One of the biggest stories out of Dallas during the preseason was the overhaul of the offensive line. High-priced veterans were released and three new starters joined the ranks of the Cowboys line beside Doug Free and Kyle Kosier. In one fell swoop, one of the oldest units in the league became of one the youngest and most inexperienced. Before the matchup versus the Jets, the three new faces (Tyron Smith, Phil Costa, and Bill Nagy) had a combined total of only a single NFL start.
Thus, with both excitement and apprehension, Cowboys fans watched this young and mobile group take the field on Sunday night to face a very tough defense. In 2010, the Jets defense ranked in the Top 10 in most NFL statistical categories, tied for eighth in the league for most sacks, sixth in fewest points allowed, and third in total yards allowed (third in rushing yards allowed, sixth in passing yards allowed), not to mention fifth in first-downs allowed and tenth in lowest third-down success rate.
To make matters worse, the Jets front-seven is also the archetype best suited to beat the Cowboys new offensive line. The strong power-rushers for the Jets provide the greatest challenges for the small yet feisty Dallas "Youglies" who are agile and block well while on the move, but don't excel as maulers to clear paths with brute force. As such, it came as no surprise that running up the middle was tough sledding against the hard-to-move defensive front. The Jets rely on size and power-moves across the line of scrimmage, from both their linebackers and linemen, and really don't have any dangerous speed rushers making finesse-moves to get around the corner. So the advantage for this matchup was certainly on the side of the Jets defensive front. Yet, Cowboys fans should be quite pleased with how the new offensive line held up in a hostile environment versus such a challenging opponent.
It wasn't a perfect outing or even a dominant performance, with several sacks allowed and a few false start penalties (likely due to the inspired and intense crowd noise), but the young guys up front proved a tougher opponent and won more battles in the trenches than the dismantled 2010 edition.
Taking a closer look...
Tony Romo was sacked four times by the Jets defense. While the number is certainly higher than the team would like, it was encouraging that only one sack was a blown assignment that led to a free shot at Romo, and even then he evaded the worst of it. The others were simple examples of a new line learning to work with unspoken cohesion while dealing with some growing pains against an intricate and aggressive defense. Never did the line look completely overmatched in pass protection.
On their second drive, the Cowboys had slowly begun to move downfield when the offensive line allowed their first sack of the night. After the snap, the blocking initially looks solid, but that is the danger of a creative defense. As they say, apples don't fall far from the tree. Rex Ryan has outside linebacker Calvin Pace place his hand on the ground to create a four-man front (quite often throughout the game), but feigns pressure with one defensive lineman before sending in Bart Scott on a delayed blitz.
You will notice #94 defensive tackle Marcus Dixon (formerly a Dallas Cowboy) has pressed the line to force Bill Nagy to engage in a block. At the start of the play, the four rushes are accounted for, but then the assignments break down due to the disguised blitz package. Kosier blocks in to help Costa against the big nose tackle. Free and Smith have created a pocket and shadowed the edge rushers. Nagy was prepared to stop Dixon...but he suddenly drops back into coverage and Nagy is left blocking no one.
Bart Scott's delayed blitz catches the wily veteran Kosier off guard, who only manages to get a hand on him and basically allows a free run at Romo. To make matters worse, Calvin Pace manages to push off Tyron Smith before the rookie can pin him down. On its own, this is not a failed block by Smith. He has forced Pace to go so far out to get pressure that he manages to get back to finish the block without Pace getting into the pocket. But with Scott bearing down from the middle of the line Romo can't casually step up while looking downfield. Instead, he is forced to dive to the ground to avoid a big hit and the loss of even more yards on the sack, or worse, lose the ball as he did later in the game when the move led to the infamous redzone fumble.
If not for that failed block on the delayed blitz, this would be a clean pocket for Romo. It was a well designed and executed defensive call, and Kosier is mostly at fault for the collapse of the pocket. The first allowed sack of the season - the young guys were not to blame and Romo did not get his clock cleaned.
There is a saying in football coaching circles. If a play works, keep using it until the opponent proves they can stop it. So perhaps it shouldn't come as a surprise that the second sack against Romo came on the next Cowboys drive against the exact same defensive play-call. The good news, Kosier is still wily and won't make the same mistake twice. The bad news, Smith gets beat by Calvin Pace this time who isn't redirected out far enough; Tashard Choice makes a questionable blocking decision by helping Kosier instead of picking up the outside pressure; Costa ends up on the ground after his block; Nagy and Free are not on the same page about who blocks the safety that has stayed in the box (likely because John Phillips stayed in to block).
The result is a strikingly similar sack on Romo. Without room to step up into the pocket, and disregarding all the rumors told of him, Romo tucks the ball, eats the sack, and takes care of the football.
The third sack was on the following drive in the second quarter, and this one goes to the first-round draft pick, though not because he was physically outmatched. In fact, he gets such a good block that he actually makes himself more susceptible to the stunt by the defensive front. The Jets again use Calvin Pace as a fourth lineman. On this play, he bursts inside and attempts to draw the attention and blocks of both Smith and Kosier. With leverage and the angle on his side, Smith manages to push Pace all the way into the interior of the line, but by doing so, he leaves the entire right-side open to the stunt of the defensive tackle working around to the outside. This was a strange play since Romo actually manages to avoid the initial pressure, but Smith leaves his block on Pace late to try to save his quarterback, and thus allows Pace the chance to get the sack.
At this point, the fourth sack is not worth revisiting except to say it came at a very inopportune time in the fourth quarter with the Cowboys in the redzone. It was a coverage sack with Romo trying to get to the endzone, but getting sacked near the line of scrimmage and losing the football instead. So in truth, there were only three sacks that were really due to poor performance by the offensive line, and the Youglies were not responsible for any egregious errors or missed blocks. This is very good news, especially considering it was only the first week and against the Jets defensive front...and for most of the night Romo had ample time to scan the field and look for deep routes to develop with a clean pocket around him.
This is where the young offensive line struggled the most. While Jason Garrett did not test the issue too often, it became clear that running up the gut against such a strong defensive front was difficult for the Cowboys. Felix Jones did commendable work, gaining yards even when there wasn't much push up-front. The Cowboys also used an offset line on a few runs to try to get more push at the point of attack. It worked well on one occasion, but then the Jets adjusted and took away the advantage of lining up Smith and Free on the same side of the line. It will be interesting to track how often this offensive line formation is used in the coming weeks, and whether any big-play counters or misdirections result from taking advantage of a defense caught over-pursuing and/or stacking the strong-side of the offset line.
However, while the Jets (as usual) were effective stopping the running game, it was interesting to see that some slightly successful runs were actually incredible efforts by Felix Jones and a few linemen. On the first run of the night, Felix managed to gain four yards on an off-tackle run. It is a clear example that while there are issues that the Cowboys need to work on, they still display plenty of reasons to believe the poor rushing average will not be a season-long affliction.
This first problem on this running play is Kosier's attempted chop block. It not only fails miserably, it forces Costa to block the nose tackle and opens a lane for Calvin Pace to cause issues in the backfield. Nagy looses his matchup (though doesn't completely fail) and is pushed back several yards. This creates difficulties for Felix to get to the running lane, but at the same time makes it harder for Pace to take the proper angle to make the tackle in the backfield. Jason Witten and Tyron Smith get a good lock on their blocks, Costa moves to the second level to cut off linebacker pursuit, and Doug Free helps Nagy. But if not for the elusiveness of Felix Jones and a little odd luck, this run is a loss of yards instead of a gain of four.
Witten's block is really a text book example of what a tight end should do as the strong-side blocker on an off-tackle run. He allows the pressure to come to him and then seals the defender out to create the running lane. Tyron Smith is a warrior and finishes his block even when it requires him to step over (on) the fallen Kosier. Other than that, this is nearly a busted play. Its original design would likely have had Free sealing the inside by blocking linebacker pursuit after helping chip the defensive end blocked by Nagy. Costa misses Pace's run blitz because of Kosier's failed chop block, but in a heads-up attempt gets to the second level after the nose tackle is too far from the play to make a difference. While Bart Scott still managed to shed the block and make the tackle (as great inside linebackers tend to do), he was slowed down enough to let Felix gain a few yards. If even just one of these mistakes were overcome, this respectable gain of four yards turns into a big gain. The line did not grade out very well on this play, yet the play was technically successful.
Much the same could be said for the second run of the night. The stat sheet shows Felix Jones gained only three yards, but I can't wait to see the play again. Nearly every linemen is on the move and Felix has a brigade of blockers in front of him on the toss play. If not for Witten's poor blocking (Wait, huh?!) and an impressive swarming defense, this three yard gain becomes much more.
Free, Costa, and Witten have the most difficult blocking assignments in football, what I call the stretch block. As if to defy physics, in stretch blocks linemen are asked to move down the line and seal the defender in the opposite direction. Costa has an "easier" time since the nose tackle is directly in front of him, but Free and Witten have their blocking assignments in a more challenge position, off the shoulder of the direction the run is intended to go. Free does a decent job of slowing down his man, though not completely, and no one can really blame Witten for not managing a successful stretch block on a 3-4 defensive end lined up on his outside shoulder. Costa continues to impress me.
Free loses his block, but has done just enough to get the defensive end out of the play and off his feet. The same can be said about Nagy's chop block attempt on Bart Scott. It was not the most successful attempt, but he does manage to trip up Scott and keep him out of the play. Costa is in great position blocking a bigger and stronger nose tackle on a stretch block, great work from the Cowboys new center. Witten was beat, but with Smith, Kosier, and John Phillips on the move, his guy should not make the play.
It was a little sloppy as the convoy takes the defensive end that beat Witten out of the play, but he still manages to force Felix to cut up-field instead of getting around the corner with lead blockers. At this point, the design of the run has broken down and Felix is just trying to gain yards, yet the Cowboys do gain yards on the play. Phillips has taken out the corner, Witten and Smith are looking downfield for their next blocks, Costa continues to be a beast on the play, and Ogletree has quietly done a heroic effort trying to block Calvin Pace. The biggest issue is that the lead blockers aren't aware Felix has gotten to the outside. As such, Smith doesn't help seal Pace out of the play, he instead goes up field to seal in the safety and create a lane between himself and the sidelines (where the run is supposed to go) and Witten seals Bart Scott in as well (giving him a lane to Felix).
With a little more situational awareness from the young guys (and Witten), this play could have gained even more yards. In fact, if Muhammad Wilkerson doesn't manage to beat Witten and disrupt the run enough to force it inside, Felix may be running down the sideline for a touchdown. Sure, some may consider me an optimist looking at "what if" scenarios instead of the reality of the play. However, I am simply breaking down the design of the play and recognizing what can occur with better execution, and not overlooking the fact that on a disrupted play, the Cowboys run earns yards again.
It was an up and down performance for the Cowboys run blocking, but Felix showed he can gain yards even when the blocking doesn't work as designed, and the young guys were relentless in their attempts even during losing efforts.
Phil Costa: A-
The undrafted rookie in his second season continues to impress me with his ability. All night he was forced to fend off a stronger and heavier defender and on several occasions Costa used his leverage and surprising power to manhandle Pouha. He did have that miscommunication on an early snap in the fourth quarter, but I thought he had one of the best performances of the night.
Doug Free: A-
The biggest re-signing of the offseason, Free continues to display the credentials of a franchise left tackle by not giving up any sacks and winning most of his matchups. He didn't have a perfect game and could have finished off some blocks better, and thus came up just short of the A.
Tyron Smith: B
I understand I am being a little tough with this grade. It was his first career NFL start and he looked great at times, but he did let Pace get around him to force one sack and then misplayed the stunt for a second sack. Athletically, he was the most prepared to face a strong defensive front, which he proved on several run plays, but he allowed too much pressure around the corner against a rusher. While Calvin Pace is a talented linebacker, he should not have given him Smith that much trouble.
Kyle Kosier: B-
The first sack certainly hurts Kosier's grade, as does a missed attempt to create a big play on a run left where he pulled and was the lead blocker but allowed Bryan Thomas to shed the trap block and make the tackle on a run that would have gained a lot of yards otherwise. Kosier also had some issues against the strong defensive line during short yardage runs.
Bill Nagy: C+
The late-round draft was clearly the weakest link on the line, though that was to be expected. I may be a little tough on him as he did a good job in pass protection, but I saw him pushed back off the line of scrimmage too many times. However, I also don't think he was completely outmatched all night. Even when he was pushed back by stronger defenders, he eventually anchored himself and stuck to his block. So while he lost a lot of battles, he never got steamrolled and completely failed his blocking attempt.
Week 2 Outlook vs. San Francisco 49ers
The young Cowboys line will once again face a 3-4 defense this Sunday, though not of the same caliber as the Jets. BTB's own, Tom Ryle, looked at the 49ers week one matchup against the Seattle Seahawks and provides some great detail on their defensive efforts.
NFL.com currently has the 49ers tied with five other teams to lead the league with five sacks. Of course, it should be noted that the Seahawks offensive line is not a very physical group and is in a rebuilding process. But the 49ers personnel should not be underestimated. In fact, it is debatable that the 49ers have two of the best players at their position in their defensive front-seven.
Justin Smith is usually underrated because he is not a name that is often brought to the table when discussing the best 3-4 defensive ends in the league, but he certainly deserves to be mentioned. In 2010 Justin Smith had the fourth-most combined tackles of all NFL defensive ends and also compiled a very impressive 8.5 sacks. Doug Free will need to be on top of his game. I expect the Cowboys will usually line up a tight end on the left side to take on the edge rusher so that Free can take on the bigger threat in Justin Smith. Whoever starts at left guard (Nagy is sidelined with a neck injury and new addition Derrick Dockery is the starter at practice), will certainly be tested as well. And not only due to Justin Smith.
Patrick Willis is to middle linebackers what DeMarcus Ware is to outside linebackers...simply the best. Willis up the middle difficult again for the Cowboys, and could even make Witten less of a receiving threat. The trick will be to force the 49ers to send him in on blitzes to take him out of coverage, though still a dangerous proposition.
The next best of the 49ers front-seven appear to be rejuvenated Ray McDonald and the young Penn State linebacker Navorro Bowman. McDonald had a very impressive game versus the Seahawks and should be a good matchup for rookie Tyron Smith, but my money is on Smith making McDonald much less effective than he was last week. Willis' accomplice in the middle, NaVorro, also had a good game against the Seahawks and should not be taken lightly. The good news for the Cowboys is that the 49ers no longer have Aubrayo Franklin anchoring the middle of the defensive line, but veteran Isaac Sopoaga is not pushover either.
If Costa plays as well as last week, the bulldog of a center should be able to handle Sopoaga even on one-on-one matchups which could free up the guards to help double Justin Smith and/or get to the second level to block the solid middle linebacker duo. But even so, I expect the Cowboys to attack the edges again, attempting to open up the running game with sweeps and tosses to the outside to take advantage of the weakest part of the 49ers front-seven (the outside linebackers). Though Patrick Willis will make running in any direction a difficult task. My prediction is the largest portion of Cowboys runs will be directed to the right, off-tackle or further to the outside, and Tyron Smith will have a really good game leading the way.
The 49ers do not have any corners with the talent of Darrelle Revis, or even Antonio Cromartie (who got worked by Cowboys receivers), so I expect the Cowboys passing attack to be very potent. If Justin Smith and Ray McDonald can be controlled, Romo should have plenty of time to scan the field, though may also rely on quick passes if the receivers can beat the corners as quickly as I think is possible and testing them with screens and smoke routes to the physical Cowboys receivers.
This is not an easy matchup by any means, but the young Cowboys offensive line should have even more success this week against the 49ers and help the offense look elite on Sunday.