One of the more beautiful aspects of football is the uncertainty. Who saw the Dolphins starting 3-0? Or the Broncos ranking 31st in points after trading for Russell Wilson? Or the Eagles’ Jalen Hurts becoming an early top-three betting favorite for league MVP?
The Cowboys have already experienced their fair share of surprises. Cooper Rush is 2-0 after stepping in for the injured Dak Prescott, and Brett Maher has been a reliable kicker. But possibly the biggest surprise of the early season has been the performance of the offensive line.
Let’s turn back the clock a couple of weeks, when the line was dismantled by the Buccaneers. The front five allowed the sixth-most quarterback pressures in the league that week and provided no room for Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard to run, as the Cowboys mustered only 3.9 yards per rush. And Prescott was injured when he banged the thumb on his throwing hand on a Bucs defender.
The line was serviceable in 2021, but Dallas finished 10th in rushing yards per attempt and Prescott faced the sixth-most pressures in the league. The Cowboys used their first-round draft pick on Tyler Smith, but they also released La’el Collins and let Connor Williams walk in free agency. Despite the injury history of left tackle Tyron Smith, they did little else to address their issues up front. And then Smith went down with a potential season-ending leg injury during a late-August practice.
Given what transpired in the opener and that Matt Farniok was making his first NFL start, things didn’t expect to improve much in Week 2 against the Bengals, who, according to PFF, have the fourth-best pass-rushing defense in the league. Yet aside from Farniok, the Dallas front allowed just three quarterback pressures and no sacks. Tyler Smith, Zack Martin, and Terence Steele finished in the top 30 of PFF grading.
It was more of the same in the Monday night win over the Giants. Free-agent pickup Jason Peters was active for the first time, splitting duties at left guard with Farniok, and the Cowboys allowed no sacks and only four quarterback pressures while paving the way for Elliott and Pollard to rip off 178 rushing yards and average 6.3 yards per carry. They did this against a defensive line that a week earlier sacked the Panthers’ Baker Mayfield twice and pressured him 15 times.
So how is the line doing all of this? Over the past two weeks, Rush has faced the fifth-fewest number of quarterback pressures. But this is more of a result of him having the second-fastest time from snap to release. Only Tom Brady is getting the ball out quicker. In fact, the Cowboys are last in the league in pass-block win rate, a metric that measures how frequently a line maintains its blocks for at least 2.5 seconds, at 44 percent.
Steele is the only lineman who has improved from week to week against the pass rush, according to PFF grading. Farniok showed improvement against the Giants, but the 40-year-old Peters, a six-time All-Pro selection who played 14 snaps, figures to get more time as he rounds into shape.
The positive in all this has been the production of the ground game. Even after running for just 71 yards against the Bucs, Dallas is tied for 10th in rushing yards per attempt and is 11th in rushing yards per game. Expect offensive coordinator Kellen Moore to continue to lean on Elliott and Pollard. Tyler Smith is the best run-blocking lineman on the roster based on PFF grading, and the Cowboys lead the NFL in run-block win rate. They have made these strides even as Martin has uncharacteristically struggled in the run game.
This should come as good news for Cowboys fans. In the short term, if Dallas expects to continue winning games without Prescott, it will have to rely on Elliott and Pollard. Rush has played surprisingly well. But he still doesn’t rank in the top 15 in PFF grading, yards per attempt, or EPA per play, a metric that measures efficiency. The line is helping to take pressure off of Rush by clearing lanes for the running backs.
This is how the Cowboys used to roll. From 2014 to ’19, they were the second-best team in rushing efficiency. Over those six years, DeMarco Murray, Darren McFadden, and Elliott tore off 10-yard runs at will, which in turn increased the efficiency of the passing game. But over the last two seasons, the rushing efficiency fell to 17th in the league. Prescott had to win games through the air. If the Cowboys can replicate something close to their rushing efficiency from years past, Moore can open up the playbook, Prescott will not have to throw 38 times a game as he did in 2021, and defenses will have to key on stopping Elliott and Pollard.
At the very least, the Cowboys should have options along the line. Peters’ snap count figures to increase, and Connor McGovern will return at some point after suffering a high ankle sprain in Week 1. Farniok, a seventh-round draft pick in 2021, has improved with playing time. Smith has been excellent in run blocking and a pleasant surprise while protecting Rush’s blind side. Steele and center Tyler Biadasz are youngsters who should continue to develop. Martin is Martin.
And although questions remain, things are nowhere near as dire as they appeared a couple of weeks ago. In fact, the offensive line is a big reason why the Cowboys are 2-1. Who saw that coming?