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The 2010 Cowboys Offensive Line: Individual Run Blocking Grades (Part II)

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 the Cowboys O-line overall performed average to slightly above average in run blocking, but struggled to open holes for the backs to get to the second level. 

In today’s post we’ll look at how each of the Cowboys linemen's individual run-blocking grades as well as the impact of the Cowboys blocking tight ends may have had on the line's performance.

1. The importance of TEs in run blocking

In today's NFL, run blocking tight ends are is highly under appreciated. We've been trained by fantasy football and Sport Center highlights to look at touchdowns as the primary measure for the quality of a tight end. Run-blocking may not bring the same accolades as a highlight reel TD, but a tight end who can block is an invaluable asset to any NFL team.

The tight end usually lines up close to the line, and if he doesn't go out on a pass route, he'd better be able to block, or all runs off-tackle and outside runs may get stuffed behind the line of scrimmage. 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.

Pro Football Focus provides grades for the run blocking performance of tight ends, and here's a small reminder of how they grade:

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
Run Block
play count
1 Jason Witten DAL 11.8 432
2 Martellus Bennett DAL 10.8 256
3 Alge Crumpler NE 9.7 365
4 Marcedes Lewis
JAC 7.8 469
5 Anthony Fasano
MIA 7.3 382
12 Chris Gronkowski (FB)
DAL 4.4 215

According to PFF, the Cowboys had the number one and two run blocking tight ends in the NFL last year, plus a fullback who would rank as the 12th best run blocker among tight ends based on his run blocking grade. This is some serious run blocking firepower, and I'd argue that this trio of run blockers made the Cowboys O-line look much better in run blocking than they actually were in 2010.

2. Runs by direction

Looking at some of the more traditional stats, the Cowboys OL delivered an average run blocking performance in 2010. The Cowboys ranked 15th in rushing yards per attempt (4.2), 15th in total rushing attempts (428), 21st in TDs (10) and 12th in rushing first downs (104).

Here's a look at a some more detailed breakdown by direction per and the definitions for the data:

Neg yds = Rushes for negative yards.
10+ Yds = Rushes for 10 or more yards.
PWR runs = Percentage of rushes on 3rd or 4th down with 2 or fewer yards to go that achieved a first down or TD. Also includes rushes on 1st-and-goal and 2nd-and-goal from the opponent's 2-yard line or closer.

Neg. Yds 10+ Yds PWR runs Neg. Yds 10+ Yds PWR runs Neg. Yds 10+ Yds PWR runs
2010 10 19 57% 10 18 59% 10 12 44%
Rank 5th 18th 19th 19th 4th 23rd 7th 27th 25th

No big surprises here. A lot less success on the right side, especially on power runs. Consider also that the Cowboys shifted most of the extra protection from the left to the right side early in the season, but the results still lag behind the other areas of the line. the high number of big plays along the middle are a bit surprising and may go a some way towards better explaining Gurode's grade below.

3. Handing out grades

In a recent chat with The Ticket's Bob Sturm, Sam Monson from PFF had this to say about the Cowboys' OL:

We had an interesting debate amongst the staff about Gurode and the Pro-Bowl. As everyone knows, he still has major problems simply snapping the ball in shotgun, and those plays can be killer. But the bottom line is that even with those major negative plays factored in to our grades, he still ends up with a very strong grade over the season. He's capable of very bad games, but over the season he is a good blocker, albeit one with a penchant to snap the ball nowhere near the QB.

Davis is a pretty strong run blocker, and good enough as a pass protector to hold up. When an offensive lineman is a better run blocker than they are a pass protector, they tend to look worse than they actually are in the eyes of people just watching the games, because sacks and pressures are easy to spot, you don't tend to notice good run blocks because you're following the runner through the hole.

Here are the pure runblocking grades for the Cowboys O-linemen, as handed out by PFF. Note that strictly speaking, the grades are not comparable across positions, but for our purposes here we'll just assume they are.

Doug Free Kyle Kosier Andre Gurode Leonard Davis Marc Colombo
2009 2.7 9.8
17.7 13.3 3.7
2010 17.8 -3.9
8.6 1.6 -8.1
Change +15.1 -13.7 -9.1 -11.7 -11.8

We've repeatedly sung the praises of Doug Free as a run blocker (we'll look into his pass blocking in a couple of days) and Free grades out as the best run blocking left tackle in the league. As described by Sam Monson above, Gurode graded out as a good run blocker, and was ranked 6th in run blocking among NFL centers. Davis is about average, Kosier a little below average and Colombo had a tough time any way you look at it.

But the most concerning thing here is the decline versus last year. Outside of Doug Free, all four linemen declined by about ten points from their 2009 levels. Should we expect another decline by 10 points next year as age finally catches up with our big uglies? Or can Hudson Houck get one more year of solid play out of his veterans?

4. Garrett vs. Phillips

Many factors influenced the line play during the course of the season. Narrowing the discussion to a simple Wade-era vs Jason-era view is is necessarily shortchanging a lot of other factors. But we'll do it anyway. Below are the run-blocking grades for the first eight games and the last eight games of the season.

Doug Free Kyle Kosier Andre Gurode Leonard Davis Marc Colombo
Games 1-8
1.8 -3.3
3.5 1.9 -4.6
Games 9-16
16.0 -0.6
5.1 -0.3 -3.5
Change +14.2 +2.7 +1.6 -2.2 +1.1

Overall, the line play looks to have improved in the second half based on the PFF grades. From the data it's pretty obvious that Free had a tremendous second half of the season. Keep in mind that Kosier was injured early and missed playing time, but even when he was back and healthy, his performance was average. Gurode played well under both coaches, slightly elevating his game in the second half. Davis is the only one who declined in the second half, but he still put together an average grade. Marc Colombo improved his below average performance but remained below average.

5. Summary

The real issue with the line, at least with regard to run blocking, is this: in this and the previous post we've seen that they were arguably an average to slightly above average run blocking unit in 2010, and one of the best units in 2009. But just how good can this line be without significant upgrades in 2011?

Even with the addition of Doug Free, the Cowboys OL had the second most combined career starts in the league last year (483) behind only the Giants (544). This number combines the career starts for the two guards, two tackles and center on the team with the most starts in the 2010 regular season. This is not necessarily a bad thing per se, as the Chiefs (468), Jets (452) and Patriots (451) rank right behind the Cowboys, but it is an indicator that the line performance will not be sustainable much longer.

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