Morning After: Developments on the Offensive Line in Canton
I am always up for over-analyzing something that might not require over-analyzing, but I will attempt to slow my roll given that it is a preseason game that preceded all other preseason games by a full week.
In other words, it is really early, folks.
However, entering training camp, there are two departments on this team that needed to prove that they were better than they have been in the recent past. Safeties and offensive line. Player availability and opposition efforts preclude us from reading too much into the safety play - other than JJ Wilcox is an impressive physical presence and that Matt Johnson remains a durability concern (to say the very, very least). Other than that, I think we must wait a week or two before we talk much on the safeties based on preseason game work. However, you can already see that they need plenty of work getting the proper depth so they don't play too shallow and risk plays over the top, but also not too deep leaving very easy 20 yard gains on digs that are beyond the linebackers and in a huge gulf short of the too deep, 2 deep safeties.
But, offensive line? Well, that is where I spent most of my Sunday night and Monday morning on analyzing a few spots in particular.
First, some brief background - because if you need more than brief, I would encourage you to read the archives of this blog as I have spent somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 words documenting the issues of the offense in general and the offensive line in specific on why this unit on the team controls pretty much everything (regardless of what the NFL Network or ESPN try to put on the Quarterback).
In 2010, the offensive line was very poor and needed a change in many regards if they were ever going to run the football effectively. They did change, and for a while, we were left to believe that undersized kids like Phil Costa and Bill Nagy, and retreads like Montrae Holland and Tony Fiammetta made all of the difference in the world in 2011. However, by the end, they were exposed by the Giants (among others) and they knew that to get better in 2012, it would have to start with the OL. But, in 2012, the "upgrades" were actually discards from other teams looking to get their own upgrades (Bengals and Panthers) and before long we saw that change doesn't always mean improvement. For most of 2012, they couldn't run a normal, balanced offense. It was actually worse than 2011 in many respects, and 2011 was at times, worse than 2010. They had 3 drastically different OL ideas in 3 consecutive seasons, but for the most part, they were limited by the negative play of the OL all 3 seasons. Change never helped.
So, there you have a brief history of the achilles heel of Jason Garrett, Tony Romo, and pretty much the entire Cowboys offense since they last played in the post-season.
And that brings us to preseason 2013.
If you are not familiar with my training camp policies, it is basically to not read too much into practices in Oxnard for decision making. I know many of my media colleagues disagree with this (based on the daily updates on who is winning the starting job at guard based on a Tuesday practice) but I like to treat practices and walk throughs like someone studying for their tests in college. It is great that you studied well, son, but we are only interested if you can answer the test questions when we give you the test. Playing at practice speed should prepare you for game speed, but practicing against other Cowboys doesn't help me very much. I like to see them trying to deal with what another team is running out there and against players that don't know all of your tricks (or you, theirs) and therefore it seems like a more fair fight and something that should actually matter.
With that in mind, Sunday night in Canton was our first look at the 3 interior spots which to varying levels, all seem like open spots in the starting lineup and on the roster.
Here is what I saw:
RONALD LEARY - Let's start with the exciting news. Consistent with those practice reports, we are seeing Leary look like a guy who is ready to contribute in this league at a reasonably high level. And by that, it is fair to see him in the mix as a starter at left guard - especially if these whispers of Nate Livings knee issues are correct. In many regards, he is very similar to Livings, which means he is strong at the point of attack, and big enough that you aren't going to go past him in pass rushing very often. Unlike Livings, Leary actually looks comfortable on the move and getting to the 2nd level to dig guys out and they certainly enjoy pulling him on some "G Power" plays to the right. He played a ton and I saw almost nothing that bothered me at all about his performance. He looks way better than he did technique-wise in 2012. Long ways to go, but they have to be very happy about what he has shown so far.
TRAVIS FREDERICK - They played him for most of the 1st half at center and then most of the 2nd half at guard. I thought his center play was terrific, where he is basically directing traffic well and then handling his own business with ease. He is just a really strong center (especially when compared with the Cowboys other option at center, Phil Costa) who seems to know where he is going and what he is doing already - a skill not to be overlooked for a rookie. When they moved him to guard, he struggled a bit more and at times looked so/so. It appears he is of average strength for a guard. I can see that they are hoping that he could be the solution at right guard, but I think that might weaken them at both center and right guard. Play him at his best position and figure the rest out around him, in my opinion. Of course, his true test at center is going to be shotgun offense with live ammo and Romo changing a play, but so far, so good.
DAVID ARKIN - This is Arkin's 3rd year and he is still hoping to take his first NFL snap, but it does appear that he is noticeably better. However, the projections that say he is ready to play 70 snaps in a game seem absurd to me, as he again really struggles when a DL threat is lined up on his head. When uncovered, he has great feet and mobility, but when he is challenged off the snap, his strength issues come to the front quite quickly. On those zone stretch plays, if you have a lineman who cannot hold his line, he can get pushed back into the path of the RB which leads to a tackle for loss most times. Arkin is guilty of this a few times against the Dolphins and it wasn't like Miami had their 1s out against him very much. I think he might be a reserve option, but this starting idea is not close for me. Let's see his work for a few more weeks.
PHIL COSTA - Like Arkin, the issue with Costa has always been strength for me. In 2011, he was comically over-matched against the premium nose tackles and interior men in the league and then missed 2012 almost entirely with back issues which never seem to be the recipe for getting stronger. He replaced Frederick late in the 2nd Quarter at center and played the rest of the way and was fine in most situations, but there were about 3 different times where he was fork lifted backwards beyond the rest of the line which seems to indicate that he is still getting pushed around at the point of attack. This can be hid a bit better than Arkin because if Costa is at center, then you have 2 strong guards protecting him, but I still don't like the idea of him at center with Frederick available. And Arkin or Costa at guard is just not idea with your intentions to establish run and play-action passing in 2013.
Beyond that, they were surrounded by tackles that really are not candidates to make the team for most of the night, but the running game did well and there was very little inside pass protecting issues.
Overall, just seeing Leary and Frederick out there shows you that they have way better options than they have had from the youth ranks, and assuming that Livings and Bernadeau will be able to compete soon make you think that they are going to have a chance to be better.
There are 4 more preseason games to continue to work these guys and health issues can emerge at any moment, but I left the Hall of Fame Game night with some better feelings about this pivotal position on the roster that will really affect the potential of the 2013 Cowboys.