Sunday’s game against a very good Washington pass rush could dramatically change things, but the fact is Joe Philbin is doing yeoman’s work in his first year as the Cowboys’ offensive line coach.
Back in August, it was noted that the offensive line was in a very precarious position and that Philbin would have his hands full. But no one could predict the complete and total injury collapse we’ve since witnessed, but the underlying point remains. Tyron Smith and La’el Collins are gone for the year, and swing tackle Cam Erving is likely making his season debut this week. That’s meant Brandon Knight starting at left tackle, until he found himself on the injury report this past week, and undrafted rookie Terence Steele has had to start every game at right tackle. Joe Looney has been out since the second play of Week 4, forcing rookie Tyler Biadasz into the starting job, and now Zack Martin is going to miss this week’s game with a concussion.
This is Philbin’s 36th year of his coaching career, one that includes being fired as the Dolphins head coach just one month into the 2015 season, and it stands to reason that he’s never faced this much adversity before. Connor Williams, often viewed as the line’s weakest link, is now the only original starter for this line, which is less than ideal regardless of Williams’ talent.
And yet, the offensive line isn’t in shambles. Not only that, but they’ve been - dare I say it? - good. You’d be right to be skeptical of that statement after what the Cardinals’ blitz packages did to this line on Monday Night Football, and I’m not saying this line is great or dominant. In fact, it’s easily the worst line the Cowboys have had since the days Phil Costa snapping the ball over Tony Romo’s head.
But looking at the metrics reveals a middle-of-the-road performance for this group. There are eleven different teams that have allowed more sacks than the Cowboys at this point in the season, including talented offensive lines like the Ravens and 49ers. And Dallas’ adjusted sack rate of 5.3% is the 11th lowest figure in the league, better even than the Browns and their Bill Callahan-led offensive line.
Before he got hurt, Knight was playing fairly well at left tackle. Like everyone else, he had a rough outing against Arizona, but he certainly didn’t look like the fourth best offensive tackle on the team. Similarly, Steele has had some good reps, although his bad reps have been much worse. Still, the undrafted rookie out of Texas Tech has allowed three less sacks than Andrew Thomas, the top offensive tackle selected in this year’s draft, and is on par with Cleveland’s rookie tackle Jedrick Wills in terms of both sacks allowed (three) and penalties drawn (four). This isn’t to say Steele is as good as either of those two, but in the context of how the highly-touted rookie tackles are performing, Steele is holding his own.
Then there’s the other rookie lineman for Dallas, Biadasz. He hasn’t been perfect, but the former Wisconsin Badger has shown that he’s more than ready to replace Travis Frederick. Just as he was at Wisconsin, Biadasz has been dominant in the run game, frequently getting to the second level to clear holes. In fact, the rookie currently leads all centers in run block win rate. He’s been a bit uneven in pass protection, and it’s something he’ll need to work on going forward, but Biadasz has already proven to be a steal in this year’s draft.
The Cowboys are also doing well in the run-blocking department. It’s been hard to notice, because they’re either watching their $90 million running back fumble the ball or throwing a million times to climb out of the hole caused by said fumbles, but the offensive line has done a good job of opening up holes for both Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard.
They rank fifth in second-level rushing yards and sixth in adjusted line yards; they’re also 12th in both power success rate (meaning runs on 3rd/4th and short) and in stuffed run rate. The one category in run blocking where Dallas is poorly ranked is open field yards, where they rank 31st. That’s more a reflection on Elliott’s poor performance this year, as open field yards usually occur when the running back has run well past his linemen, and the high rankings in all the other categories indicate this line is shouldering a lot of the load for Zeke.
Through six weeks, the Cowboys have had eight different linemen playing a significant number of snaps and yet they rank in, or near, the top ten in nearly every advanced metric for offensive line play. That’s included the promising play of Biadasz and the not-bad-considering-who-he-is play of Steele, neither of whom were expected to be starters two months ago.
On Sunday, Dallas will add a ninth lineman to that list, as Erving is expected to start at left tackle. Additionally Connor McGovern, who made his NFL debut last week when Martin went down, will now be making his first career start and doing so against a really good Washington defensive line. Don’t expect this line to hold up well against that matchup, but it also shouldn’t distract from the masterful job that Philbin has done with this group so far.