Doug Free: What The Game Tape Said

After reading that Wade Phillips was considering the possibility of moving Leonard Davis out to right tackle and inserting Cory Procter or Montrae Holland in at guard, or that Pat McQuistan might even get some practice snaps; I got to thinking - Why the heck would Dallas do that?

Was Doug Free that bad in the Packers game? The franchise has invested time and money in Free, this would seem like the perfect opportunity to see what they have in the player. We've seen Procter and Holland play, and I don't think anybody is clamoring to get these guys playing time, ditto Pat McQuistan. Why break up the continuity at two positions? It all seemed a little nutty to me, so I did what any responsible blogger would do - I just made up an opinion.

I kid! I actually watched the game again focusing exclusively on the play of Doug Free.

[UPDATE]: The Cowboys are going to start Doug Free at right tackle. Line coach Hudson Houck gave the news to Todd Archer.

Before my DVR stopped recording the very end of the game, I charted Doug Free for roughly 52 plays (including some plays negated by a Cowboys penalty). Yeah, I know, it's hard to believe we had that many plays on offense, but the final few drives of the game account for almost half that number.

What I found was close to what I expected. First, I think he had a pretty good game for coming off the bench and not getting reps with the first team in practice all year. I've been reporting from training camp for a couple of years that Free has very quick feet and is very athletic for a lineman, and this game was no different. Free is quick out of his stance, and moves laterally well, and was not having a lot of problems with the pass rush. In context though, the Packers were attacking the Cowboys mainly from the middle and over the left-side of our offensive line. Free was battling outside linebackers a lot of the game, and this favored his ability to use his agility to lock up a pass rusher. What we need to see is when he faces a bigger defensive end who could use strength and size to overpower Free, that is a test he would need to pass.

On the negative side, Free was sometimes confused in protections, picking up the wrong guy or no guy; these were obvious mental mistakes and are part of the experience-gaining process. Another area that he was poor at was getting out on screens, especially the WR screens. Given his athleticism this would appear to be a skill that favors him, but it was more the timing on the screens, which you can't really get a good feel for until you've played in real-game, live-speed action.

I only counted eight plays that were obvious problems/mistakes and somewhat material to the play. On a screen pass, he gave up too much ground to the pass rusher too quickly, forcing Romo to get rid of the ball before he wanted to. Fortunately for the Cowboys, the play ended up being successful. On a run, Free was supposed to hit the closest guy on the line, then shed him and get to the second-level. He did this, but his initial block was too soft and once he shed the defender, the defender stuffed the run. In his hurry to get to the second-level, he didn't take care of business on the first-level. He totally blew a blitz pickup but Romo managed to save the play. Twice, he was slow to get out on the WR screen, one time was especially bad, it helped kill the play. On another screen to a back, he picked the wrong guy to block. He had two bad pass protections, one lead to a holding call and on the other he did manage to recover somewhat at the last second.

Those were the eight plays where you could definitely see his inexperience and mental mistakes.

But, contrast that to the other 44 plays or so where he was actually quite good, or the play went away from him and his block was immaterial to the success of the play. If you watch his pass protection for most of the game, it was solid. On a few run plays he got great blocks, including one pinning down the defensive tackle while blocking down, and a combo block with Davis that opened a hole, plus a few other decent one-on-one blocks.

I came away fairly impressed with his play, this being his first real, significant, playing-time since joining the Cowboys. Nothing in his performance said he shouldn't get another start this week. Maybe Phillips is just keeping people guessing so everybody will practice harder and prepare harder in hopes they might get some playing time. Maybe it's a ploy to keep Free from feeling entitled to the starting spot, making him work harder and harder. Maybe the Cowboys coaches saw something I didn't see.

If Doug Free doesn't start on Sunday, I would love to know the reason why. I couldn't find it in the Packers game tape.

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