If someone was to poll Cowboys Nation regarding the biggest concern heading into the 2023 season, most would likely point to the offensive line. The Cowboys have a respectable unit on paper. Many postseason breakdowns even listed the Dallas offensive line as a strength. But a quick peak behind the curtain reveals things are far more volatile looking than what’s front and center.
Depth was a concern at the start of the offseason and depth remains a concern heading into the start of the regular season. The delta between OL5 to OL6 is significant. And each rung deeper down the depth chart the more concerning the replacement piece. With news the Cowboys may not only be forced to go to their bench for one lineman, but possibly two, Cowboys fans are understandably concerned.
Tyler Smith and Donovan Wilson are officially doubtful.
Tyron Smith and Sam Williams are questionable. pic.twitter.com/RPBoTkqqxx
— Bobby Belt (@BobbyBeltTX) September 8, 2023
On Monday news broke starting LG Tyler Smith strained his hamstring. On Thursday it was revealed starting LT Tyron Smith tweaked his ankle. While neither injury sounds particularly devastating, both players’ status is now in doubt for Week 1.
If one or each is unable to go, how will the Cowboys survive the Giants defensive line. New York’s starting four are considered one of the best in the NFL and sending out a pair of replacement players could spell disaster for Dallas.
Offensive linemen obviously impact both phases of the game but the biggest negative impact of poor line play unquestionable occurs on passing downs. Pressure on the passer leads to all sorts of bad things: rushed passes, sacks, turnovers, or even injuries.
The best way to avoid pressure is to avoid obvious passing situations.
3rd-and-4 or more is a pretty good indication a pass is coming. Pass-rushers can pin their ears back and attack. Coordinators like Wink Martindale will blitz with near reckless abandon. And anything short of perfect blocking can turn a good day bad in an instant.
Passing the ball on early downs is a good way to avoid those dangerous third-down situations. Throughout Dak Prescott’s tenure on the Cowboys, Dallas has been more productive (in EPA and success rate) passing than rushing on early downs. They need to embrace that.
Passing on early downs will bring on the occasional 3rd-and-10 situation, but it will also reduce the number of plays for scoring drives and reduce the number of total third downs.
Even if the Cowboys decide to keep their gameplan in place, they have the option of adding little wrinkles to preexisting plays which could help in situations such as this.
Motion at the snap can change blocking angles for linemen, alter assignments in coverage, switch run fits for defenders, and create general confusion on young and/or newly assembled defensive units.
The Giants chemistry and communication would be put to the test by using frequent motion at the snap and it would also put Dallas skill players in position to chip block on their way up field.
On rushing plays it allows players to bump, seal, and get up field for second level blocks. For passing plays it allows temporary double-teams on the edge and route options soon thereafter.
Many teams with subpar pass protection have survived situations like the Cowboys are facing on Sunday night. The key to overcoming mismatches of this nature is to avoid situations that leave subpar players in ugly situations.
If the Cowboys have to replace either their LG or LT on Sunday, they can’t expect Prescott to be able to stand in the pocket as long as he would have been able to with the starters.
It’s not just “next man up.” It’s also “next gameplan up.”
Prescott needs fast developing routes he can target quickly. He has to accept the fact waiting for the big play to develop may invite trouble and dinking and dunking may be the best way to survive.
As discussed all week, the Giants blitz as much as anyone in the NFL and will be champing at the bit to tee off on an overmatched Dallas line. Identifying hot routes (aka emergency pop passes) pre-snap, is a good way to survive and counterattack such blitzes.
With any luck, the Cowboys will have both Tyron Smith and Tyler Smith playing and playing well on Sunday, so this entire discussion is moot. But in case one or both can’t go, there are ways for Dallas survive.