Word of Muth: Dallas in the Rear-View

Word of Muth: Dallas in the Rear-View
Word of Muth: Dallas in the Rear-View
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Ben Muth

If I had only had one word to describe the 2015 Dallas Cowboys offensive line, it would be "underappreciated." Thankfully, I have more words than that, so we can get a little more in depth. Just because they underachieved according to their massive preseason expectations does not mean that they are a bad unit. In fact, I'd say they are a really good line that is about to get a thousand yards out of an aging Darren McFadden (who wasn't even that good in his prime). You could take an all-decade offensive line and it would struggle to run the ball with the skill talent with which the Cowboys played this year. I just don't think Dallas' offensive line ever had a real chance to live up to its hype as a potential all-time great unit.

When the running backs are Darren McFadden and Joseph Randle; the quarterbacks are Brandon Weeden, Matt Cassel, and Kellen Moore; and the No. 1 receiver is Terrance Williams, Cole Beasley, or a not-100-percent Dez Bryant, no offensive line is going to look good. That's not even getting into some of the most conservative play calling seen in the NFL is this year. At the end of the day, so many things were wrong with the Cowboys' offense that no offensive line could have salvaged much. The pieces are still in place, however, for this to go from a really good offensive line in 2015 to a special one in 2016.

This is the second time I have covered the Cowboys since Tyron Smith has come into the league, and I have to say that, in my opinion, he's the best offensive tackle in the NFL. If you wanted to choose Joe Thomas I wouldn't argue with you, but for my money, I take Tyron Smith. What it comes down to for me is that both players have great technique, but if you were building a left tackle from scratch in a laboratory, he would look a lot like Tyron Smith.

It's easy to focus in how quick and fluid Smith is as a player, and lose track of how unbelievably strong he is. There are times when he crumples defensive ends with his punch alone, and his strength makes him one of the better run blocking left tackles in the game as well. His power also allows him to recover from some precarious positions.

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This isn't a great rep of pass protection from Smith (77), but that's a hell of a finish. He gets a good initial punch, but is slow to replace his hands and ends up getting pushed back too far into the quarterback's lap. But then he sits down, and actually turns it into a drive block and a pancake. Last week I showed a similar play from Thomas, who did a nice job of holding his spot after some initial movement, it was a solid football play. This is just an example of a dominating athlete turning trouble into a borderline highlight block.

One other thing I want to point out is how tight Smith's elbows are when he starts to turn this into a drive block. Inside hands are so key if you want to play with power, and you can almost feel Smith bring his elbows together to gain leverage when he decides he can move the rusher towards the line of scrimmage.

Moving inside, if you were expecting La'el Collins to be a good NFL player in Year 1, you were probably disappointed. He was inconsistent, and both Smith and Travis Frederick seemed to play their worst when working with Collins (which is telling). There were just too many times when a combination with which he was involved looked sloppy and resulted in leakage.

On the other hand, if you expected Collins to prove why most people thought he was going to be a top-15 pick, you were probably very excited. Collins may not be a great guard right now, but he showed that he has everything it takes to be a future star. He also led the league in devastating blocks that were captured in Internet videos (this is an unofficial stat). I'm not sure I have seen another player who is so vicious to second- and third-level players down the field.

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That's Collins (71) sprinting 20 yards downfield to flat-back some poor defensive back. The play got called back because of Zack Martin's block in the back, but Collins' effort deserves to be highlighted. You just don't see a lot of guys who are that big, strong and fast, and who play that hard, who don't end up being becoming good players.

At center, I think Frederick is a really good player who had a bit of a down year. The Cowboys' staff asks a lot of him, and when he was great last year it helped everyone around him. This year he was just good, and I think it caused a noticeable dip for the whole unit. He and Bryant are the two guys the Cowboys need to regain their 2014 form if they want to compete in 2016.

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This is a good example of the kind of year Frederick has had. The Cowboys are running outside zone towards a shaded nose that Frederick is going to have to reach without any help. Frederick makes a nice block; he gets his head across and fights back into the nose tackle and allows McFadden to gain 5 yards.

But if he could fight back into the nose tackle a little more, or run his feet a little more and finish the block as the nose tackle goes to escape, maybe he creates just enough of a gap for the running back to hit the secondary. It's a good block (again, it was a 5-yard gain where the running back can't step through an arm tackle by a guy who is being blocked) but it's not quite the great block we saw so often last year.

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Martin would almost certainly be his team's best offensive lineman if he played for any team other than the Cowboys (Baltimore with Marshal Yanda and Cleveland with Thomas are the only other teams I can think of where he wouldn't). Honestly, I'm willing to listen to arguments that Martin is better than Smith. Regardless, the Cowboys have two of the top five offensive linemen in the NFL. Martin is a technician who is rock-solid in pass protection, good at blocking 3-techniques in the running game, and excels at covering linebackers at the second level. He does everything you want from an offensive guard.

And finally we reach right tackle Doug Free. Along with Frederick, he was the other Cowboys lineman who took a step back in 2015. I think he's still an above-average right tackle, but penalties and inconsistent pass protection were a real issue this season. He just signed a new 3-year deal in the spring, but his salary jumps from $1.5 million to $4 million this fall. That's right on the edge of what I would be willing to pay someone like Free, and if Dallas thinks they have anything behind him (like 2015 third-rounder Chaz Green), they may feel comfortable moving on from Free.

As far as Sunday's game against the Jets, I thought it was a nice microcosm of the season. Smith played very well. Collins seems to keep getting better. Frederick had a tough matchup with Damon Harrison that I think was a draw; for most centers a draw against Harrison is really a win, but for Frederick I was hoping for a bit more. Martin played steadily, although a bit below his high standards. And the quarterback and running back play were terrible and made the offensive linemen look worse than they really were. The only unrepresentative aspect of Saturday's game was Doug Free, who might have had his best game of the year.

Calling the quarterback play terrible may be a step too far, but it certainly wasn't good, and the fact that Moore's pocket presence was spotty made the Jets pass rush look better than it actually was. It's not surprising that young guy making his first start would look a little lost when things weren't perfectly in rhythm, but it doesn't do any favors for the guys up front.

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You can see Frederick working before the snap to get the protection set up vs. a Cover-Zero blitz. And sure enough, it's not perfect, but the Cowboys do a great job of picking it up. These are the types of plays for which you need to make a defense pay.

But Moore drifts back and to his right, right into Free's block. As a result, he can't step into the throw and floats it out of bounds before even trying to make a play. This is really just as bad as overthrowing a wide-open receiver (though not as bad as throwing a pick on a play where you're called for intentional grounding).

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Here's a play where, for all intents and purposes, Moore sacked himself (it was registered as a sack for a zero-yard loss in the play-by-play). I mean, there's no pressure there. Moore just sees his first option is covered and then starts trying to protect the ball and fall down. He missed Cole Beasley running right across his face (which is odd, since most of his completions were on shallow crossers like that route). Considering the Cowboys play on national TV 11 times of a year, I'm not sure I can survive another year of this type of quarterbacking. Please come back, Tony.


12 comments, Last at 01 Jan 2016, 10:02pm

#1 by theslothook // Dec 24, 2015 - 12:54pm

If you are the cowboys, you need to seriously consider drafting romo's replacement/moving on. This like the 4th time in 5 seasons romo has been injured. Hes basically in the injury prone pre-mcnabb collapse stage of his career.

Points: 0

#2 by jacobk // Dec 24, 2015 - 2:54pm

Would it be possible to do some analysis on the difference between Christine Michael in Dallas (15 carries, 51 yards) and Christine Michael in Seattle (16 carries, 84 yards)? Some of the difference is no doubt the Cleveland defense, but we'll have some more information after this weekend's game.

It seems to me that either Seattle's line is way better than people think or that line + RB is a smaller component of run game success than people think.

Points: 0

#4 by Duff Soviet Union // Dec 25, 2015 - 3:52pm

I'd say three things here:

1) Tiny sample size. Michael had never really looked any good in Seattle until last week against a dreadful run defense. There's a reason they were willing to let him go after last year.

2) I think Wilson helps his running backs heaps. It's been shown that having a running QB helps the team running game even beyond the QB's own rushing yards as defensive ends can't crash down etc.

3) I do think the Seattle line is better than people say. It's not especially good, but it's not the tire fire people make it out to have been in the Wilson era. I think the people in the backfield are a lot to blame for this perception. Wilson, until very recently, tended to hang onto the ball forever and run around a lot, both of which tend to make offensive linemen look worse than they are, while Lynch had elite tackle breaking ability but sub par vision IMO (Rawls seemed to do a much better job of finding holes). I'd say the only time this line has been bad was the Drew Nowak era. Now they've replaced him, and Wilson is doing a much better job of getting the ball out quickly, and the line has looked great the last month or so.

Points: 0

#5 by Perfundle // Dec 26, 2015 - 3:33am

I do think the Seattle line is better than people say.

PFF is still the best authority on OL rankings, and they have Seattle's line ranked:

2012: 18th pass blocking, 15th run blocking, 30th penalties, 20th overall
2013: 25th pass blocking, 23rd run blocking, 30th penalties, 27th overall
2014: 18th pass blocking, 17th run blocking, 30th penalties, 19th overall
2015 up to Seattle's bye week (Nowak was permanently replaced after this): 32nd pass blocking, 29th run blocking, 17th penalties, 32nd overall

An underrated aspect of how bad the OL has been is penalties. Until this year, they were horrible at committing false start and holding penalties, and most of the holding penalties were on run plays and unrelated to Wilson holding onto the ball too long. And though it might not be as bad as people think, it's definitely worse than Dallas' OL, which was second in run blocking last year and first this year.

Points: 0

#6 by Karl Cuba // Dec 26, 2015 - 11:01am

PFF is still the best? When were they ever the best?

They are low in ASR but first in ALY by FO's numbers. It looks to me like Cable has whipped them into shape, plus is there a reason you'd expect them to be that bad? If the new center is OK then you've Okung at LT, last year's high pick at LG, new center, Sweezy at LG and you'd expect that group to be OK. So even if the RT is a bit spotty the rest of them should be decent.

Points: 0

#7 by jacobk // Dec 26, 2015 - 3:50pm

I posted the initial question because I remember thinking "if he can't even make it in Dallas, he's done" when Michael washed out down there. It really tempered my expectations heading in to last week's game.

Points: 0

#8 by Perfundle // Dec 26, 2015 - 8:13pm

Who has a better ranking system? Every other ranking system, including FO, can only use objective numbers, which is no way to rank offensive lines.

last year's high pick at LG

Britt was one of the worst linemen in the league last year, so him being picked high is irrelevant; he was considered a reach in any case. Sweezy wasn't particularly good either and is probably Seattle's worst lineman right now.

And yes, I did expect them to be bad, even with Lewis replacing Nowak. You're taking last year's mediocre line, replacing your best lineman with someone who couldn't even win the starting job this year, replacing the right tackle with a backup left tackle, all being supported by a tight end known for not being able to block.

Points: 0

#9 by theslothook // Dec 26, 2015 - 10:00pm

Of all the things pff grades, I actually think line plays is probably the closest to accurate. Line play in some sense is about beating the guy in front of you. To that extent, its less about vague secondary assignments and more about the one on one nature of things. Its probably the only area where the grades make a lot of sense.

Points: 0

#10 by Thomas_beardown // Dec 26, 2015 - 11:18pm

After years of reading Muth's article, I think this is definitely not true. Offensive lineman often have responsibilities that are not clear.

Points: 0

#11 by theslothook // Dec 27, 2015 - 5:00am

Sure, i can agree with that. A lot. Over the years ive often compared muths analysis to pff grades and most of the time they line up well. The nuances of why ofc are only there when ben does his breakdowns.

Points: 0

#3 by mehllageman56 // Dec 24, 2015 - 10:55pm

That arm tackle was by Wilkerson. If McFadden is going to be arm tackled, it's a lot less embarrassing if it's by a guy on the short list of 2nd best 5 tech in the league. And yes, the Cowboy's offensive line kicked butt in this game. With Romo, this could have been a blow out.

Points: 0

#12 by jonsilver // Jan 01, 2016 - 10:02pm

The NY sportswriters (particularly Timesman Shpigel) were very snide about the Jets' relative inability to shut down Dallas' running game, and that led them to draw negative conclusions about the likelihood of NY's making the playoffs based on that. Aside from Dallas' line having a great game, the 2 best players in NY's front 7 (Wilkerson and Harris) missed large portions of the game (Harris about 7/8's of it) with injuries sustained early. I thought the Jets' defense held up rather well, considering.
Jon Silverberg

Points: 0

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