Players to Watch: Cowboys vs. Falcons
Now that the Dallas Cowboys are on a one-game winning streak and going to the Super Bowl, this is a good time to acknowledge the issue the team has not at quarterback but rather the offensive line.
The line is coming off its most impressive performance of the season in the win at Philadelphia, but what was once the identity of this team has some long term issues to address.
It helps that one of the issues is not starting Chaz Green at tackle in Atlanta again, or ever again.
“You’ve got to be able to adjust and we didn’t do a great job of that (earlier in the season),” right tackle La’el Collins said. “As a unit (in the team’s 27-20 win on Sunday Philadelphia) we really came together and I think it really showed.”
Now, according to our good friends at Pro Football Focus, the Cowboys’ line grades out as the sixth best unit in the NFL. Running back Ezekiel Elliott averages 4.95 yards per carry.
Dak Prescott has also been sacked 32 times, but some of that is on his receivers, and his penchant for holding on to the ball too long.
The big “problem” is this unit created a different standard in 2016 that it hasn’t lived up to since due to several issues.
Issue No. 1.
Replacing first-year offensive line coach Paul Alexander with Marc Colombo and Hudson Houck was a necessity.
Alexander was not a bad idea but he simply was on the wrong staff; the 24-year veteran of the Cincinnati Bengals was hired in the offseason and he never fit in, nor did his players exactly buy in.
This group of linemen is familiar with Colombo, who was put on this earth to play, or coach, offensive blockers.
“Marc is a guy who has been here who has been through it and what he does is to bring a lot of energy to us as a group,” Collins said. “I think he’s been great for us to have here.”
If this line acquires Colombo’s attitude and temperament as a player, the move has tremendous upside. In his career, Colombo was not the most talented lineman but he knew how to work, how to play, and specifically how to fight.
Issue No. 2
Replacing guard Connor Williams had become a must before he sustained an injury. The second round rookie draft pick from Texas was exposed as too small, and overwhelmed, during his first year.
Williams’ problem is not one of effort, or even talent, but rather that of strength and size. Listed as 6-foot-5 and 298 pounds, he’s too light for the position. If his future is as a guard, he has to add some junk.
Zack Martin is listed as 315 pounds.
Williams suffered a knee injury on Nov. 5, and while that should not end his season, he should be done for the year. The guy behind him played better, and the difference against the Eagles in Philly was noticeable.
Fifth-year NFL journeyman Xavier Sua’-Filo (310 pounds), who previously spent his first four years in Houston, was signed and then cut by Tennessee this offseason. He came to the Cowboys only in September.
He’s not Zack Martin, but Sua-Filo is, at the moment, a superior option than Connor Williams.
Issue No. 3
Tyron Smith is still a good player but the left tackle is not the same player he was when he was a Pro Bowler every week.
Although he has not missed a game this season, Smith was listed on the injury report this week with a back issue. He sat out of practice on Wednesday, and was listed as limited on Thursday.
Back issues normally don’t just go away, and they affect every part of one’s existence, from personal to professional.
Smith missed three games in 2016 with a back injury, and this does not mention the pain he has played with from knee injuries, and the assortment of other ailments that come with playing the game.
To Smith’s credit he’s fighting, and playing, but a bad back is a bad back. And, as the season progresses, a bad back is not magically going to become a good back.
Issue No. 4
La’el Collins is a guard, not a right tackle.
The player who should have been a top 10 pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, who was signed as a rookie free agent only because of bizarre circumstances, has developed into a nice pro. But he is playing out of position.
The thought was the Cowboys would introduce Collins to the NFL as a guard, and move him to right tackle. He a little more than a year into that and he has demonstrated he is an NFL caliber right tackle. He is also better suited for guard where he doesn’t have to move quite as much.
There is some discussion about this point within the Cowboys, but for now Collins is anchored on the right side.
Issue No. 5
Joe Looney has been far more effective at center than anyone could have ever hoped when Travis Frederick was essentially lost for the season with Guillain-Barré syndrome in the preseason.
The offensive line struggles are not because Frederick is out and has been replaced by Looney, who has been in the NFL since 2012.
Looney is not equal to or better than Frederick, but he’s been a competent and respectable backup.
The totality of these issues is a line that is good, but the problem is the standard it set in 2016 when it was almost perfect.