The Cowboys won a game in agonizing fashion against their in-state AFC counterpart Texans on Sunday. Houston, deep into full tank mode, took the lead into the 11th hour before Ezekiel Elliott scored the go-ahead touchdown in the final minute, allowing Cowboys fans to breathe a collective sigh of relief. Unfortunately, the victory was dampened by the news on Monday that right tackle Terence Steele was done for the year with a torn ACL.
It’s a huge blow to the Cowboys, and there’s one number that sums up why that is: 73.9.
That is Steele’s full-season blocking grade, according to Pro Football Focus. It’s the highest grade for any Cowboys lineman this season and the 20th-best grade among starting tackles in the NFL. As everyone has marveled at the play of rookie left tackle Tyler Smith, Steele has quietly been a rock on the right side.
Steele was an undrafted free agent signed out of Texas Tech in 2020. He got his chance to start right away, filling in for another undrafted free agent, who would miss the 2020 season—La’el Collins. It was a big blow for Dallas, as Collins was coming off of a career year in 2019, and the bumps in the transition to Steele were visible. But the 25-year-old has shown marked improvement with each passing year.
The Cowboys stuck out Steele’s growing pains and ultimately believed enough in the young tackle to release Collins this offseason. It was a huge gamble, but it paid off: not only did the Joneses save a few million dollars in salary cap space, but they also kept the player who has been the better blocker in 2022.
Through Week 14, Collins has allowed four sacks in Cincinnati. Steele has allowed just one. His allowed pressure rate has been above average as well. That solid pass protection combined with his high-end run blocking was enough to put him at 15th in Marcus Mosher’s list of the top 25 tackles in the NFL just last week.
Here’s how Steele’s numbers compare to his peers around the NFL.
It’s evident that Steele hasn’t been merely a good run blocker—he has been an absolute menace. He showed it against the Texans, too. The first touchdown came on an 11-yard Tony Pollard run. If you watch closely, you can see Steele taking his defender all the way out of bounds on the right sideline while Pollard waltzes into the end zone.
That’s a 6-foot-6, 310-pound man moving that quickly, mind you.
The Dallas run game has been revived in 2022, and while Pollard’s explosiveness Pollard is certainly a big factor in that, don’t discount the mauling run blockers like Steele. The Cowboys run the ball against a stacked box (eight or more defenders) at the sixth-highest rate in the NFL, but they’re getting stuffed at the line at the eighth-lowest rate, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats. That’s what good run blocking like they’ve had from Terence Steele all year will get you.
Alas, Steele’s season is over, and Dallas now has to juggle its line again just as Tyron Smith approaches his return from knee surgery. . On Sunday, the Cowboys first turned to Josh Ball, a 2021 fourth-round draft pick out of Marshall. He allowed one sack and another pressure on only 12 pass-blocking snaps—with the pressure coming on the late fourth-quarter play that ended with Dak Prescott tossing his second interception of the day. The second, far more intriguing option is 40-year-old Jason Peters, the longtime Eagle.
Peters stepped in for the game-winning, 98-yard drive. He is undoubtedly a proven talent, but he comes with two major question marks.
First, he turns 41 next month. As one might expect, his blocking numbers have declined in recent seasons, but they’re still generally above average. Peters was signed early in the season and his snaps have been limited, which means he should be fresh as we approach the most critical time of the year.
The second question is that before Sunday, Peters hadn’t played on the right side in 15 years. (How long ago was that? The first Avatar movie had yet to be released.) And since 2007, 99 percent of his more than 10,000 snaps have come at left tackle, according to Pro Football Focus. Nobody, including Peters, knows how he will transition to the right side. The 12 snaps we saw against Houston were at least promising. If we do want to dig all the way back to 2006, his blocking grades at right tackle also were quite good.
But so much time has passed and so many variables are in play that it’s not out of the question that Peters falls flat when tasked with playing an entire game on the right side. That said, he has done it before, which is more than can be said for Ball. So why not do it again?
No matter who Dallas turns to, there’s no overlooking the fact that the Cowboys lost a crucial piece of their offense. Whoever replaces their highest-graded offensive lineman could factor significantly into how far this team goes. That probably won’t stop the Cowboys from missing Steele every step of the way.