The Dallas Cowboys came into the season expecting a dominant (with apologies to Bryan Broaddus) offensive line paving the way for a star rookie running back. The results so far have been underwhelming and fans are dividing themselves into two camps — those who say Ezekiel Elliott is way under-performing his draft position and those who say the Dallas offensive line isn’t as good as advertised. Which side is right?
Well. Both, unfortunately. But the good news is that we can likely expect better out of both units and there were flashes of that in Sunday’s game against the Washington Redskins. In the following we’ll break down a few plays and talk about what (or who) went right and wrong. The answers may surprise.
We start with Dallas in a two TE set. Washington responds with eight in the box as just off screen are their two OLBs (red arrows). Your key players here are Zack Martin (blue cricle), Travis Frederick (blue square), and La’el Collins (blue arrow).
In the blue circle we see Cullen Jenkins simply club Zack Martin totally out of the way. This simple win against the heart of the Dallas line will devastate the entire play. Frederick is headed to cut off the Mike LB and Doug Free appears to have the Mo. Collins is tasked with a big reach block against the NT.
Not only does Martin fall to the ground, but Frederick trips over Jenkins and goes down as well. Collins tries to catch a piece of Jenkins as he goes by.
But this slows Collins enough that he misses his reach block. Martin and Frederick are both on the ground. Free realizes something is wrong and tries to grab Frederick’s assignment. Only Ezekiel Elliott’s speed and quickness avoids a TFL here. The play gains three. But if Martin wins out, Frederick doesn’t fall and gets the Mike, leaving Free to get the mo (blue line) and Elliott is off to the races with at most two men between him and the end zone.
But Elliott had his issues as well. Here Dallas is in S11 (shotgun, 3 WR). Martin (blue circle) gives a great set of blocks on this play. The Redskins respond with nickel.
In the circle we see Martin combo blocking the DT, passing him off to Doug Free, who is leaving the DE unblocked by design.
As Elliott heads for the well-blocked hole, Martin, having handed the DT to Free on a silver platter, moves on to the Mo LB, Mason Foster. Collins has the Mike LB in his sights, and every Dallas lineman is secure. Note to which side Foster has leverage on Martin.
Martin shoves Foster hard in the direction he’s already going... and Elliott runs right into him. If Elliott correctly reads the block and cuts back behind it, he likely scores. You can see that safety DeAngelo Hall has just started moving. He also gives up nearly 25 lbs to Elliott. It would be remarkable if Hall could get himself in position to stop an untouched Elliott from there and no one else is around. Dallas would kick a field goal after an incomplete pass on the next play.
But sometimes it went right. Here Dallas is in 13 (1 RB, 3 TE) personnel. Count the Redskins in the picture. Then add the two (LB and CB) just off screen at the arrows. Now, in fairness, safety David Bruton is 12 yards off the line and not exactly in the box, but the only Redskin player not really in this play is Josh Norman covering Dez Bryant on the offensive right. Your heroes are Frederick (circle), Collins (arrow), and the Tyron Smith/Jason Witten team in the rectangle. Gavin Escobar is on the offensive right and Geoff Swaim has the far left.
The NT obliges by running himself out of the hole and Frederick ably assists him. La’el Collins sees a handy snack in LB Will Compton, and Smith passes DE Ricky Jean Francois off to Witten.
Frederick has his man under control as Elliott gets the ball. Collins begins his meal as Smith moves to take on the safety. But Geoff Swaim has allowed OLB Preston Smith into the fray and failed to control him. Smith’s win will save a TD.
After a literal double click of the play/pause button, look how far Elliott has come. CB Bashuad Breeland (far right) has come off of his outside responsibility to try to support the middle, but at the speed Elliott has he is likely to be too late. There is nothing but green in front of Elliott here.
But Preston Smith spoils the play. In another double click he has lunged into the running lane. Swaim takes him to the ground, but not before he waves at Elliott. Elliott has to get around him and you can see how that visibly slowed him as he should be across the next major yard marker but he’s only halfway there. This gives Breeland time to get over and make the tackle. It’s a nine-yard gain, but should’ve been six points if Swaim even hinders Preston Smith. At the bottom you can see David Bruton coming back into play after moving to double Dez Bryant. I’m pretty sure an unhindered Elliott never lets him get close if Elliott is the two yards further down field he should be in this frame.
So, as you can see, there was a lot of good and a lot of bad to go around. They were a couple of small mistakes from two more rushing TDs and a lot more yardage. And some of the issues with stuffed runs came from misfires by the most dependable players. This should be fixable. The run game is trending in the right direction. We’ll see how soon it can get back to where it should be.