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The 2009 Cowboys O-Line: Inside the Run Blocking Game (Part II)

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Every position on the football field has a favorite play. Playmaking wide receivers love the deep pass and linebackers love to blitz. But when it comes to offensive linemen, most people have no idea what they enjoy doing most.

Arguably, run blocking is what offensive linemen love to do more than anything, if for no other reason than that it allows them to use their raw power and aggressiveness.

If you watch a highlight of a running back shooting across the line of scrimmage and down the field untouched, chances are it’s the offensive linemen that made that happen.

Run blocking, when it's done well, changes the way the game is played because the offensive linemen become the aggressors - they're the ones constantly attacking the defensive line, and not the ones dropping back into defensive positions.

In Part I of this look at our O-line, we saw that over the course of the regular season, the O-line performed remarkably well in run blocking. The only blemish on their record, and the one that stands out like Bruce Lee in a sea of Steven Segals, was on short yardage or goal line runs.

In today’s post we’ll look at how well the Cowboys’ offensive line did when running the ball in different directions. As in the previous post, we’ll do this based on Adjusted Line Yards courtesy of FootballOutsiders.com, and mix in the occasional stat from elsewhere.

The importance of TEs in run blocking

Run blocking is where some tight ends earn their paychecks. In the age of the mentally disfiguring scourge of fantasy football, most people look at the red-zone touchdowns as the measure of a tight end. Run-blocking may not bring the same glory that catching the key 3rd down pass in the red zone will, but a tight end who can block is an invaluable asset to his team.

The tight end is the catalyst for most off-tackle and outside runs. On these runs the tight end will often be at the exact point where the ball is being run and his block will determine the success or failure of the play.

Blocking skills are always important for a tight end by the simple nature of where they line up – anybody that close to the line had better know how to block. But most people don’t see blocking, and neither do most stats.

One stat site that actually provides some data on run blocking tight ends is ProFootballFocus.com. PFF have a unique way of grading players. They look at game tape, assign a grade for every play and then ‘normalize’ the data so that the average player for a given position is graded at zero. The higher the positive grading the better the performance and vice versa. In their own words:

So when we look at, say, a TE we need to know how many plays they spent out in pass routes, how many times they blocked for the run and how many times they stayed in to block for the pass. To this number we then apply a normalization factor to set the AVERAGE player in that facet of the game to zero. To simplify, [for TEs] the average grade for run blocking is zero, the average grade for pass blocking is zero and the average grade for pass receiving is zero.

Here are the top 5 run blocking TEs according to PFF:

Rank Player Team Run Block
Rating
Run Block
play count
1 Jason Witten DAL 15.2 531
2 Anthony Fasano MIA 13.1 439
3 Kevin Boss NYG 10.7 402
4 Jim Kleinsasser MIN 8.7 397
5 Martellus Bennett DAL 8.2 289

According to PFF, the Cowboys had the number one and number five run blocking tight ends in the NFL last year. Now you can always argue PFF’s methodology and approach, but I will argue that directionally, these numbers are right. The impact of the Cowboys’ TEs will become especially visible as we look at off-tackle and outside runs using FOs run blocking metrics by direction below.

Run blocking by direction

One thing to keep in mind as you look at the stats below: It is very tempting to equate i.e. "runs off left tackle" with a single player, in this case Flozell Adams. However, on each run there are usually two and sometimes three linemen blocking at the "point of attack", on off tackle runs there might be a TE chipping in as well. So while Flozell Adams would likely have been involved in the majority of runs off left tackle, the stats below are more a reflection of the ability of the offense to run off left tackle than an individual grading of each lineman.

First up, runs off left end

Direction
Rank Adj. Line Yards NFL Avg. % of runs NFL Avg.
Left End 3 5.21 4.20 11% 11%

Running off left end showcased the offensive line’s run blocking ability. The Cowboys ranked third in the NFL and generated one full yard more than the average NFL team. That is huge. And yes, this was Flo’s side, but these outside runs are where the Cowboys TE also chipped in the most. The only question is why didn’t the Cowboys call more outside runs?

Off tackle runs to the left side

Direction
Rank Adj. Line Yards NFL Avg. % of runs NFL Avg.
Left Tackle 4 5.03 4.14 15% 13%

Again, a very impressive set of stats. Running to the left was clearly a winning proposition for the Cowboys in 2009. Ranked fourth in the league and a yard above average? I’ll take that any day. This is also where you would expect more of Kylie Kosier’s impact, who not quite incidentally has graded out as one of the Cowboys’ best lineman for the last few years.

Runs up the middle

FO bunch up all the runs listed middle, left guard, and right guard into one "up the middle" stat because their research to date shows no statistically significant difference between how well a team performs on runs in these directions. Well, we’ll take what we can get. Unfortunately, that wasn’t all that much.

Direction
Rank Adj. Line Yards NFL Avg. % of runs NFL Avg.
Middle 13 4.19 4.08 52% 50%

Runs up the middle resulted in a slightly above average ALY, but certainly nothing to write home about. The 2009 Cowboys offensive line did not do well at the typical "muscle" plays or simply hammering the ball up the middle, the type of plays you see in short yardage and goal line situations. It performed well using the power counter, the lead draw and the toss, but the straight ahead power plays, hmm, not so much. This is something Hudson Houck and Skip Peete need to figure out this offseason.

Off tackle runs to the right side

Direction
Rank Adj. Line Yards NFL Avg. % of runs NFL Avg.
Right Tackle 15 4.16 4.08 13% 15%

Once more, marginally above average. Again, it’s not the point here to isolate individual players with these metrics, but in terms of pure run blocking, the Colombo/Free co-production was no more than average last year. The saving grace: it appears we ran this way a little less than the NFL average.

Lastly, runs off right end

Direction
Rank Adj. Line Yards NFL Avg. % of runs NFL Avg.
Right End 6 4.80 4.05 9% 11%

Runs off right end were highly successful plays for the Cowboys in 2009, with almost a yard more than the NFL average and ranked sixth overall. And again, this is where you would expect most of the TE blocking to happen. From a purely statistical point of view, the question remains: Why didn’t the Cowboys call more outside runs?

 

We saw in part one that the offensive line performed remarkably well outside of short yardage situations. In part two we just saw that the Cowboys were particularly effective running the ball of the right or left ends and off the left tackle, in part due to a strong run blocking performance by the tight ends. In the third and final part we’ll look at how well their pass protection held up.