Cowboys Young Offensive-Line Key In Matchup Versus Lions

The Cowboys young offensive-line is working through the growing pains that come with two rookies among three new starters. It takes time to build the cohesion needed by the band of brothers in the trenches. This young offensive-line has allowed the franchise quarterback to fracture a rib and puncture a lung, and Monday night had far too many miscues and penalties. And yet, this young line has allowed six sacks (Cowboys defense has more than double that) which ranks them with several other teams at eleventh in the league. Four teams have allowed five sacks, and only six teams have fewer than five. The Cowboys young offensive-line is off to a good start.

There are areas of concern. There have also been injuries that have hampered their growth and experience as a unit. The Cowboys rushing attack was absent in the first two weeks, but Felix Jones rushed for over 115 yards on only fourteen carries on Monday night. Tony Romo has the mobility to help reduce sack numbers compared to other quarterbacks and has made several big plays while scrambling, but he has also had plenty of clean pockets to scan downfield. This young line has helped Romo rank second in the league with nine yards per passing attempt (14.5 yards per completion).

The Redskins tallied seven sacks in their previous two games, their 3-4 pass rush spear-headed by a pair of talented outside linebackers. And yet, the Cowboys young offensive-line only gave up one sack on a night the Redskins were intent on creating pressure and some even had BBQ sauce prepared for Romo's ribs. Cowboys fans should be excited at the first signs from this revamped line. They will also be key to the matchup with the undefeated Lions as the Cowboys offense will again be slowed by injuries.

Let's take a closer look at what the offensive-line did in Week 3 and their Week 4 matchup...

It is my contention that the Cowboys young Big Uglies, pardon me, the Youglies are holding their own despite the individual grades awarded by PFF showing otherwise. They had a solid game versus a tough Redskins defense and are progressing nicely.

Pass Blocking

In fact, while I don't completely agree with their individual grades, I do want to point out something from PFF Cowboys vs. Redskins game notes

How was Tony Romo when given time? 77.3% of his passes were completed. How was Tony Romo when pressured? 35.7% of his passes were completed, with an interception to boot.

Now, we know the interception was due mostly to Kevin Ogletree, and one of the other passes while under pressure was the big play to Dez Bryant to convert a 3rd & 21. And even then, the offensive-line did their job on the all-out blitz. Beyond that, on a night Romo completed over 60% of his attempts, it would appear the offensive-line provided more clean pockets and held the pressure from a formidable front-seven in check...in a game where the opponent was intent on harassing an injured quarterback.

The Cowboys allowed only one sack versus the Redskins. It was the first play in the third quarter, and the Cowboys offense managed to overcome the error and move the ball past midfield before the aforementioned interception ended the drive. That too wasn't the young offensive-line at fault.

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The Cowboys lined up in a jumbo formation with two tight ends, and John Phillips in the backfield with Felix Jones. The Cowboys keep six in to block, but the Redskins send only a four-man rush. Tony Romo actually has a clean pocket. John Phillips from the fullback position was tasked with blocking rookie Ryan Kerrigan (who had a strong showing against the Cowboys to match his previous games) and while he managed to not get called on is hook/hold, he wasn't lucky enough.

The play was some strange combination of coverage sack and great individual effort, as if the football Gods had to reward Kerrigan for fighting through the illegal block instead of pulling up short and complaining. He somehow manages to grab the ball and force a fumble that is recovered by Romo, but leads to a sack. Against a formidable pass rush and front-seven, the young offensive-line was not directly at fault for the only sack allowed to a division rival averaging 3.5 sacks per game.

 

 

Even the infamous converted 3rd & 21 to Dez Bryant in the fourth quarter was in part due to how well the o-line held up. While Romo scrambled and threw a beautiful pass while on the move and under duress, the only reason that play even had some time to develop is because the offensive-line managed to slow down an eight-man blitz.

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Tony Romo knows there will be pressure and after the shotgun snap drops back even further until he pump fakes ten yards behind the line of scrimmage. Romo then scrambles back even further, to gain some more time...and he was afforded a lot of time, especially for an eight-man rush. Everyone along the offensive line finds a way to hold back their man, and even Tashard Choice and John Phillips slow down two additional blitzers. You will notice that London Fletcher is the only man left unaccounted and nearly laid a big hit on Romo at the end of the play. You may also notice Costa managed to slow him down earlier in the play while blocking another defender.

Tony Romo did his fair share of scrambling as Jim Haslett kept the Redskins defense active and aggressive, but the young offensive-line was not often getting beat. There were of course the issues of the o-line penalties and the bad snaps. For what it's worth, here is what center Phil Costa had to say about it while on ESPN Radio with Ben and Skin. 

You said the Redskins were barking out the snap count. Explain to us exactly happened last night with the snap count?

"That was it. We were having that problem, but either way that can't happen. We need to hear Tony [Romo] and focus on what he is saying."

So was former Cowboy, Stephen Bowen, doing his best Tony Romo impression and calling out the snap count every play?

"[Stephen] Bowen? He wasn't really doing it. We're doing the snap count and we're hearing the defensive line barking a little bit and either way it is on me."

Have you ever experienced anything like that before where players are calling out the cadence?

"Nah. I can't say I have."

Personally, I thought Phil Costa had one heck of a night blocking. In fact, he was one of the best linemen of the night if not for those bad snaps, and with few NFL starts perhaps Costa will now be better prepared for future tricks of trench warfare. I also like how he took the blame and didn't try to hide behind or blame the defense. Doug Free had his hands full against Brian Orakpo and some think he may be fighting through a back injury. He lost a few battles and was flagged for holding. Bill Nagy had one terrible moment where he was literally run over by the defender, and saved Free the shame of being the weakest link of the night though the seventh-rounder continues to improve each week and looked good run blocking. Kyle Kosier had a false start penalty and was at fault for one draw for no gain, but still had a good game for the most part. Tyron Smith was solid for most of the night, though did have a few hiccups and had to chase Ryan Kerrigan a few times. Phil Costa was smart in pass protection and strong while run blocking. Like Costa said, "it is on me," so he should face criticism for the failures of the bad snaps, but don't overlook the solid work Costa has done spear-heading the center of the line.

Run Blocking

Besides keeping Romo upright for most of the game, the offensive-line also helped the Cowboys finally establish a running game. And just like the Cowboys defense tired out the Redskins into allowing sacks late in the second half, the Cowboys stuck with the run (eventually running over 30 times) even though it was tough sledding in the first half. In the first, the longest gains on the ground were on pair of first-down runs that netted Felix Jones seven yards and DeMarco Murray six yards. But in the second half, Felix Jones had several six-yard gains, and also broke one 29-yard run in the third quarter and a 40-yard scamper in the fourth. The young offensive-line was opening running lanes and seemed to play stronger late in the game as the Redskins began to wear down.

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This Felix first-half run was a great play, both in design and execution. Jason Garrett lines up the offense in a seemingly three-receiver two-back set, but the two receivers in the slot are Jason Witten and Martellus Bennett. Prior to the snap, Bennett motions behind the offensive-line and makes a heck of a trap-block attempt on the nose tackle. While he was in good position, he got lazy with technique and the block is more of a tackle/hold that wasn't flagged, but he did stick with the block and finished the play. Costa and Kosier seal-out the defensive ends and Bill Nagy manages to get to the second level in a hurry and block one middle linebacker as Tony Fiammetta gets the other on the lead block. The safety manages to make a good play and get to the running lane and hit Felix after a gain of three yards, but the Cat keeps driving his feet and carries two Redskins for another four yards after contact. Every blocker won their battle and the Cowboys are rewarded with a short second-down.

The longest run of the night came in the fourth quarter, the Cowboys again with Witten, Bennett, Fiammetta, and Felix on the field. The Redskins actually stack nine in the box, but the blocking is so good that Felix manages to get the big gain after helping set Fiammetta up to get a great double-block. Bennett has sealed out the corner, Nagy and Kosier get good blocks on the middle linebackers, and Free, Costa, and Smith stuff the defensive linemen.

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Even two of the worst runs of the night weren't really the fault of the young offensive-line. Let me explain. During the Cowboys first drive on a 2nd & 9 after an unsuccessful run play, Romo lines up in the shotgun with four receivers (one being Witten) in the slot and Felix in the backfield who runs a draw for no gain. While the blocking did break down, technically, it wasn't any of the young guys at fault. Like most of the night, Jim Haslett calls in a blitz and the Redskins rush five defenders.

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It appears Kosier is expecting the middle linebacker to blitz, but instead Landry comes off the edge untouched due to the veteran's mistake. You will notice Costa and Free are in perfect pass-protection stance while they try to fool the defense on the draw play. Nagy looks off balance, but still in place. Kosier chips the nose tackle and tries to get to the second level on the linebacker, but it seems he did not recognize the safety blitz off the edge. As a result, Tyron Smith is put in a tough position.

You can see his right leg is really far back because he had begun his kick-step to "pass-protect" on the draw play, but has to awkwardly cut back in to stop Kerrigan from coming in unblocked. If Kosier blocks Kerrigan, then Smith could fend off LeRon Landry and Felix has a huge running lane between Costa and Nagy needing only to make a move on the linebacker.

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The other poor rushing effort occurred in the second quarter while the Cowboys were in the redzone facing a 3rd and 1. Some have chalked this up as another poor short-yardage effort by the Cowboys o-line, but I think Jason Garrett might have gotten a little too cute with the play calling. The play seems designed for a run to the right, the offensive-line offset with Doug Free beside Tyron Smith and Witten playing as the left tackle. But instead of pounding the run to the strong side, Garrett calls a run to the weak side with the fullback.

Sure, 20/20 hindsight and all, but it seems the Cowboys did get the push at the line of scrimmage and a run to the right would have gotten the yard for the first-down, but Choice and Witten don't manage to block the edge and the Redskins aren't fooled as Fiammetta runs to the left for no gain.

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Week 4 Matchup

This will be the first regular season matchup versus a 4-3 defense for the Cowboys, which makes matters interesting as the young offensive-line has not had any opportunities to prepare versus this kind of defensive front. To make matters worse, young prodigy and man-child Ndamukong Suh comes to town with battle tested teammate Kyle Vanden Bosch. This duo will be tough to handle and Corey Williams and Cliff Avril are no slouches either.

This Lions defensive-front is the key to their defense and has been solid this year. With the ability to create pressure with only their front-four, the Lions defense has managed to hide their weaknesses. They have done it so well in fact, that the Lions currently rank 6th in fewest yards allowed, 3rd in fewest points allowed, 4th in fewest first-downs as well as lowest third-down conversion percentage. While the Lions have only tallied eight sacks (tied for 11th in the league) they have done so blitzing far less than other Top 10 defenses. All of this success relies on the defensive-front's ability to control the line of scrimmage.

As such, this will be one of the key matchups in the games versus the Lions. With the Cowboys offense dealing with injuries to Miles Austin and possibly missing Dez Bryant as well, it will be crucial for the young offensive-line to handle the Lions front-four. If they can help Felix have another big week and give Romo and the backup receivers time to get open, the Lions will have to start relying on more than a four-man rush and their secondary will be exposed.

Doug Free will have his hands full on Sunday going up against Pro Bowl defensive end Vanden Bosch. It will be a good matchup to watch if Free is feeling stronger than last week, but even then, the Cowboys may have to leave a tight end or running back in to help block on occasion. The greater danger will be Suh matched up over Kyle Kosier. There is no chance the veteran can handle the power and bull-rush of the young Pro Bowl defensive tackle, who many voted the rookie of the year in 2010 as he led all rookies and defensive tackles in sacks. Suh also has incredible burst to match his strength and it will be interesting to see how the Cowboys manage the monster in the middle. Best case scenario, Witten and Bennett will be able to handle left-end Avril and free up Tyron Smith to crash down and double Suh with Kosier when possible. More likely, Phil Costa will earn his keep helping provide brawn to match Kosier's brains as the two try to handle Suh.

Either way, Suh will certainly force double-teams and if Vanden Bosch can do the same, then the Cowboys offense will have a lot of problems. The Lions can rely on their front-four so they will often have seven defenders in coverage. If the Cowboys need to keep men in to help the young o-line, it will be hard to find many open receivers. Look for the Cowboys to use the perimeters in the run and screen game to try and avoid Suh altogether, but also likely use some counters to slow down Suh when they run between the tackles. But one thing is certain...we will learn a lot about this young offensive-line when they clash with Suh and the undefeated Lions at Cowboys stadium.

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