There was still plenty to feel good about in the Cowboys' 28-23 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. But despite heroics from Dak Prescott, CeeDee Lamb, and others, the goal of winning was undermined by Dallas’ underperforming offensive line. Unless something changes over the next two months, it will be hard for the team to accomplish anything significant in the playoffs.
Health issues are at the core of the front line’s failings. Veteran OT Tyron Smith has been in and out of the lineup and was a game-time decision to play in Philly. And while OT Terence Steele has been lauded for his rehabilitation from last year’s ACL tear, it’s been clear that Steele isn’t all the way back. It was egregiously evident against the Eagles on multiple plays, and none more damning than the sack he gave up on Dallas’ final drive.
Prescott was sacked five times against Philadelphia and is up to 22 times throughout the year. While that’s nothing compared to the 44 times that QB Sam Howell’s been taken down in Washington, it still puts Prescott in the top 10 for most-sacked quarterbacks. Denver’s Russell Wilson and Carolina’s Bryce Young are tied for third at 26 sacks, so you can see that Prescott isn’t far behind. And, if we’re being honest, that number would be higher if not for Dak’s pocket awareness, quick release, and scrambling ability.
If only pass protection was the only weakness this year. While Dallas has had to overcome this at times, especially with Tyron Smith’s chronic unreliability, something they’re not used to is routinely struggling to run the ball. But in 2023 the Cowboys are just 15th in rushing offense at 111.6 yards per game. This is mostly due to inefficiency, averaging just 3.9 yards per carry (21st in NFL).
As of right now, Dak Prescott’s 4.1 yards per carry is better than Tony Pollard (4.0) or Rico Dowdle (3.9). This is atypical for Dallas’s run game for most of Prescott’s career. And while some rightfully question Pollard’s effectiveness now as the lead back, it’s evident from the games that he just isn’t getting the blocking up front that he and Ezekiel Elliott were accustomed to for most of their Cowboys runs.
Pollard didn’t suddenly forget how to play or lose his instincts. And if the lead role was the issue, that would show up more after heavy touches in games or in the latter parts of the season. But the effectiveness has been gone from the jump in 2023 and that seems to fall more at the feet of the offensive line and the coaches now running the show.
Again, we’ll give you the injuries. But even with Tyler Smith emerging as an individual force in his second year, things just haven’t gelled up front thus far. The lack of chemistry, especially with no new pieces in the mix, feels more like an issue of schematic changes and new coaching under Mike McCarthy and recently-arrived offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer and offensive line coach Mike Solari.
In Dallas’ last two games since the bye, with Prescott, Lamb, and the passing game having no trouble producing, they’ve still been unable to work off of that and get the ground game going. Pollard only had 12 carries in each of the games for 53 yards against the Chargers and 51 against the Eagles. We’re a far cry from the 5.5 and 5.2 yards per game he’s put up the last two seasons, which led to him getting the franchise tag.
Yes, it was different when Pollard was the change-up back to Zeke’s workhorse role. But at only 12 carries a game, Pollard is still basically a change-up to the Cowboys' passing attack. He’s not being asked to grind it out in short-yardage situations, either. Whatever effect Elliott’s absence has had, it doesn’t account for the glaring issue we’ve consistently seen on these run plays.
The holes just aren’t there. Pollard has proven he can make guys miss, break tackles, and do special things as long as he has something to work with. But he’s getting grabbed at the line of scrimmage on what feels like most runs and having to grind just to make it a three-yard gain. For whatever reasons, the guys up front just aren’t paving lanes for Pollard, Dowdle, or anyone else the way they used to.
This goes back to some of the biggest concerns expressed during the offseason. Sticking with Tyron Smith was noble but perhaps not in Dallas’ best interests. Doubling down on that by counting on Steele to bounce back quickly from the injury made offensive tackle a precarious position.
Ignoring depth issues on the interior line has also limited the Cowboys’ options. While Tyler Smith is killing it at guard, could he also be the team’s best option at left tackle now? Would Tyron Smith be better on the right side than Steele? Those possibilities could be explored if Dallas had another guard they trusted, like perhaps if they’d drafted O’Cyrus Torrence in the second round over TE Luke Schoonmaker.
But personnel moves aside, the real beef here is that the guys we have don’t seem to be executing. And with an All-Pro fixture in Zack Martin, a rising one in Tyler Smith, and a Pro Bowl center in Tyler Biadasz, the talent is there. Even if Tyron and Steele are not themselves due to health, it doesn’t explain the problems across the board.
So again, we come back to the coaches. Much like we saw in 2020 with the defense under Mike Nolan, McCarthy brought in guys who don’t seem to know our players or how best to use them. Solari once coached under Tom Landry, that’s a different era. And while Schottenheimer did some solid work recently with Seattle, he’s been bouncing around the league with a poor reputation for most of his coaching career.
Some issues can’t be fixed until the offseason. But being unable to consistently protect your quarterback or make chain-moving gains on the ground is deadly for a team with Dallas’ aspirations. They obviously aren’t so bad that the 5-3 Cowboys can’t win games or make the playoffs, but they won’t be able to change their postseason fortunes with these fundamental weaknesses. It cost them against the Eagles and will be very hard to overcome against other NFL contenders.