Ashley Landis/Associated Press
For years, the Dallas Cowboys’ reputation was built on the league’s best offensive front, which made everyone else better. But those days are gone, and the Cowboys are not nearly strong enough in the trenches on either side of the ball to live up to expectations placed on the franchise.
Quarterback Dak Prescott, running back Ezekiel Elliott and wide receivers Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup and first-round rookie CeeDee Lamb are great to have, but only if they’re properly utilized.
The Los Angeles Rams exposed the soft underbelly of the star-studded roster like Bard bringing down the dragon Smaug in The Hobbit. Sean McVay’s squad ran the ball 40 times for 153 yards in the Rams’ 20-17 victory over Dallas on Sunday Night Football.
To better understand the Cowboys’ plight, the Rams’ return to basics must first be discussed.
Two seasons ago, Los Angeles made it all the way to Super Bowl LIII before finally losing to the New England Patriots. Most looked at McVay’s group and saw a high-flying, cutting-edge offense with a play-calling wizard leading the way. In actuality, the Rams’ success that season originated from two significant factors: the same starting five along the offensive line for the entire season and the inside zone as the offensive basis for everything else the team accomplished.
The Rams offensive line fell apart last year due to Rodger Saffold’s departure in free agency and multiple injuries. Everyone saw a completely different version against the Cowboys, watching a group that dominated at the point of attack and showed a different level of physicality compared to the previous season’s effort.
Dallas is currently closer to last year’s Rams than the Super Bowl version.
Tyron Smith and Zack Martin are who they are, and they’re two of the league’s best offensive linemen. But the glue that used to hold the unit together is no longer in place, and it takes five blockers working in cohesion to be successful, especially when the group is asked to block a defensive lineman like two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald.
Injuries have already started to occur, and they’re piling up at right tackle.
Projected starter La’el Collins is currently on injured reserve due to a hip problem. He’ll have to miss at least the first three weeks of play before the Cowboys can reactive the 27-year-old lineman.
In Collins’ stead, the Dallas coaching staff decided to start undrafted rookie Terence Steele.
Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press
“I just gotta respect his body of work,” head coach Mike McCarthy said during an interview on 105.3 the Fan (h/t The Athletic’s Jon Machota). “He has just done a really good job. He has progressed steadily through camp. He caught our eye early. He has earned this opportunity.”
One has to wonder if McCarthy has already seen enough of Steele because the rookie’s performance went about as well as expected. The 6’6″, 310-pound tackle looked completely overwhelmed at points and was a disaster from a technical perspective.
The Cowboys didn’t have an alternative, either, since Cameron Erving suffered a sprained MCL during a field-goal attempt, according to the Dallas Morning News‘ Michael Gehlken.
Injuries happen, and a decreased level of play at one position can be excused as a result. However, Dallas’ offensive interior, aside from Martin, is a legitimate concern.
Travis Frederick’s retirement thrust Joe Looney into a full-time starting role again. He started all 16 games two seasons ago, and his experience seems to be a better alternative to playing fourth-round rookie Tyler Biadasz. However, Looney doesn’t bring the same physical presence as his predecessor did. Frederick was far more stout along the interior.
Connor Williams has similar problems at left guard. He can be overwhelmed by more physical and stronger defensive lineman.
Donald is the prime example. Granted, very few defensive linemen are anywhere near the five-time All-Pro’s class, but certain instances during Sunday’s contest simply made onlookers shake their heads.
Aaron Donald is just unfair
The human wrecking ball knocked out three offensive linemen at once with a simple stunt. The lack of communication or awareness between Williams and Looney should be worrisome.
Williams didn’t have a shot against Donald even when he got help.
Charles Robinson @CharlesRobinson
#Cowboys Ezekiel Elliott is like 230 pounds of muscle. #Rams Aaron Donald is just tossing dudes around. https://t.co/L6Pc6eMosY
Over the next three weeks, Dallas’ interior will face Grady Jarrett, Jarran Reed and Sheldon Richardson. Life isn’t going to get much easier for Looney and Williams.
What makes all of this so frustrating is the fact the Cowboys feature enough firepower to be considered a favorite in the NFC East—and maybe more. Elliott still ran well and made the most of his opportunities. Prescott and his receivers didn’t have poor performances, either. But all it takes is one person not executing to blow up a play or drive.
When weaknesses exist, defensive coordinators are ready to exploit them. Why do you think Donald primarily lined up over Williams? It’s not because every strength call went to that side for the 3-technique. Nope, the Rams moved Donald all over the line, yet one matchup appealed most to Los Angeles.
On the other side of the ball, Dallas simply couldn’t hold the point of attack. Maybe the unexpected loss of Gerald McCoy to a quad injury and his subsequent release played more of a factor than originally anticipated.
Somehow, the Rams pushed the Cowboys’ front all over the field. This isn’t the previously mentioned Los Angeles unit from two seasons ago. This group now features Joseph Noteboom and Austin Corbett at guard with Austin Blythe at center. Also, Todd Gurley isn’t in the backfield anymore.
Malcolm Brown ran the ball 18 times for 79 yards and a pair of scores. Ahead on the schedule, we find Gurley, Chris Carson, Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt and Saquon Barkley.
Football is a simple game. Block and stop the run. If a team consistently does those two things well, it will find some success. If it does neither, each week will become an uphill battle.
Even an average performance in both areas could maximize Dallas’ other assets.
By giving Prescott an extra half-second or so, he can find his playmakers and let them work in space. Cooper and Lamb are exceptional after the catch. Elliot won’t be needed as much in protection, which is a bonus since he’s an effective weapon out of the backfield.
Jae C. Hong/Associated Press
“We got to be better as an offensive unit,” Elliott told reporters after the contest. “We got to convert those third downs and keeping the ball moving. It’s got to be mandatory when we get to the red zone we score touchdowns.”
By slowing opposing ground attacks, the Cowboys can make offenses one-dimensional and allow their talented edge-rushers to pin their ears back and get after the quarterback. More often than not, Rams quarterback Jared Goff was rather comfortable in the pocket. He got the ball out quickly and didn’t need to deal with too much pressure, aside from Aldon Smith’s impressive return.
These factors work in cohesion. Line play may be overlooked, but it’s crucial to the overall effectiveness of everything else that occurs. A concentration on protection schemes and ways to stop the run should be prioritized because the Cowboys won’t be able to maximize all their more glamorous talents without them.
Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski.