The Cowboys are a long way from the days of boasting the NFL’s best offensive line, and that’s been apparent for a while now. Most could see that their offensive line wasn’t quite right last year despite having an overall successful season.
Dallas finished the year ranked 23rd in the league in pass block win rate, which measures how often the offensive line as a whole held up their pass blocks for 2.5 seconds or longer. In spite of this, Dak Prescott had the fifth-lowest pressure rate among starting quarterbacks, thanks in large part to his lightning fast delivery; Prescott’s average of 2.75 seconds to throw was the ninth-fastest figure last year.
That approach likely won’t work in 2022, though, and for a few reasons. For starters, the receiver room looks very different without Amari Cooper, Cedrick Wilson, and (briefly) Michael Gallup. The quick passing game doesn’t work as well without the kind of chemistry Prescott had with those veterans.
More importantly, though, is the state of this offensive line. Left tackle Tyron Smith is out until at least December, which means rookie Tyler Smith will begin his NFL career at left tackle after spending all summer learning to play left guard. On the other side, Terence Steele is gearing up for his first full season as the starting right tackle, having made 27 starts in his capacity as the swing tackle over the last two seasons.
Perhaps the biggest challenge for both Smith and Steele, however, comes in the way that the Cowboys - specifically offensive coordinator Kellen Moore and offensive line coach Joe Philbin - design their pass protection schemes. Arjun Menon, an intern over at Pro Football Focus, recently revealed the rates for how often offensive tackles were left on an island - or given no help from guards, tight ends, or running backs - last year.
And of the nine tackles with the highest “on an island” rate, the Cowboys made up a third of the list:
Offensive tackles left on an island (no help) the most often in 2021 on passing plays:— Arjun Menon (@arjunmenon100) September 7, 2022
Jordan Mailata (71.9%)
Donovan Smith (70%)
Lane Johnson (69.2%)
La'El Collins (68.1%)
Rashawn Slater (67.5%)
Terence Steele (67.2%)
Tyron Smith (67%)
Andrew Thomas (66.1%)
Lucas Niang (66%)
The trio of Steele, Tyron Smith, and La’el Collins were the only tackles on the roster last year who logged more than two thirds of offensive snaps. The most snaps for a tackle after those three was Ty Nsehke, whose 145 snaps equaled just under 12% of all available snaps.
So, in other words, if you played tackle for the Cowboys at any point last year, you were being left on an island in pass protection twice as often as when you received help. Considering the Cowboys’ struggles in pass protection last year, it’s very possible that this played a factor in that.
Regardless of whether or not that was the reason for the Cowboys’ subpar pass protection last year, it cannot be the plan going into 2022. Steele has plenty of experience already, but he’s no longer the swing tackle; he’ll be the only one tasked with protecting the right edge now. Meanwhile, Smith is an unknown commodity, especially since we haven’t seen him play a game at left tackle against NFL defenders.
It’s entirely possible that Smith will turn out to be a natural, that Steele makes yet another big jump as a blocker, and even that Jason Peters comes in and saves the day not too far from now. But the Cowboys can’t know for certain whether those things will happen or not, so they need to make life easier for their young, new tackles in the short term and not leave them on an island the way they did last year.