Word of Muth: Hope For Dallas?
by Ben Muth
Last Sunday the Cowboys suffered their third loss in a row without Tony Romo in the starting lineup. Living in Dallas, the mood here seems to be less panic and more quiet desperation, and nothing says quiet desperation quite like believing that Matt Cassel gives you the best chance to win.
As bad as the quarterback play has been, and a change is certainly necessary, Brandon Weeden has not been the only scapegoat on America's team. The defense has taken some criticism. The play calling has been labeled conservative. And most surprisingly to me, the offensive line has come under serious scrutiny the last couple of weeks.
I understand that expectations for this unit were high, and it's boring to blame just Brandon Weeden, but the offensive line has played fine. In fact, that's underrating them -- they have played very well all things considered. When a young quarterback gets pounded behind a terrible offensive line, people are generally pretty forgiving of whatever shortcomings he may show (see Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson, and Ryan Tannehill). Or when a wide receiver is playing with a bad quarterback, some drop in production is expected (see Larry Fitzgerald and Andre Johnson for the last few years). But when an offensive line is playing with the worst assortment of skill talent in the league (and without Romo, Dez Bryant, and Lance Dunbar, the Cowboys skill talent is in that discussion) that line is expected to produce exactly like it did the year before when the linemen had far better talent surrounding them?
It's an absurd double standard. It's tough to look good when you're facing eight-man boxes (or seven-man boxes when you're in 11 personnel). It's tough to look good when running backs are only getting what's blocked and nothing more. And it's tough to look good when not a single defender on the field is concerned with getting the ball thrown over his head. Honestly, with how defenses are playing them, I think the Cowboys would be better off going 22 personnel with Jason Witten and a sixth lineman as the tight ends instead of ever going 11 personnel on first or second down.
Is Dallas' O-line perfect? No, of course not. I thought right tackle Doug Free and left guard Ronald Leary both played worse against New England than they typically do. Leary is even getting benched for rookie La'El Collins -- which I think will hurt Dallas in the short term but will probably work out in the long term -- but neither was terrible. And the other three guys up front played very well.
Center Travis Frederick looked much better than he did in the first Dallas game I wrote about this year. He returned to last year's form when it came to reaching defensive tackles. Tyron Smith played great, like he has all year. He was dominant as a pass blocker and did a nice job in the running game as well. But the guy I want to focus on this week is Zack Martin at right guard, who was fantastic.
Martin was a guy who everyone loved coming into the draft in 2014, but no one knew where he would go because people were worried he couldn't play tackle. He fell to pick no. 16 where Dallas grabbed him (instead of Johnny Manziel, much to Jerry Jones' chagrin). Twenty games into his pro career we still don't know if he can play tackle, but it doesn't matter because he's one of the five best guards in the league. He does so much well, but I want to focus on how good he is at blocking outside zone, which is the Cowboys' bread-and-butter running play.
If you're a team that wants to run outside zone, the No. 1 question you have about any guard you're thinking about bringing in is "can he reach a 3-technique?" It's probably the single most important block on the play, and one of the few blocks in zone schemes where a guard doesn't get any real help. Martin does it perfectly on the play above. He gets his hat outside, fights to stay square, and completely covers up the defender, Alan Branch.
[ad placeholder 3]
If you have been reading the column for a while, you've probably heard me say something like "Player X is alright here, but you'd like to see him cover the defender up a bit more." That play above is why covering guys up is so crucial on zone running plays. By totally covering up the color of the defender, you give the back a two-way go instead of dictating the hole to him.
Here, the two-way go was especially necessary because the Cowboys had a miscommunication with whether to count a rolled up safety as a linebacker (Witten and Free counted him, Frederick didn't), so the play-side linebacker went unblocked. Because Martin did such a great job, Joseph Randle could peek in the A-gap, draw the defender in, and then bounce it to the B-gap. This is a great job by Martin and Randle and resulted in a nice gain.
This is another outside zone play from Dallas, but this time the defensive tackle over Martin is lined up in a 2-I (meaning, he's over the inside half of the guard). Last time I wrote about the Cowboys, I mentioned that Dallas needed to give Frederick a little more help when he had to reach defensive tackles lined up that far outside. What Martin does here certainly qualifies as a little help.
[ad placeholder 4]
I love Martin's footwork here. He takes a very tiny first step with his outside foot (with the resolution on the GIF it almost just looks like a pivot, but it's a step). He just wants to get that first step up and down so he can get his second foot in the ground on contact. Then he splits the defender right in the middle with that second step. One of my former coaches used to coach this block by telling us to "step on the defender's d--k." Descriptive coaching is effective.
Martin completely crumples the defensive tackle inside and leaves Travis Frederick with the easiest reach block of all time, then he goes and collects the linebacker. Great technique and strength by Martin.
One last thing I want to point out is that once again the Patriots have more in the box than the Cowboys can block. Normally, a team would release the backside tight end up onto the safety immediately and hope they could keep the defensive end honest with the play-action boot threat. But no one respects Brandon Weeden, so Witten has to block the defensive end for a second before futilely chasing the safety. As a result the running back has two guys to beat instead of one, and a perfectly blocked play results in just 13 yards.
This time Martin is on the back side. As far as technique goes, his angle is good, his footwork is good, but really this is just about grown man strength. He absolutely launches the linebacker out of the hole and into the ground. It could have been a touchdown-creating block if the back had not decided to run right at the mass of bodies created from Free's mediocre cut block.
I also want to point out Frederick's reach block here. This time he doesn't get nearly as much help from Leary as he did from Martin on the previous play, but he still gets the job done. That's a very tough block and the kind of thing that Frederick can do when he's playing well. It's plays like these why I'm not worried about the Cowboys' offensive line at all.