'Boys have to sacrifice big plays for protection

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Editor's note: Yahoo! Sports will examine the biggest weakness of the 2009 season for every team and explain how the franchise can address the issue. The series continues with the Cowboys, who finished first in the NFC East (11-5).

Biggest problem in 2009: An aging offensive line that lacks experience

Tony Romo(notes) was sacked six times by the Vikings in the divisional playoffs
(Elsa/Getty Images)

That sounds like a contradiction, but the Dallas Cowboys' offensive line is indeed aging and lacking experience at the same time. The established players – center Andre Gurode(notes), guards Leonard Davis(notes) and Kyle Kosier(notes), and right tackle Marc Colombo(notes) – are all older than 30. The new guys – former swing tackle Doug Free(notes) and new prospective tackle Alex Barron(notes) – are younger, but both come into the 2010 season with question marks. Free has the team's confidence that he can replace Flozell Adams(notes) at left tackle, but that's one of the toughest positions to play on any team. And Barron needs to approach Adams' former level, without mirroring his love of penalties. Over the last five seasons, Barron is the NFL's most penalized player, with 75 flags. In 2009, Barron led the league with 14, just ahead of Adams' 13.

Dallas' line played well through the season, but concerns abound after the way the team's season ended. In a 34-3 demolition at the hands of the Minnesota Vikings in the divisional round, Tony Romo was sacked six times, fumbled three times and suffered 10 hits. He was under siege from his first throw, play-action was impossible and any delay after his initial dropback led to pain. Things got worse when Adams left halfway through the second quarter with a right calf strain. He was replaced with Free at left tackle, who helped give up a sack to end Jared Allen(notes) on his second play. The Cowboys had been lining up their tight ends to help against Allen when Adams was in the game, but it looked as if Free took the wrong angle on Romo's second sack/fumble combo of the day.

Play diagram
Play diagram

Figure 1

With 6:37 left in the first half and the Vikings up, 14-3, the Cowboys lined up in shotgun at their own 28-yard line (Fig. 1). Dallas lined tight end Jason Witten(notes) (No. 82) up outside Free (No. 68), but the best-laid plans tend to go awry against Allen (No. 69). Free blocked inside with left guard Kyle Kosier on defensive tackle Jimmy Kennedy(notes), leaving Witten to block Allen alone. And as any overwhelmed left tackle in the NFL will tell you, single-teaming Allen with a tight end is the same as putting a "Sack Me" sign on your quarterback. Allen raced around Witten and strip-sacked Romo. Weak-side linebacker Ben Leber(notes) (No. 51) recovered the fumble. Free isn't always going to blow assignments like that (at least we hope the idea wasn't to single-team Allen and focus on a reserve defensive tackle), but if he's going to start at the line's toughest position, the Cowboys would do well to give him some help.

The 2010 solution: Add blockers beyond five

According to Football Outsiders, few offenses were more efficient than Dallas' with two tight ends on the field. Overall, the 2009 Cowboys averaged a league-leading 6.3 yards per play on 361 plays with two tight ends on the field, and ranked third (24.5 percent) in FO's DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) metric behind the Dolphins and Patriots. Witten, though he'll also line up in the slot, is a good blocking tight end as is Martellus Bennett(notes). One play in the Cowboys' Week 5 win overtime win over the Chiefs indicated how the team has been able to use seven blockers to counteract blitzes. The Chiefs obviously don't have Minnesota's front four, but end Tamba Hali(notes) is one of the best in the business.

Play diagram
Play diagram

Figure 2

With 14:28 left in the fourth quarter and the Chiefs up 13-10, the Cowboys had the ball at their own 40. Dallas lined up in a similar shotgun set to the first diagrammed play, with Witten lined up in the flex and Bennett (No. 80) outside Adams on the left edge (Fig. 2). At the snap, right end Alex Magee(notes) (No. 71) charged outside, where Bennett picked him up while Adams dealt with right outside linebacker Mike Vrabel(notes) (No. 50). Halfback Marion Barber(notes) stepped up to take on anyone who leaked through, and this gave Romo the time needed to wait for receiver Miles Austin(notes) (No. 19) to run a long sideline route over cornerback Brandon Carr(notes). Romo hit Austin for a 34-yard completion, which was just one of several huge plays for the duo – Austin caught 15 balls for 250 yards and two touchdowns in the game.

Of course, if the Cowboys commit more blockers at the line, it will take away the big-play opportunities that come from overwhelming secondaries with multiple receivers and route combinations. But it's also impossible for a quarterback to complete a pass when he's busy pulling turf out of his facemask after being smashed by a rusher. In the short term, the Cowboys need to consider sacrificing dynamism for protection.

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