atlanta got much more aggressive to stop the run, and because the Falcons offense was chewing up yards and clock, the Cowboys just didn't get to run enough plays in the second half. I wouldn't say I was wrong about any of that, but that doesn't even begin to tell the story of the game, at least as far as the Cowboys' offensive line goes.
Let's start with the first few big runs by Joseph Randle that opened the game. The big stat everyone is talking about here in Dallas is that Randle had 85 yards on his first three carries, then 2 on his next 11 carries. That's a crazy stat that makes it seem like Dallas' line went from James Earl Jones to Hayden Christensen in a heartbeat. But like most things, it wasn't as black and white as those numbers paint it.
This is the first play of the game. It's a simple outside zone play that is blocked well, but what makes it is the motion by tight end Jason Witten. When Witten came across the backfield, the Falcons' front seven shifted with his pre-snap movement, which screwed up their gap assignments. You can see that the play-side defensive end and outside linebacker both fight to get outside of Witten. That leaves the C-gap completely unoccupied. To make matters worse for Atlanta, they're running a gap exchange between the play-side 3-technique and the Mike linebacker, which just creates a bigger void.
The only guy with a shot to make the play (in the front seven at least) is the Mike, who kind of gets held by the center Travis Frederick. But the only reason Fredrick has to get grabby with him is that he gets held by the defensive tackle on his way up to the linebacker.
Again, the play was well blocked, but there was also a good deal of self-sabotage by the Falcons. Randle's next run was a different story.
That is the ugliest 37-yard touchdown run you'll ever see. Both the right tackle (Doug Free) and the right guard (Zack Martin) got beat inside by slanting defensive linemen. I think the Falcons' line movement caused some problems for Dallas all day. The center gets picked off by the slanting defensive tackle and is late getting up to the Mike, so he's behind the block. The left guard (La'el Collins, making his first start) gets tripped up and ends up stumbling around like a drunk on payday. And the left tackle (Tyron Smith) doesn't block anyone and quits on the play early.
The only guys that really block anyone are Jason Witten, who kicks the hell out of a rolled up safety, and the fullback Tyler Clutts, who does a good job of cleaning up Free's mess. That's a great job by Witten, and a great job by Randle to make some tacklers miss, but man is that ugly from the guys up front.
So the Cowboys' dominant display on the ground to start the game was largely caused by the defense screwing up their run fits because of tight end motion and horrific tackling. That's often the case with big running plays though; more often than not they're the result of the defense messing something up as opposed to the offensive line just laying waste to a front seven. A dominant offensive line performance usually is just a bunch of 4- to 12-yard runs, over and over again. A relentless pounding like waves crashing against the shore.
Considering what Randle did the rest of the game, most would probably say the Cowboys' offensive line didn't do much the after those first three runs (at least as a run blocking unit; I don't think anyone who watched the game could say they didn't pass block very well). But that discounts some good things that Dallas did do up front on the ground. I think it's fair to say that Joseph Randle hurt the line's performance more than they hurt his performance. In fact, one could even say that he left...a...lot...of...meat...on...the...bone.
This is a weak outside zone that is blocked OK. Doug Free gets knocked too far into the backfield, and Travis Frederick is behind his block (and also too far in the backfield), but Randle screws up his read and misses the hole.
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On this play Randle has a pretty simple read. He looks at the defensive end; if it doesn't look like Free has him absolutely hooked early on, then Randle needs to get his eyes to the defensive tackle. If the center is covering him up (like he should be), you have a two-way go off the center's block, if you see color to the play side, you stick your foot in the ground and cut right off his ass. That's what Randle needed to do, stick his foot in the ground and explode right off Frederick's block.
It looks congested in there, but you have to have faith that your left tackle is going to get the backside defensive tackle cut down or covered up. Here, the left tackle (Smith) does a fantastic job of getting flat down the line of scrimmage, running his ass off, and throwing his backside shoulder through the defender's play-side thighboard. That's a perfect block, and if Randle trusts it, he gains 4 to 6 yards on the low end (if the guy Smith cuts trips him up, or the linebacker Collins is blocking makes an arm tackle), and he's one-on-one with the safety if he steps through those tackles.
Here's another play from earlier in the game that illustrates what the play can look like.
This was Darren McFadden at running back, and look at how decisive he is making that cut off the block of Frederick's (who again is behind the defensive tackle). Granted, the Falcons are running a twist with their backside linemen so the hole is going to look bigger to the running back, but McFadden hits it with such urgency that the unblocked backside defensive end (who is stunting right into the play) can't tackle him until he gets 7 yards. If Smith doesn't get completely lost on the tackle-end twist (and Smith has played too much football to look that lost up there) that play goes for even more.
McFadden's cutback shows how the play is supposed to look when it hits backside. Even when Randle did try to cut it back, though, he wasn't decisive enough to get the yards that were there.
That play is very well blocked. Free does a nice job of handling the play-side defensive end; he widens the defender 3 yards and doesn't allow too much penetration. Martin gets up to the play-side linebacker and blocks him. Frederick does a much better job covering the shaded nose; it's not a full-blown reach block, but he's covering him completely and giving the back a decent two-way go. Collins does a great of blowing up the defensive tackle's shoulder (which makes Smith's job much easier) before climbing to a linebacker. And Smith comes in and cuts down the defensive tackle. This is exactly you draw it up.
But rather than stick his foot in the ground and get up right off Frederick's block, Randle tries to dance all the way out the backdoor. He gets spooked by the backside defensive tackle, I think, but again, he has to trust that one of the best left tackles in football is going to get there.
It may seem like I'm picking on Randle because the holes don't look that big; after all, the best-case scenario here is probably just another 4- to 8-yard gain. But running the football in the NFL is hard (particularly if Terrance Williams is your best receiver and Brandon Weeden is your quarterback), and you can't afford to leave yards on the field because your starting running back isn't good at reading your base running play.
The good news is that I think this is something that gets better with reps throughout the season. I mentioned a couple of times that it doesn't look like Randle trusts that the backside is going to be there. A big part of that is that Randle doesn't have a lot of reps running this play in game situations with this line.
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The thing about outside zone is that it's tough to get a good look during practice because most teams don't allow their linemen to cut block in camp or practices, so the backs can't get used to what it's going to feel like hitting the hole right as guys get cut. In practice it's just a mass of bodies too often. I'm sure running backs coach Gary Brown (once a pretty good NFL runner himself) is hammering Randle to get his foot in the ground and stick it up in there this week, and once he starts seeing some success he'll start doing it more and more.
All in all I thought the Cowboys line played pretty good. I though Smith was good aside from like three really baffling plays (including that McFadden run). Martin was also solid. Free was OK too. Collins struggled at times, mainly when he was working with Frederick it seemed; there doesn't seem to be enough chemistry there and I think Dallas is anxious to get Ronald Leary back.
The only guy that really needs to step it up in my opinion is Frederick. In his defense, he's asked to do a lot by the coaching staff (he's get less help from guards than just about any center in league). But he handled it well last year and he was a big reason why the rest of the line looked so good last year. If he's going to struggle with some of the more difficult blocks, the staff needs to adjust how much help they're coaching their guards to give. Any advantage you get releasing your guards early to linebackers is moot if the center can't consistently handle the nose by himself.