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Dallas Cowboys Offensive Line Grades Through The First Four Weeks

A look at a new grading system for the Dallas Cowboys offensive line, and their performances as a unit and individuals through the first four weeks of the season.

Ronald Martinez

We wait patiently for the long offseason to come to an end and for football season to finally begin, but in the blink of an eye, we have already reached the quarter mark of the 2014 NFL regular season. Teams will continue to evolve as the season progresses, but after four games, fans and franchises have a better idea of the foundation and identity of their team. For the Dallas Cowboys, the performance of their young offensive line is certainly a welcome addition to both the team foundation and identity. And while they displayed on national television their ability to dominate lesser defenses like the New Orleans Saints, they have dealt with some growing pains along the way.

Back in week one, I unveiled my scoring system for grading the Cowboys offensive-line this season. For a reminder of the criteria and process of how I am grading plays you can check back to the original post after the week one game.

But here is a quick review:

  • Scores are based on how the entire o-line performs each play, often regardless of the outcome of that play. Good blocking can lead to an average outcome, or vice versa, but scores are specific to the o-line performance and not the amount of yards gained by the team.
  • Each play, the entire o-line is scored as Good (+1), Average (0), or Bad (-1) and the specific players most involved in those outcomes are awarded the + or - for their specific efforts.
  • +/- Differential reflects the difference between good and bad plays by the o-line. It is also used to grade the run blocking of each lineman (RBD - run blocking differential). Individual players' pass blocking is not graded on the differential, only on the number of negative plays allowed each game.
  • Consistency is the number of good or average plays the o-line provides for each bad play. Pass blocking consistency (PBC) is also used to grade each individual player.

Week Two - Win Versus the Titans

O-Line Good +1 Average 0 Bad -1 +/- Differential Consistency
Run 11 28 8 +3 4.875
Pass 5 18 10 -5 2.3

Individual T. Smith R. Leary T. Frederick Z. Matin D. Free
Run (+/-) +4 / -1 +4 / -5 +5 / -1 +4 / -2 +1 / -2
RBD +3 -1 +4 +2 -1
Pass (bad) -1 -2 -2 -1 -4
PBC 32 15.5 15.5 32 7.25

As you can see from the grades, the Cowboys offensive line did not have their best week against the Tennessee Titans. They had some struggles in pass protection, specifically Doug Free (starting from the first drive of the game), but they did have a strong game when it came to run blocking. While their run blocking differential was strong (+3), it was their run blocking consistency that reveals how impressive the o-line was in their efforts. The opposite can be said for their pass blocking. The consistency is below what seems to be an average performance of 2.5 (more on that later), but the differential of -5 shows that the unit struggled far more often than it managed to provide an above average pocket for Tony Romo.

Week Three - Win Versus the Rams

O-Line Good +1 Average 0 Bad -1 +/- Differential Consistency
Run 5 14 7 -2 2.71
Pass 6 16 6 0 3.66

Individual T. Smith R. Leary T. Frederick Z. Matin D. Free
Run (+/-) +1 / -0 +2 / -2 +1 / -2 +0 / -4 +2 / -2
RBD +1 0 -1 -4 0
Pass (bad) -1 -1 -2 -2 -2
PBC 27 27 13 13 13

The game versus the St Louis Rams revealed the kryptonite for the o-line's run blocking scheme, fast defensive lines with good burst off the snap. The Rams have a talented and athletic d-line. Their ability and speed made things difficult for the Cowboys zone blocking scheme that relies on positioning and stretch plays. Often times, the Rams defenders managed to avoid these zone blocks due to their burst off the line. Rookie Zach Martin had the greatest struggles in this regard, finally showing his growing pains as a rookie. While the unit's run blocking consistency was average, their only negative run-blocking differential this season reveals their struggles, where they managed a meager five runs with above-average blocking as a unit. While they didn't manage to create a positive pass-blocking differential, they did have impressive pass-blocking consistency.

Week Four - Win Versus the Saints

O-Line Good +1 Average 0 Bad -1 +/- Differential Consistency
Run 11 15 6 +5 4.33
Pass 6 23 3 +3 9.66

Individual T. Smith R. Leary T. Frederick Z. Matin D. Free
Run (+/-) +3 / -1 +5 / -2 +5 / -2 +3 / -1 +2 / -0
RBD +2 +3 +3 +2 +2
Pass (bad) 0 -2 0 0 -1
PBC 00 15 00 00 31

As you can clearly see from the grades, this was the best performance by the offensive-line this season. In fact, it was dominant in virtually every regard. Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, and Zack Martin received an "infinite" pass-blocking consistency grade, finishing the game without a single negative score. The grades would have been even better if the Cowboys didn't run so often to end the game against 9 to 10 men in the box. Half of their negative run blocking scores came when they ran into the teeth of a defense that knew the Cowboys were going to run out the clock and simply had more players in the box than the Cowboys could block. However, the good news is that a couple of positive run scores actually came in these circumstances, showing the Cowboys o-line does have the ability to create some above average blocking despite being outnumbered in the box.

As a unit, they received impressive positive differentials in both run and pass blocking, and their consistency grades are phenomenal. However, the game also revealed some important insights into the grading system. The consistency grades have an odd scale that grows very large when things go well, but have a much smaller window for the below average scale. We will require more data to make things clearer, but so far, it seems team consistency grades of 2.5 are average. However, a positive consistency of 4 seems to be as dominant a performance as a poor grade of 2 would reflect on the other end of the scale, despite their difference from the "average mark" of 2.5. Also, while the week four consistency grades for the unit seem very different (more than double) their true difference is much smaller. Both were very impressive performances, but the scale grows exponentially and does not reflect how similarly dominant scores of 5 and 9 are for unit consistency.

Grades Through Four Games

O-Line Good +1 Average 0 Bad -1 +/- Differential Consistency
Run 36 66 26 +10 3.92
Pass 32 67 31 +1 3.19

Individual T. Smith R. Leary T. Frederick Z. Matin D. Free
Run (+/-) +12 / -2 +16 / -10 +15 / -5 +12 / -9 +8 / -5
RBD +10 +6 +10 +3 +3
Pass (bad) -5 -9 -5 -5 -10
PBC 25 13.44 25 25 12

The Cowboys young offensive-line is clearly a strong group. Their run-blocking differential is at a very strong +10 and their consistency number through four weeks is nearly dominant. However, the unit does appear to be weaker when it comes to pass blocking. While their consistency score is still above average, their pass-blocking differential reveals the unit has a harder time creating good pockets for Tony Romo than they do creating great running lanes for DeMarco Murray. Looking at the individual grades for reference, it seems clear the weakest links for the unit when it comes to pass protection are Ron Leary and Doug Free. They have nearly twice as many bad pass-blocking scores as the rest of their fellow linemen. Leary is also very hot and cold. While he will provide some phenomenal run-blocking snaps (leads the unit), he is also the least consistent and has the most negative scores as well. Zack Martin also has some consistency issues in run blocking, not surprising for a rookie, but most of his negative grades came in one game so it will be interesting to see how much his grades will improve as the season goes on. However, he should be praised for how well he has held up in pass protection, where he grades as well as the two seeming Pro-Bowlers on the Cowboys o-line in Smith and Frederick who have excelled in both pass and run blocking so far this season.

These grades through four weeks are very promising for a young unit. Clearly, there are some issues that are cause for concern. While Leary is still young and improving, Free is the veteran of the group and appears to be struggling in pass protection. He isn't the "bad Free" of a few years ago, but this is clearly the Achilles heel of a unit that appears to be on its way to one of the best in the league.

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