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

Word of Muth: Dallas Dominates

Word of Muth: Dallas Dominates
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Ben Muth

(EDITOR'S NOTE: This year, we have started uploading GIFs at Gfycat.com for use in our articles, and for most users it has been a positive change, resulting in faster page loads and navigation. Some users, though, have reported that the Gfycat GIFs won't load on their mobile devices. So we're trying something new, still using the Gfycat GIFs in the body in the article, but still giving readers the option to load each GIF in a new window if that's a better option. Please let us know at fomailbag@gmail.com if this solution works for you, or if you have any other questions or concerns. -- Ed.)

Even though the Cowboys lost their fourth straight game this past Sunday, I thought there was reason for some optimism for Dallas' offense. Yes, Matt Cassel threw three picks, but a couple of them were down the field, which means he was at least looking that way, which is an improvement over what they got from Brandon Weeden. I also thought their offensive line played their best game of the year. The pass protection was great and the run blocking was almost as good. We're going to focus on the run blocking this week just because good run blocking is generally more entertaining than good pass blocking. We got a lot of GIFs this week, so let's get right to it.

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This is just outside zone from 12 personnel. It's the Cowboys' base running play and something they probably install on Day 1 of OTAs. Darren McFadden makes a nice a read, hits the hole hard, and ends up gaining 23 yards. The play is really made by two guys up front though, Travis Frederick and Zack Martin.

Let's start with Martin at right guard. He takes a good track toward the defensive end's hip. If the end slants in, Martin has him; if he feels like he sees just a little bit of color ("color" is defender overhang) over the right tackle, Doug Free, he can shove the defender completely onto Free before climbing to the second level. Here the defender is playing outside all the way so Martin climbs almost immediately.

Once on the second level, a nice play would have been to cover up the linebacker, and that would have led to a nice 5- to 7-yard gain. But Martin doesn't just cover up the defender, he violently displaces him from his gap. He creates a big enough hole that McFadden doesn't have to squeeze through it, but can accelerate through it, and hit the third level with enough speed to make the safety miss. Really nice job by Martin.

Frederick's block isn't as dominating, but it might be tougher. He has to reach a shaded nose tackle (a tightly shaded one, but shaded none the less) and does it perfectly. He gets to the defender's outside shoulder quickly, fights to stay square to the line of scrimmage so he doesn't dictate to the back where to run, and even gets a yard or so of movement off the ball, which is really rare on this type of block. Just a real solid professional football play.

One last guy I want to point out is La'el Collins, not because he gets knocked down but because I like what he's trying to do before he gets bowled over. Notice how he's chopping his inside hand as he's moving to the second level? That's because throughout the first half (this run happened in the second half), New York's defensive line seemed far more interested in grabbing or holding the Cowboys' linemen than they were in making plays themselves. Collins is trying to keep the defender's hands off him by throwing a chop move like a pass rusher. It didn't work (notice Collins' shoulders get turned back to the defensive tackle, and that grab is probably why he went ass over tea kettle) but you always like to see young guys working different techniques.

It wasn't just outside zone for the Cowboys that worked though. It seemed like every run they dialed up gained at least 3 yards. They were running straight up halfback dives for 5 yards a pop.

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I mean, it literally doesn't get any simpler than this. Everyone is just blocking the guy in front of them. If you have a linebacker, double with the guy inside of you on your way to the linebacker. They don't even get to the Mike linebacker, but it's not a big deal cause the left side (Collins and Tyron Smith) drive the 3-technique right into his lap, so he can't make a play for anything less than a 5-yard gain.

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Both double-teams are really good from a technique standpoint. Everyone thinks double-teams are two behemoths just getting nasty and WANTING IT more, but that's not the case. Here all four guys do a really nice job of getting hip to hip before making any contact. You don't want to hit the defender at two different angles if you're trying to drive them straight back like the Cowboys are here. That's how double-teams get split, or you end up pushing against each other like Detective Herc and Carver trying to move a desk in The Wire. (Think that was the first Wire reference in this column's history. I'm finally ready for the big time.) You need to build a human snowplow before driving forward if you want to get consistent movement.

Before moving on, take one last look at the above GIF and notice the grabbing from the Giants' front. This time it's Travis Frederick that gets yanked down right into a linebacker, who gets to knock over an offensive lineman but not make a play.

One thing Dallas seems to have had a bit of trouble with this year is getting their backs to get the edge quickly on their outside zone plays. So this game it seems like they made an effort to call some plays where there weren't any reads about where the hole would be, it was just get the ball and get outside. They ran some jet sweeps, some tosses, and this outside zone scheme below that is basically just a bastardized buck sweep.

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I bet this is called similarly to their outside zone series, but like I said it's just buck sweep principles. Everyone blocks down, front-side puller kicks out, and the back-side puller (the center here instead of the traditional back-side guard) leads into the alley. Obviously, the star of the play is Zack Martin, devourer of defenders under 250 pounds, steamrolling the defensive back right at the point of attack. Sometimes it's about technique, other times it's about just being the man. And Zack Martin is the man. Frederick also does a great job of pulling way the heck out there. (Seriously, not many centers can snap it and then pull around three tight ends to the same side.)

Another guy I want to point out on this play is Jason Witten, who is really underrated as a blocker. Here he does a great job of squaring up the defensive end and sealing him off inside, without allowing any penetration to mess up the pullers. When people debate Witten's Hall of Fame candidacy, they rarely mention that he was a much better blocker than the other elite receiving tight ends of his era (Antonio Gates and Tony Gonzalez).

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This is a similar concept as we saw in the previous play. This time it's Lucky Whitehead running the ball, and Tyron Smith as the kickout man, but the end goal is the same. Really, I just put this in here to watch Tyron Smith rumble over a defensive back. It looks like the DB can't decide whether to try to take out Smith's legs or take on the block, and he ends up caught in between before being buried into the turf. Smith ends up doing a little body surfing.

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One thing I don't love about this play is that because it's a toss to a guy already lined up behind the tackle, Frederick doesn't have a real chance to lead through the hole. He hustles his ass off and ends up getting a block, but the play doesn't put him in the best position to succeed.

Both of those plays were good examples of Dallas getting away from their pure zone scheme to force their backs/skill guys to test the edge of the defense. With the passing offense struggling with absences of Dez Bryant and Tony Romo, and the run game missing the kind of all-around back DeMarco Murray was last year, it's important to scheme the run game to prod the defense everywhere you can.

Before we wrap up, I did want to touch on La'el Collins. It was his first start as a member of the first unit (he had started before in place of an injured Ronald Leary) and I thought he acquitted himself very well. There were a few miscommunications between him and his teammates. They were not major, but they did result in some unnecessary leakage that you hope gets cleaned up with some experience. But one thing that was very clear is that Collins is absolutely freakshow strong. These next three GIFs are going to come rapid fire cause we're just focusing on Collins, so be ready.

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At left guard, Collins' footwork isn't great here (he drifts too far laterally before helping with the combo block), but man does he rock that nose tackle. He stands him straight up and knocks him almost completely off his feet. It looks like George Foreman hitting a heavy bag. Just an absolute thud.

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This one doesn't look as impressive as that first GIF, but it is. If you read my column on the Browns from Week 2, I went on at length about how good Cleveland's hand placement was on combination blocks. Their offensive line always hand their hands right on the defender's hip to get the most movement. Here, Collins' hand is too high, in the defender's armpit, and the rookie still shoves him over a full gap, basically with one hand. Again, not great technique, but moving people with pure power is still moving people.

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This is the clearest example of a rookie mistake being saved by natural ability. Collins missed the squeeze call (in man protection, when you know three guys are coming and you only have two to block them, you take the two on the inside). I'm guessing he got locked in on the 3-technique and missed how fast the linebacker was creeping up to the line of scrimmage. Once he bumps into Smith he realizes he should probably be blocking inside and he lunges at the linebacker and just barely gets a hand on him. Of course that's enough to completely turn the linebacker's shoulders and send him to the turf.

There's clearly some stuff to iron out, but the ability is so clearly there. I'm excited to see how he progresses as the season goes on.


9 comments, Last at 10 Nov 2015, 12:30am

1 Re: Word of Muth: Dallas Dominates

Great column as usual.

Watching the once-pretty-damn-good Jon Beason get completely taken out of the play in the first 4 GIFs is tough.

3 Re: Word of Muth: Dallas Dominates

Really wonderful column. I loved pointing out how Dallas is changing their running scheme to accommodate the players they have. Something I would have really never noticed.

6 Re: Word of Muth: Dallas Dominates

The God of Football Irony must be pleased, with the qb who plays wth one of the best bunch of blockers getting his collarbone broken. The God of Football Irony is kind of a bastard, truth be told.

If Greg Hardy can refrain from reminding me of what a jerk (or worse ) he is, for a couple weeks, I just have to root for a team which is largely going to have to block its way into the tournament.

7 Re: Word of Muth: Dallas Dominates

When Tony broke it back in 2011, it was actually the FB that missed the block and gave the Giants' pass rusher (Michael Boley, I believe?) a free shot on him.

It's tough...even with a strong OL, your guys are gonna take hits and you just hold your breath.

The OL has been performing significantly below its 2014 standard so far this year, so last Sunday was a welcome return to dominant form, particularly in the run game. Part of the issue may have been that the OL was largely held out of training camp and preseason, and as a result was a bit slower to gel over the first 4-5 weeks of the season. Also had some churn at the LG spot, so maybe that factored in too. Exciting to see early promise in Collins and think about what the line could develop into if he turns into a top-end player.

9 Re: Word of Muth: Dallas Dominates

Love the column. A while back, some of the columns included jersey numbers that made it easier to tell which players Ben was referring to. I think Ben got out of the habit; I would appreciate seeing those numbers again.