Despite the fact that the Cowboys offensive line boasts arguably the top left tackle, center, and guard in the league, and despite the fact that by all accounts this is the top unit league-wide by a fair margin, they are still human. Every week is not going to be like the San Francisco 49ers or Cincinnati Bengals games where Ezekiel Elliott averages over 6.0 YPC and Dak Prescott has all the time in the world to complete passes. One of those tougher times came this past Sunday night against a team that not only has All-Pro caliber defensive linemen, but a team that is also not afraid of bringing heavy, non-stop pressure at the most critical of moments. This was perhaps the biggest test the Cowboys offensive line had faced so far in 2016, and while they most certainly struggled at times, particularly in pass protection, they were able to come through in the end with the game on the line.
First, it must be recognized that for the most part the Cowboys running game was very effective against an Eagles defense missing defensive tackle Bennie Logan. Elliott averaged over 6.0 YPC in the first half, and finished the game with an average of 4.4, which would have been significantly higher had a 60+ yard run towards the end of the fourth quarter not been negated by a borderline holding call on center Travis Frederick. Now, 4.4 isn’t a number that most Cowboys fans will be satisfied with after the success the team has had running the ball over the last month, but for most NFL teams that is a very respectable number when going up against a stout front seven.
The real problem that the offensive line had on Sunday night came in pass protection, particularly when the Eagles would aggressively blitz six or even seven. The line also struggled at times with the Eagles only bringing a standard four-man rush, particularly Doug Free on the right side, although Tyron Smith somehow gave up a sack to first-round bust Marcus Smith on the first drive of the game, but to be fair he played an excellent game for the most part from there on out.
While pass protection was an issue for most of the night, let’s fast forward to the fourth quarter and take a look at a few plays where the Cowboys narrowly avoided disaster.
After Dez Bryant’s game-tying touchdown the defense held the Eagles to a three and out. Getting the ball at their own 40, the Cowboys were hoping to drive 25-30 yards to set up a potential game-winning field goal from Dan Bailey. Instead, they went three and out themselves as Jim Schwartz brought heavy pressure, rushing six on first down, and seven on second and third down. Let’s take a look at the third down play:
The Cowboys have seven in protection here, and while they have enough blockers to match up with each of the seven the Eagles are rushing, it’s hard to assign blame as Jordan Hicks times his blitz perfectly to loop around a stunting Connor Barwin. You could place the blame on Tyron Smith for not popping out to pick up Hicks after passing Barwin off to Ronald Leary, but I tend to give more credit to Hicks and Schwartz here for a well-designed blitz. With that said, Hicks comes through the line untouched and Prescott basically throws the ball up for grabs in the middle of the field off his back foot (note that the red zone interception also came with Prescott throwing off his back foot and this is a habit he must correct). You have to say the Cowboys got lucky here as the ball fluttered harmlessly to the ground, it could have very easily found it’s way into the arms of an Eagles defensive back, setting them up with very favorable field position for a game-winning field goal.
Here is the very first play of the next Cowboys drive, their last of regulation, following another Eagles three and out:
This drive started on the 28, with the Cowboys again hoping to drive for a game-winning field goal. As opposed to the previous drive the Eagles only rush four and don’t bring heavy pressure, although this is a perfect example of how Doug Free struggled most of the night against Brandon Graham and Vinny Curry. The rest of the line has the Eagles defensive line pretty well bottled up, Fletcher Cox is getting some pressure but nothing too significant. Graham on the other hand beats Free around the corner clean, leaving Free on the ground. He gets a hand on Prescott’s arm as he is about to release the ball and from there anything could’ve happened. If Graham got there a half second earlier it could’ve been a fumble, if the ball had went backwards it could’ve been a backwards pass, if an Eagles defender was better positioned it could’ve been an interception. Luckily for the Cowboys none of these things happened and disaster was narrowly avoided again, but the takeaway here is that Doug Free has to be better the next time these teams play in December. This was only one of several times where Free was beaten in pass protection by either Graham or Curry.
So the offensive line was inconsistent most of the night in pass protection and the Eagles pressure nearly caused a potential game-ending turnover on both Cowboys drives following the game-tying touchdown by Bryant, so how would they respond in overtime?
After briskly driving down to the Eagles 28 the Cowboys were faced with a third and one. The Eagles defensive line promptly stuffed Elliott for no gain, leaving the Cowboys with a heart-wrenching decision. Jason Garrett decided to go all-in on his offensive line, and here is what happened:
The ball started out on the Eagles 28, and despite stacking the box with 10 defenders, do you see where the pile is at the end of the play?
Two yards downfield on the 26. You have to give serious credit to the entire line, especially Leary, Frederick, and Martin on the interior for getting that kind of surge.
How about the very next play?
That’s a perfectly executed inside zone for a mostly untouched 12 yards, which was one of Elliott’s larger gains on the night. You can see that the majority of the defensive line and linebackers get washed down and the only player with a chance to make the tackle within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage is backside safety Rodney McLeod. Not a good situation for the Eagles.
And four plays later the game is over:
The Eagles only rush four here but look at the time Prescott has to step up in the pocket with the thought of running, then retreat after thinking better of it, spin around, and find a wide open Witten. That’s five protecting four, no backs or tight ends to help, and you don’t see anybody getting beaten around the edge or pushed back into Prescott’s lap. That’s about five or so seconds from the snap to Prescott releasing the ball, an eternity in the NFL.
That’s why you invest those first-round picks, that’s why you pay Frederick, Smith, and soon enough Martin $10+ million a year. And on a night where they struggled mightily at times with a formidable opponent, that’s why this is the best offensive line in football.