In a post after the 49ers game, I noted that this season, with its incessant litany of close games, was starting to feel a lot like the 2005 campaign, which was packed with nail-biters that went down to the wire (and, as might be predicted, turned on a single play or untoward miscue). I'm revising that opinion, however. After Sunday's tilt, this season is looking a lot more like 2009. That season, you may recall, was--like 2005--an up and down year. The highs tended to feature the Cowboys overcoming or avoiding offensive "drive killers": penalties, sacks, and failed third down conversions ; the lows featured these, plus untimely turnovers.
When the 2009 Dallas offense was functioning, the running game operated in high gear. Remember the impressive run totals amassed at home against the Giants, Panthers and Raiders. The most curious aspect of this was the running game's Jekyll-and-Hyde nature. In some games, I had to blink, because I thought I saw Nate Newton and Eric Williams plowing huge running lanes for Emmitt Smith; in others, I swore that I saw Tyson Walter failing to open up a hole as Michael Wiley was stopped for no gain. When the Cowboys struggled to tote the rock (in dismal efforts at Denver and Green Bay and short yardage struggles against San Diego and Washington, for example), the entire team appeared to sag.
One of the fascinating aspects of the 2009 running attack was that its feeblest efforts seemed to happen against quicker, more mobile fronts; 3-4 teams gave the 2009 Cowboys fits. The pure speed of the pass rushing OLB-types off the edge, or complex line games requiring quick feet and mental dexterity exposed Dallas' slower linemen. Where they tended to play better was against bigger front sevens--typically 4-3 defenses with run-plugging DTs (the great exception being the playoff game against Minnesota).
The inability of Marc Columbo, Andre Gurode and Leonard Davis to deal with quickness forced Dallas to overhaul the unit last offseason, collecting lighter-bodied athletes, who rely primarily on foot-speed and smarts to do their work. As a result, the types of defensive fronts against whom they struggle and succeed has been reversed. The revamped Dallas O-line has acquitted itself well against lines that rely on quickness more than brute force, but the big blobs who were ponderous enough that the lead-footed Davis could engage them--and therefore push them around--are, to Bill Nagy and Phil Costa, immovable objects.
And New England has collected some of the blobbiest of defensive linemen. Check out this rare collection of run-plugging widebodies. Vince Wilfork: 6'2", 325 lbs; Gerrard Warren: 6'4", 330; Albert Haynesworth: 6'6", 350, and the Olive Oyl of the bunch, Kyle Love: 6'1", 310. On Sunday, the Cowboys' interior linemen struggled mightily to move these guys off the line of scrimmage. Even in the late second and third quarters, when the Dallas offense was moving the ball with comparative ease, the Cowboys' linemen got no inside push whatsoever; the line of scrimmage remained exactly where the ball had been snapped.
When the line of scrimmage isn't moving, it doesn't take much to disrupt a running play; only one guy has to miss an assignment--or, for this group, get manhandled--and the good work of the rest of the unit goes unrewarded. Against the Patriots, therefore, the margin of error was wafer-thin. And, as might be expected, drive after drive stalled because a single Cowboys lineman was beaten while his mates failed to establish a new line of scrimmage. This was particularly true early in the game. Some examples:
-on second and six, the Cowboys elect to run off of left tackle. Most of the linemen make terrific blocks; however, Costa is pushed into the backfield, Doug Free gives ground, and it pushed into Felix Jones' path. The play results in positive yardage only because Jones breaks two tackles in the backfield.
-on third and three, the Cowboys do a decent job picking up a double "A-gap" blitz, but Andre Carter beats Tyron Smith around the corner, causing Romo to throw flat-footed. The result? His fourth interception in eight drives. Drive over.
-on second and three, Dallas calls another run, and three of the linemen execute their blocks, with Costa making an especially nice second-level block. But Bill Nagy is blown up, and Kosier allows his man to gain inside penetration. Jones is wrapped up almost immediately after receiving the handoff. Loss of one.
-three plays later, on a second and eight, Romo audibles into a run play. At the snap, Wilfork drives Free back into the path of the pulling Kosier, who bounces off Wilfork and blocks no one. DeMarco Murray falls forward for one yard. To add insult to injury, Free is called for holding, and the Cowboys cannot recover. Drive over.
-the Cowboys immediately get the ball back and, on the third play, Romo throws to Robinson in the end zone, drawing an interference penalty. But Kosier hasn't gained leverage on Warren and, when Romo rolls away from pressure, has to hold him. Instead of first and goal, we have offsetting penalties.
-two plays later, after a false start on Free, the Cowboys have a third and fourteen, and call a draw play to Choice. The play is well blocked--again, several linemen have engaged second level defenders--except Warren destroys Nagy, blowing up the play for a three yard loss. Cowboys kick a field goal.
-on the first play after a fumbled kickoff, Dallas again elects to run. They fail to establish a new line of scrimmage, and Love gets low on Kosier, driving him back into Jones, who has just received the handoff. Jones remains on his feet and takes the play outside, gaining a single yard.
-later in the drive, on second and ten ad the Pats 21, another run is called. Wilfork (an all-too familir name) drives Costa to the right side of the line, into the play, and into the ballcarrier, Choice, who fumbles. Drive over--and key turnover wasted.
From this point in the game (roughly the end of the first quarter) on, the Cowboys line did a much better job of maintaining the line of scrimmage. The next drive ended on the kind of play that used to stymie the '09 line: Kosier failed to pick up a stunt, and Romo had to hurry his throw, forcing a punt. After that, the Cowboys' next three drives were relatively mistake free. On the next drive, Wilfork destroyed Costa, but the play rolled the other direction, so it wasn't negatively impacted. Subsequent drives featured plays in which Smith, Costa, or Nagy were beaten, but the key was that each of these drives featured only one of these plays.
Then, on Dallas final actual drive, after the defense had forced Tom Brady and Co. into a three-and-out, two such plays instantly killed any chances for the drive to succeed. We know the story all too well; Dallas' choice to run the ball, and failure to gain any positive yardage doing so, has already been discussed ad nauseum. As with the game's early drives, a Brandon Spikes "A-gap" blitz blew up otherwise decently-blocked plays' chances for success: on the first, Costa was driven into the backfield; on the next, Kosier couldn't handle Spikes, who spun into the hole, causing Murray to bounce the play outside, into the waiting arms of several Pats defenders.
As the Cowboys demonstrated in '09, they can overcome one "drive killer," but rarely two, and never three. That line specialized in mental mistakes that resulted in penalties and sacks. This one appears to make few mental errors, but can be counted on to be beaten physically several times a game (and notice that there's not a single starter who didn't get beat physically on Sunday). Either way--and once again--a Cowboys team that is playing well in almost every other respect (and, yes, I realize that the quarterback can be mercurial) is hampered by the inconsistency of its line play.
And I had hoped, perhaps naively, that with the offseason O-line overhaul those days were behind us...