Fans often remember a game for what happens at the beginning and the end, often overlooking the bulk of the 60 minutes. First impressions from initial drives and game-deciding moments are usually those that fans have to live with for a week until the next game can offer a chance for redemption or another opportunity for success. Perhaps that is why some seem to think the Cowboys Youglies did not perform well during the Saturday night preseason game versus St. Louis.
The Cowboys received the kickoff, and the opening drive of the night was also the most mistake-ridden for the offensive-line. Tony Romo deserves his credit. Several times on that first drive, he had to avoid the pressure to keep a couple of plays alive. On their first play of the night, the Cowboys managed to gain six yards even though Doug Free was immediately beaten off the line by the talented Chris Long. It was Free's most glaring failure of the night, but first-impressions tend to leave the strongest impression, and like in every other preseason game this year, Free made a very poor play at the start of the night and they continue to be a defining moment for many fans. While Free is not playing his best football, he is far from terrible. He was never again beat so terribly the rest of the night.
Tyron Smith was also cleanly beaten by a talented Robert Quinn on the Cowboys third play of the night. While Dallas did not manage to gain any yards on that play (unlike the first) Romo did manage to avoid getting hit by throwing the ball away on a screen play that the Rams covered very well. While Quinn got close a few more times that night, Smith never lost a battle so cleanly after that and continued to impress. That would prove to be the theme of the first drive, the Cowboys surviving individual failures along the line. The rest of the line would hold even though one of them would fail, and the Cowboys continued to drive the ball downfield. The Rams were well aware of the absence of Miles Austin and Dez Bryant, so they continued to stack the box against the run and repeatedly blitzed Romo. The drive eventually stalled and the Cowboys had to settle for a field goal...but it was not due to the o-line's early struggles. If not for a phantom offensive pass interference call on John Phillips and a gator-armed third-down pass to Kevin Ogletree, the Cowboys offense could have easily ended up with more than just three points. And yet, they still managed to possess the ball for nearly six minutes and drive downfield and score.
Even though Smith and Free each lost one battle at the snap to talented pass rushers, the Cowboys did not allow a sack on that drive. Even though the Cowboys had unproven receivers on the field and no one to threaten the defense and stop them from stacking the line, the offense managed to drive down the field and get to the red zone. Even though two great plays by Phillips were negated by the refs and Ogletree dropped a pass to continue the drive, the Cowboys scored points.
In that thirteen play drive, I counted seven blitzes from the Rams. Several times they sent six guys after Romo, and once even had all eight defenders in the box crash the line of scrimmage. Romo and the o-line actually beat the eight-man rush and managed a hot route strike to Phillips, who made a great Witten impression with a one handed grab and survived a vicious hit - though the catch was eventually ruled incomplete. The Rams pressed the Cowboys hard, assuming the receivers couldn't hurt them (which in the first drive proved true for the most part) and still Dallas drove down the field for points.
Oddly enough, the o-line's worst performance as a group was on a third-down play that the Cowboys converted for a first down. On this particular play, the Rams appear to fool David Arkin and the rest of the Youglies. They feigned a blitz with a linebacker from the line's right side, so the Youglies compensate with adjustments on the line. Unfortunately, the linebacker never blitzed, so Arkin doesn't block anyone on the four-man rush, and for no good reason, John Phillips is left trying to block Quinn on his own. Phillips fails, but Romo does his magic to buy more time (the line continues to fight and buys him more time) and eventually Romo finds DeMarco Murray in the flat, who does his magic, and manages to convert the third and ten with a simple one-yard check down pass with some great vision and burst.
A football game is a marathon, not a sprint. While a thirteen play drive for around seventy yards and three points isn't exactly a huge success for this offense, it is a successful opening drive. It provided Garrett insight on how the Rams defense was playing. It helped the o-line understand how the Rams planned on attacking the gaps when they stack the box. It allowed Romo to understand how the secondary was planning to cover his "backup" receivers. It is why the Cowboys managed to score so easily in their next two drives of the night.
The opening drive was the longest and the first impression for many fans. But it was not the entire story of the night. After their initial mistakes, the Youglies came back and helped provide Romo with much more time in the pocket so his unproven receivers could get open...and they eventually did. Both long passing touchdowns to Dwayne Harris (who is really coming into his own) were longer developing crossing routes. On the first touchdown pass, the Rams sent only a four-man rush and the Cowboys line handled it cleanly and gave Romo tons of time to scan downfield. On the second TD pass, the Rams blitzed seven players and the Cowboys managed to pick up all the right ones, Felix laid out one blitzer, and Romo found the opening in the coverage.
Tony Romo had a great game. He completed nine of his thirteen attempts for nearly two hundred yards and two touchdowns. Kyle Orton played behind the starting o-line in the second quarter and managed to complete nine of his twelve passes. Both Felix Jones and DeMarco Murray managed to run for over five yards a carry and combined for four receptions for nearly forty yards. This does not happen without a strong showing from the offensive-line. They are not one of the best in the league, but they are certainly taking care of business, improving every week, and are still missing one starter and have had little time to gel as a unit. But if they can still have this kind of performance, even without their two best receivers to threaten the defense, this offense will end up being quite potent in 2012 as the Youglies continue to improve from one week to the next. Long ago I had the audacity to hope the Youglies were for real, and I have no reason to think they will not continue to progress into a solid o-line and still take care of business until they get to that point.