The Dallas Cowboys offensive line has been the subject of much debate this season. Early in the season, when Drew Bledsoe was the QB, the line was acknowledged to be one of the weak links on the offense. Since Bledsoe's demotion and the rise of Tony Romo, the line has been praised for its work limiting the sacks against the Cowboys. The question naturally arises as to whether they are blocking better or is Tony Romo's ability to move in the pocket saving them from plays that would previously have resulted in sacks. In reviewing the games over the past few weeks, I've come to the conclusion that a little bit of both are happening.
One thing is sure, the Cowboys line is blocking better. In truth, this shouldn't be a surprise, because the line was composed of three new starters and two hold-overs. Offensive lines need time to gel; the ability to communicate and to intuitively know where the other guys on the line are going to be in certain situations is something that takes time to develop. Early in the year, the Cowboys were making numerous mistakes in picking up blitzes and stunts by opposing defenses. Eleven games into the season, they've made huge strides in this area. On Thursday, the Bucs defense wasn't shy about blitzing; they brought players up the middle in an attempt to replicate the success previous defenses had against Dallas. This time, the Cowboys linemen easily recognized the blitzes and almost always got them blocked. The Cowboys line excelled in protecting Romo. The lessons learned from earlier this season are starting to payoff.
The other side of the coin is the play of Tony Romo. It's obvious that his ability to move around in the pocket and still complete passes is a huge benefit for the Cowboys offensive line. He showed this off to great effect over his first few games, but in the past few games he hasn't had to rely on much more than sliding to an open area or stepping up in the pocket to avoid pressure. The Cowboys also like to roll him out of the pocket, more often than with Bledsoe, which plays to his strengths in mobility and throwing on the run. But one of the best things that Romo does to help the offensive line is make quick decisions and use his quick release.
A nice example is the first TD to Terry Glenn in the Bucs game. The Cowboys had good protection to Romo's right, where every Buc defender was, except for one who was in front of Romo working one-on-one against Flozell. At first, Flozell had him blocked, and Romo was scanning the field for a target. But the Buc player finally got past Flozell and was coming straight at Romo. Romo stayed calm, at the last second spotted Glenn alone in the endzone, and fired a strike with a very quick release. This epitomizes Romo at QB. He slid a little to his left on the play, scanned the field calmly until the last possible moment, then used his quick release to hit the open man. With Bledsoe, the number of things that could've gone wrong on this play is a long list. With Romo, his ability to recognize when the pocket is collapsing and then quickly getting the ball out to a receiver is his trademark so far. It's not all about avoiding the occasional unblocked defender, although that's nice, it's about the everyday plays and knowing when the blockers are losing the battle, then making something positive out of the play.
People love an either/or answer, it provides certainty. In this case, you can be certain it's a case of both. The offensive line is playing better because they have cut-down on the mental mistakes leading to blown pass protection schemes and they're only losing the physical battle on occasion. Just getting a man between the QB and the pass rusher is half the battle, and Dallas seems to have solved that problem. It's happening because the individuals on the line are getting used to playing with each other. The physical part of the game wasn't the problem; they've had no problems beating opposing defenses in the run game. It was the breakdowns in picking up blitzes and adjusting to unbalanced defensive line formations that was causing us major problems.
But the play of Tony Romo also has something to do with it. On those occasions when we miss a block or the formation of the play calls for letting the back-side rusher come through, Romo has the quick decision making ability and the quick release to make it work. He also moves in the pocket better - always keeping his head up looking for a receiver - and he accurately senses when the pocket has reached its final second and is about to collapse. You have a QB who can do those things well, and your offensive line will look awfully good.
Post-script: Don't forget about the job JJ and MB3 have been doing lately in helping block, they've gotten better as the season has progressed. Also, the fact we have such talented receivers who get open makes everything work; especially with a QB who delivers the ball to his first open read, instead of one that holds it too long for the big play.