Word of Muth: Cowboys' Undoing

Word of Muth: Cowboys' Undoing
Word of Muth: Cowboys' Undoing
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Ben Muth

The 2015 Cowboys season came to unofficial close last week with a 33-14 beatdown at the hands of the Panthers. It has been a lost season in Dallas ever since the (first) Tony Romo injury, but there was a brief glimpse of hope once Romo won his first start back. Then reality showed up on Thursday and it turns out teams that lose seven in a row at any point in the season aren't as good as teams that win 10 in a row, no matter who the quarterback is.

Let's start with the play that essentially extinguished the Cowboys' playoffs chances once and for all. It was the last play of the third quarter, when Tony Romo got sacked and reinjured his collarbone. It's a play that exposes what has been an issue for the Cowboys all year.

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The issue is that their running backs are not very good pass blockers. Joseph Randle was bad and Darren McFadden is below average. Here the Cowboys are in a man protection scheme. They decide to double fan so that both guards and tackles are kicking out. That leaves Travis Frederick (72) with the Mike (Luke Kuechly, 59) and McFadden (20) with the other linebacker (Thomas Davis, 58).

Left guard La'el Collins' (71) man drops at the snap, so he shifts down to help the back while keeping his eyes outside on Tyron Smith's (77) block. Frederick's man drops too, so the center immediately slides out to provide some body presence for McFadden. So, while this looks like a triple-team gone horrible awry, it's really just McFadden getting beat despite getting extra help from two guys.

This is the second time Romo has had his collarbone broken due to a back who failed in pass protection. When he broke his collarbone a few years ago it was because fullback Chris Gronkowski missed a blitz pickup. Pass protection is something that involves the entire offense (even wide receivers need to know if they are responsible for a hot route on any given play), and all it takes is one slip-up for local sportswriters to debate whether Kellen Moore or Matt Cassel should finish the season for your team.

In addition to the riveting Moore vs. Cassel debate, another sports radio topic in Dallas-Fort Worth is whether the Cowboys' line is any good. It started with a legitimate debate asking if they were playing as well as last year, but has somehow morphed into whether or not the line is even good, period. It's an absurd question to ask if you have watched the team play consistently and have any kind of realistic notion of what offensive line play around the NFL looks like.

The line as a whole is playing very well, and Tyron Smith and Zack Martin are both All-Pro candidates, playing better than last year, and may be the best at their respective positions. Doug Free has taken a step back, and I think Ron Leary played better last year than La'el Collins has played this year (with the exception of some true "wow" plays), but I don't think either is a huge downgrade.

But to me the Cowboys lineman who hasn't hit the heights he did last year is Travis Frederick. Frederick has been pretty good, but "pretty good" is a noticeable downgrade from "possibly the best center in the league." I think the biggest thing is that there are a lot of plays where he is just half a step behind. He's not so bad that he is killing the play, but he seems just late enough that it results in too much unnecessary leakage. Again, he's still having a good year by most centers' standards, but after watching how well he played last year, it's a bit of a step back in his third year.

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This play is a good example. Technically this pressure is La'el Collins' fault (his man gets the pressure), and Frederick actually saves a sack. But Frederick is late helping, and as a result Romo has to move off his spot. It's another man protection, and once Frederick's man (Kuechly) drops, the center needs to get depth and pick up anything that comes inside. It's called a "hole" technique, and it's what man pass blocking teams use a lot of vs. double 3-techniques.

On one hand, Frederick gets enough of the defender where Romo can step up and throw the ball, but this is a tough block for Collins to make (passing off the twist with Tyron Smith) and Frederick should be in really good position to stone the guy coming inside. Instead he just gets a piece of him. It's not a terrible play, but it isn't a good one either.

I do want to point out that Tyron Smith does a really nice job here of recovering his base after getting rocked a bit. It looks like the twist catches him off guard (with how wide the 3-tech is at the snap, it probably shouldn't) and he gets knocked off balance. But he regains his base, drops his hips, and gathers up the defensive tackle nicely. It's a heck of a recovery after it looked like it was going to end ugly. A good example of functional strength and anchor.

Here's another example of Frederick being just bad enough to force a pressure, although again it's more on Collins.

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The Cowboys are running a half-slide protection to the right here where, because of the defense's alignment, everyone but Tyron Smith is sliding to the right (Smith is man-to-man with the defensive end). So the defensive tackle who gets the hit on Romo is technically coming through Collins' gap. It is Collins' mess-up, but where is Frederick going? There's nothing threatening his gap, but he keeps drifting away from Collins, making his block a lot tougher. If Frederick hangs in there a bit, I think they keep the defensive tackle at the line of scrimmage.

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Once again this is a worse play by Collins than Frederick, but it's still mediocre at best from a center who looked like one of the two or three best in the league last year. You expect some growing pains from a rookie, and you hope a third-year blue-chipper like Frederick plays so well that Collins' mistakes are minimized. On plays like this, Frederick seems to be magnifying Collins' errors.

Before moving on I do want to point out Smith again, with a textbook rep of pass protection. He gets a good initial set, but what I love is how he closes down on the inside move. He slides down parallel to the line of scrimmage and keeps a good base (notice how his feet never get too close together). He doesn't a give an inch of penetration once he starts sliding down, either. Stays perfectly square and washes the defensive end all the way past the quarterback to where the right guard had been originally aligned. It may not look like much, but this is so perfect. Exactly how you coach it.

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This is the first obviously bad play of the column by Frederick. It's a tough one cause he has to reach a 2I (a defensive tackle lined up on the inside shade of the guard), but it was the kind of thing he did regularly last year. Here the issue is that he steps underneath himself with that first step. He doesn't gain any ground, so he's behind the play and forces a 2-yard loss.

Frederick's seeming dip in play has been one reason the running game isn't where it was a year ago. Another is that DeMarco Murray was so significantly better in 2014 than anything the Cowboys have had in the backfield this year. The plays that always stick out to me are the 4-yard gains that should have gone for much longer. Take the first play of the game.

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That backside defensive end (95) cannot make a tackle for a 4-yard gain on a play blocked like that. A good running back runs through that arm tackle barely breaking stride (and yes, it's an arm tackle -- the defender's head is behind the ballcarrier on contact, he's only using his arms to bring him down), or he hits the hole with enough quickness that the defensive end can't get there. The play isn't perfectly blocked (again it's Collins that's the biggest issue), but Zack Martin's (70) block is good enough to where there needs to be a bigger gain here.

The fact that Darren McFadden might run for 1,000 yards this season should be the only argument anyone needs when explaining that Cowboys still have a very good offensive line, even if Thursday was a mediocre performance.


27 comments, Last at 04 Dec 2015, 6:00pm

#1 by TacticalSledgehammer // Dec 03, 2015 - 11:36am

So this is a random question, but how is Ben's last name pronounced? I've always assumed that it's Mew-th, but I'm curious if that's correct.

Points: 0

#2 by garion333 // Dec 03, 2015 - 12:00pm

I feel like the articles this year are all bummers. As in the lines aren't playing as well as they should or could be.

Or maybe I'm wearing rose colored glasses on past Muth articles. ;)

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#4 by Will Allen // Dec 03, 2015 - 12:07pm

He's still saying the Dallas unit is terrific. I also think he's had positive stuff to say about the Browns' unit, if I'm not misremembering.

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#10 by Tundrapaddy // Dec 03, 2015 - 1:34pm

He wrote a positive review of the Browns line, back in Week 2 or 3 and following their game against the Titans.

I'll agree that he's still calling the Dallas line a very good line, but one with a few specific flaws. That's different to, for example, the various words he's used to describe the 5-alarm (or 5-person) dumpster fire in Denver.

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#3 by Will Allen // Dec 03, 2015 - 12:04pm

It is depressing to me that a team with a terrific offensive line is having this season, and will lead some people with power in the league to think that investing in the unit is not to be prioritized, as opposed to understanding that running backs short of Adrian Peterson shouldn't be on the field if they can't pass block.

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#9 by boog // Dec 03, 2015 - 1:17pm

The Cowboys are really testing the limits of my theory that a good line can make even a poor quarterback look average. Apparently you can go lower than "poor".

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#11 by Tundrapaddy // Dec 03, 2015 - 1:36pm

Just imagine how happy Dallas fans will be once Money Manziel is serving as Romo's protege.

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#14 by Thomas_beardown // Dec 03, 2015 - 1:44pm

I don't think this has ever been really true. QB trumps almost everything else on offense.

Sometimes, creative coaching, good receivers, and a good offensive line can mask a poor QB, but it has to be everything working in concert.

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#16 by Dired // Dec 03, 2015 - 3:47pm

Sometimes I wonder if that's one of the game's biggest problems. There's simply too much riding on that one position, and if your team has a bad one or just and average one, it needs Hall of Fame level greatness on other units to have a shot at a championship. But if your QB is good (or just on a hot streak) he can drag a team through the playoffs and then, hey, any given Sunday. But there's just not enough quality QBs to go around, and when yours gets seriously hurt it's a catastrophe.

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#18 by Will Allen // Dec 03, 2015 - 4:05pm

I've been saying for a long time now that the more the game revolves around the performance of one position, the less interesting it becomes. Expand the legal contact with receivers zone to 10 yards, and that may change.

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#19 by theslothook // Dec 03, 2015 - 4:50pm

Its funny, but as defenses have gotten better at getting pressure, its made the onus on the qb even more important.

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#20 by Will Allen // Dec 03, 2015 - 5:15pm

Any reasonable rule change which would increase the marginal value of running the ball, relative to the marginal value of passing, would likely make the game more interesting, it seems to me.

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#25 by cjfarls // Dec 04, 2015 - 5:36pm

Yeah, but how do you do that? Could we create some defensive alignment rule where no more than 7 people can be within the "box"? Say, within 7 yards of the LOS and horizontally to outside the folks "in-line" (e.g. OTs/TEs)? Would that open up opportunities for the inside run game?

Or does that just encourage bigger LBs that can stop the run, but further open up the short-passing game that the best QBs can then comparatively dominate? Its kind of hard to anticipate the long-term implications of the cat-mouse battle.

It certainly seems like the things that impinge on WRs or the oline simply make the QB MORE important to the success of an offense.

It may just be that a great QB is so able to hide flaws/weaknesses in other parts of the offense, that in a salary cap constrained league, there is simply no way to make up the difference. If there wasn't a cap, folks could invest a ton in other positions to make up the difference, but with a cap constraint, maybe there just isn't any viable alternative.

That said, I think we're also highly spoiled. QB play overall is better than ever. Phillip Rivers would be a sure HOF contender if he wasn't playing against PManning, Brady, Brees and Rodgers (not to mention great guys in the next tier like Big Ben, EManning, RWilson etc. with multiple Superbowls).

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#27 by Thomas_beardown // Dec 04, 2015 - 6:00pm

Expanding the contact area for DBs to 10 yards would be a big step. Not even Peyton Manning can complete passes with DBs shoving the receivers as we found out.

You could potentially liberalize holding as well.

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#12 by Tundrapaddy // Dec 03, 2015 - 1:39pm

I'd like to think that most of the knowledgeable people in power will still understand that a team's offense (or defense, for that matter) start with the line and go outwards from there.

But I suppose hot, wet messes aren't always limited to the football field; sometimes they extend into the front office.

Still holding out hope that the Vikings brain trust sees fit to draft at least 2 O-linemen, and at least 1 in the first 2 rounds.

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#5 by jtr // Dec 03, 2015 - 12:10pm

On the second-to-last play (where Fredrick gets beat), shouldn't Martin (#70) have helped him there? My understanding of zone blocking was that with a d-lineman in the gap to his left, the guard should chip the DT to help the center get squared up on him. Muth has highlighted blockers who use a one-armed punch to stop the DL's momentum before heading to the second level. It looks like Martin goes out of his way to DODGE the DT, which seems particularly egregious when the guy was shaded so far toward him.

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#8 by Ben Muth // Dec 03, 2015 - 12:19pm

On most teams, you're right. But Dallas, last year and this year, have seemingly made a decision to let Frederick handle this stuff himself (which really helps the guards to block LBs). It's one of the reasons I thought so highly of him last year, he was making blocks by himself most centers struggle with even if they have help. This year the Cowboys are running the same scheme but Frederick hasn't been as consistently great

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#6 by SportsHec8 // Dec 03, 2015 - 12:11pm

what an excellent write up - i argued the cowboys didnt need to keep Murray but was extremely disappointed they didnt draft anyone!

Just think how different the season could've gone if Dallas had a back that turns that run into a first down instead of a short gain

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#7 by Thomas_beardown // Dec 03, 2015 - 12:16pm

If Romo doesn't get hurt I think there is a good chance the Cowboys run away with this division. If Romo gets hurt anyways, would Murray be a big enough difference?

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#15 by theslothook // Dec 03, 2015 - 2:17pm

Pretty much this. Also to address some the comments above stressing investments in the o line. Its not that investing in the o line is itself a bad thing, its just that invariably you need be good across the board for it to work. If the left side is filled with probowlers but your right side has one below avg player and one awful one, the entire unit becomes undermined.

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#21 by Raiderfan // Dec 04, 2015 - 6:09am

In the second gif, isn't there an illegal hi-lo block on the RDE? Was it just an official missing it, or is there some rule for interior blocking that made it legal?

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#22 by Ben Muth // Dec 04, 2015 - 10:40am

Could've been called but it's borderline. Collins is about at hip level and I don't think his intent was to cut block him, he was just desperation lunging. I think it's a good no call but could see where it looks bad enough to get called too.

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#26 by OSS117 // Dec 04, 2015 - 5:53pm

You mention Frederick being a top two or three center last year. I'm curious/interested if you've thought of doing a top 5 or whatever positional ranking column(s) after the season? I'm pretty sure it would go over well.

Based on past comments, I'm guessing Unger was one of your other top centers last year.

Points: 0

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