The Dallas Cowboys are built around their offensive line. They are not built around their quarterback although Dak Prescott shows signs of being a good one long-term. They certainly aren’t built around their receivers or tight ends, who are question marks at the moment. The aren’t a defensive juggernaut, even though that side of the ball is showing improvement. They are built around the five big’uns up front and stud running back Ezekiel Elliott. Of course, this is no shock to any decent Cowboys fan.
But with the uncertainty around the availability of Travis Frederick, and the youth of Connor Williams, this may be the most important issue facing the team in the early going. Sure, the safety position is treacherous sledding at the moment, and the tight end corps is nothing to write home about, but if the Cowboys can’t shore up their interior line, their whole identity as a team suffers.
The unit as a whole, as constructed in 2017, finished fourth in PFF year-end rankings.
4. DALLAS COWBOYS
Total pressures surrendered: 153
Best player: Zack Martin
Combinations used: 8
While the Cowboys struggled to replace left guard Ronald Leary and right tackle Doug Free, the dominance of center Travis Frederick and right guard Zack Martin still made this one of the best offensive lines in the league, even if they did not perform at the same level along the entire line. Left guard Jonathan Cooper was able to bounce back from a rough game in his first start against the Rams in Week 4 and allowed just six total pressures over his last six games. In addition, this unit could have been even better if not for left tackle Tyron Smith’s injuries, which forced him to miss some time. However, Frederick and Martin were once again among the best at their positions and combined to allow just one sack all season.
Included in that article were the pressure each of the five main guys allowed in 2017.
Tyron Smith 20 | Jonathan Cooper 20 | Travis Frederick 12 | Zack Martin 11 | La’el Collins 51
Given those number, Collins was the weak link in the passing game, but as we have noted previously, Collins got noticeably better at right tackle as the year progressed. After another offseason manning the position, he should be able to elevate his game in 2018.
The real wild cards here are Joe Looney and Connor Williams. Looney handled his pass-blocking duties very well in his last game against the Cardinals in preseason.
Joe Looney played 30 offensive snaps and allowed zero total pressures on 19 pass blocking snaps. Looney finished the game with an 80.7 pass-blocking grade.
Williams, on the other hand, has been somewhat inconsistent in preseason. He has struggled with the strength of some NFL defensive linemen where he’s been bull-rushed backwards allowing pressure on the quarterback. He also sometimes has a tendency to reach and get off-balance allowing defensive line men to use a move to get around him.
The Cowboys make their living being able to run the ball. They have the best run-blocker in the league from 2017, according to PFF.
Top run blockers in the NFL at guard! pic.twitter.com/KKlLa8VsuP— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) May 22, 2018
But again, it’s all about Joe Looney and Connor Williams in the early going. Until Travis Frederick can return, you can bet defensive lines will be targeting the left-interior of the Cowboys offensive line. Without Frederick, PFF sees the Cowboys run-blocking as the ninth-best unit going into 2018.
9. DALLAS COWBOYS
This assumes All-Pro center Travis Frederick won’t be in the starting lineup for quite some time with Guillain-Barre syndrome. With him in the lineup, they’d be second, but his absence leaves a gaping hole at center that will be filled by Joe Looney. Looney has yet to earn a season grade above 70.0 across 1,089 snaps in five years. Also concerning is the performance of Connor Williams this preseason who notched a 56.9 run-blocking grade on 40 snaps in the run game.
That run grade in preseason for Williams is worrying. He seems to be pretty mobile, and when he pulls he is pretty good if he finds the right guy to block. On occasion he’s had trouble with finding the right guy at the second-level and getting a helmet on them. The other issue in preseason has been the power of Looney and Williams. They simply do not reset the line of scrimmage, Looney has an especially tough job living up to what Frederick does in that regard. Looney has proven he’s pretty mobile for a guy affectionately nicknamed Jumbo Joe, so the Cowboys can pull him and use him in the screen game.
The Cowboys need to run the ball to succeed on offense, so all eyes will be on Joe Looney and Connor Williams on Sunday (and in the weeks to come), as they will be the single biggest factor in the Cowboys success at putting points on the board.