The Cowboys’ O-line underachieved last season, but it’s still stacked with talent. Good thing: Dak Prescott will need all the protection he can get
1. The Tony Romo injury hurts. He has become one of the most cerebral quarterbacks in football. Few realize this because the (unjust) narrative for so long has been that he’s a choker prone to crunch-time mistakes. But watch Romo at the line of scrimmage before the snap; he does as much adjusting as anyone in the game. That’s one reason the Cowboys have become so attached to spreading out in empty backfield formations. With Romo out, the Cowboys lose this dimension. Dak Prescott may have had an impressive preseason (for what that’s worth, which is very little), but this becomes a more predictable offense with him at the helm.
2. Dallas still has the NFL’s best O-line—by a wide margin. It underachieved last season, and you can’t help but wonder if the departure of line coach Bill Callahan was a factor. (The quarterback carrousel didn’t help either, though this front five also didn’t play great in the games Romo started.) Nevertheless, there’s simply too much talent here to ignore. Left tackle Tyron Smith has the springiest feet of any blocker in the game. Left guard La’el Collins was up and down as a rookie, which is to be expected, but his ups were so up that you figure his floor can’t help but rise. And his ceiling might not even exist. Center Travis Frederick is tremendous on reach-and-seal blocks, where he snaps the ball and crosses over the nose tackle to pin him back inside, away from the running back. This is the most crucial piece to Dallas’s entire outside zone-running game. Zack Martin is a layer or two of mechanical polish away from challenging Marshal Yanda as the king of right guards. And right tackle Doug Free has quietly been very stellar in run-blocking these past two years. If Collins ascends in his second year, each Cowboys lineman will be in the top five at his respective position. This in mind, it makes you wonder why the Cowboys would spend the No. 4 overall draft pick on a running back.
3. At 34 years old, Jason Witten can still play. He can’t run, but he can still play. Besides being a technically sound run blocker—which is also critical at tight end in Dallas’s zone scheme—he remains a viable receiver. Witten’s spatial awareness as an inside route runner is second to none. And defenses agree. Witten still attracted regular double-teams last season, even when Dez Bryant was on the field.
4. One of the most important people in the Cowboys organization right now is Ben Bloom, the defensive ends coach. Bloom has two gifted but unrefined specimens in Demarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory, who are both suspended for Weeks 1-4. Lawrence came on strong in the second half of last season and could be primed for a breakout, but there’s still a lot of his craft left to hone. Gregory has all of his craft to hone. At this point, he’s just a man with exceptional quickness off the ball. Someone must teach him how to use it.
5. Lawrence and Gregory, and whoever else is part of what expects to once again be a deep but not overwhelming Cowboys D-line rotation, will be part of a scheme that’s terrific up front with slants, stunts and twists. Coordinator Rod Marinelli has taught these gap-exchange tactics for years. The Cowboys are especially potent using them against the run in an “over” front (i.e. the three-technique aligned on the same side as the tight end). They dominated Philadelphia and Washington with this last season.
6. Second-year pro Byron Jones is already the most versatile defender in the NFL. It’s one thing to play a bunch of positions—free safety, box safety, slot corner, outside corner—but it’s another to play them all well. Last season Jones won man coverage battles against Rob Gronkowski, Doug Baldwin and, occasionally, No. 2 or No. 3 receivers on the perimeter. Have we ever seen another rookie handle such a wide spectrum of coverage responsibilities?
7. Linebacker Rolando McClain’s 10-game suspension could really hurt Dallas’s run defense. It was surprising that McClain played ahead of the much more agile Anthony Hitchens in nickel last season. But the Cowboys understand that three-receiver sets are the NFL’s new norm. Which means more and more running plays occur out of three-wide and thus against your nickel D. And so they wanted McClain’s 255 pounds and physicality in their nickel package. With him out of the picture, the Cowboys might have to keep new run-stopping defensive tackle Cedric Thornton on the field in certain nickel situations. That hurts their pass rush.
9. The Cowboys are known as a zone defense under Rod Marinelli, but in recent years they’ve evolved into more of a man-to-man unit. That’s what Marinelli played when it counted most last season. And consider this: he was making those calls with his top corner, Orlando Scandrick out with an ACL injury; Scandrick is back now.
10. Even with Scandrick back, it wouldn’t be a huge surprise to see the Cowboys go back to playing more zone in obvious passing situations. In 2012, the Cowboys forced just 16 turnovers, second fewest in the NFC. Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan was fired and Monte Kiffin was brought in. The powers that be in Dallas wanted someone who would teach and call more zone coverage. That way defenders, especially ball-sniffing linebacker Sean Lee, could keep their eyes more on the quarterback, the field and the ball, as opposed to on the man they were guarding. The idea was this would lead to more deflections, interceptions and forced fumbles in pursuit. And it did. The Cowboys forced 28 turnovers in 2013 and an NFC-best 31 in 2014. But last season, with more man coverage played, the number plummeted to a paltry 11, dead last in the league.
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