Stop me if you’ve heard this before: the Cowboys offensive line is absolutely dominant. It’s been a common refrain in recent years, and the trio that have anchored this impressive unit consisted of Tyron Smith, arguably the best left tackle in the NFL, Zack Martin, arguably the best guard in the NFL, and Travis Frederick, arguably the best center in the NFL.
For all the hype given to these three, it seems that Smith and Martin are usually the ones garnering the majority of the praise, and for good reason. Smith just gets beat so rarely, and his strength as a run blocker makes him stand apart from other elite left tackles. Martin, on the other hand, was an All-Pro as a rookie. That just doesn’t happen often.
While nobody has ever watched Frederick play and said “He just isn’t that good,” it’s not unrealistic to suggest that Frederick is underrated as a player. And these first two games for the Dallas Cowboys have proved exactly that.
First things first, though, a clarification - this piece is not meant to serve as any criticism of backup center Joe Looney, who has done a serviceable job starting in place of Frederick these last two weeks. In fact, Looney even got a pancake block on Damon “Snacks” Harrison on Sunday night, no easy feat.
However, the running game has struggled significantly to start the season. Ezekiel Elliott has been limited to under 80 yards both games - 69 yards against Carolina and 78 against New York. That has only happened to Elliott twice before: one was his rookie debut, also against the Giants, and the other last year in the infamous Debacle in Denver.
Part of the problem can be tied to a lack of carries for Zeke, who has failed to get 20 carries in either game, something that’s only happened to him four other times in his career. And to be fair, Elliott has averaged 4.6 yards per carry in both games this year, a better mark than last season. However, a lot of Elliott’s runs have been snuffed out from the beginning, resulting in losses, no gains, or minimal gains.
There are plenty of people to blame for that, but perhaps the biggest factor is the opposing defense. In Week One, the offensive line faced two defensive tackles who are outstanding against the run in Kawann Short and Dontari Poe. Short, in particular, is a defensive monster and his two sacks against the Cowboys last week prove it. He also ranks fourth in the NFL in tackles for loss since 2015 with 35, showcasing his ability to disrupt plays in the backfield. Poe, on the other hand, is a space-eating machine at 346 pounds.
Somehow, though, Poe looks small compared to Giants nose tackle Damon Harrison, measuring in at 355 pounds. Harrison is an even more unstoppable space-eater than Short or Poe, and he was behind a lot of the Cowboys’ troubles running the ball on Sunday night. But the Cowboys have faced Harrison, Poe, and Short in the past and been able to run the ball. The difference this season is the absence of Frederick.
Of course, Frederick is out indefinitely with Guillain-Barre syndrome, and although there’s no real time table on when he may return, the Cowboys felt confident enough to not place him on the Injured Reserve/Designated to Return list. And as previously mentioned, Looney has done a good enough job in his place.
But good enough just isn’t going to cut it against the kind of All-Pro talent Looney has faced in the first two games, and the running game has suffered because of it. This next week, against the Seahawks, Looney will likely face another tough battle against Jarran Reed. After that, it’s going to be Da’Shawn Hand and A’Shawn Robinson of the Lions before things get really hard going against the Texans’ and Jaguars’ stout defensive fronts.
The issue with this is that it takes away one of the Cowboys’ favorite type of run plays, the zone stretch concept, in which Elliott gets the option of cutting between the tackles, cutting outside, or possibly cutting back to the other side of the play. If the first option, going between the tackles, gets routinely taken away as it has thus far, it severely limits the things Elliott can do with the ball.
Thus, the Cowboys will have to switch up their run game considerably unless Looney can start to play at an elite status or Frederick returns. This means more pulling blocks, pitches outside the tackles, and more runs out of the shotgun. Of course, more read-option stuff with successful QB keepers by Dak Prescott helps make the defensive line a little more hesitant as well. But if you noticed that a lot of the run plays from under center seemed to fizzle out Sunday night, this is why.
It’s a testament to just how great Frederick is that an entire rushing attack can be so disrupted by his absence. When Looney first started getting extensive work in the preseason and looked solid, many people (myself included) seemed to think the Cowboys would be fine without the Bearded One. Through these first two games, though, it seems that idea was wrong. Frederick is vital to the success of Elliott, and if the Cowboys want to run the ball as successfully as they have in the past, Scott Linehan will need to make some changes going forward to more appropriately mask the temporary weakness.