Why the Dallas Cowboys’ offensive line is so dominant

The Cowboys' O-line made a rough crew of running backs look good in 2015—Mike Renner gives the unit its due.

| 5 months ago
(Brian Bahr/Getty Images)

(Brian Bahr/Getty Images)

Why the Dallas Cowboys’ offensive line is so dominant

[Editor’s note: This is the first installment in Senior Analyst Mike Renner’sTeaching Tape” article series, which takes a look at the best positional units across the NFL.]

It’s early in the first quarter of the Cowboys’ Week 3 matchup against the Falcons—the first game of many without Tony Romo starting under center. Atlanta came in knowing Dallas wouldn’t be able to win the game through the air, but so far it hasn’t mattered. Running back Joseph Randle broke off runs of 28 yards and 37 yards on the Cowboys’ three-play scoring drive to start the game, both coming against eight-man boxes. With 11:09 remaining in the first, Randle receives his third handoff, and the gamebook reads the following:


Unfortunately, not a single name is mentioned besides Randle’s, who had the easiest job on the entire play—run in a straight line. What the gamebook doesn’t tell you is that every block on the front side of the play was executed to absolute perfection.

This is the Cowboys’ offensive line. It’s a unit that blocked for castoff running backs and quarterbacks the majority of last season, yet still came away as PFF’s highest-graded pass-blocking and run-blocking line. Unlike some recent top offensive lines—like the 2012 San Francisco 49ers and the 2013 Philadelphia Eagles—the Cowboys aren’t doing it with anything innovative or different. They simply execute far better than any other team in the league.

It starts with not having any weaknesses along the offensive line. La’el Collins was their lowest-graded starter, and he still ranked only 43rd out of 66 starting guards last season. They combine that high floor with freakish top-tier talent. Everyone knows about left tackle Tyron Smith’s dominance. Our highest-graded tackle last season, he can move like a tight end. Watch Smith chase down a 3-technique here on the backside of the play and bring him to his knees.


Then you have center Travis Frederick, the second-highest-graded player at his position this past season after being the highest-graded the year before. He’s probably the quickest center off the snap of the ball and definitely the best reach-blocking center in the NFL. A poor block from the center can blow up a run quicker than any other position, and Dallas doesn’t need to worry about that with Frederick in the middle.


With no weak links in pass protection, they’re a well-oiled machine. No one embodies that more than right guard Zack Martin. He was a left tackle at Notre Dame, and there’s no reason that, with his abilities, he couldn’t be the Cowboys’ right tackle of the future once Doug Free retires. If Green Bay’s Josh Sitton is “1a” for pass-protecting guards in the NFL, then Martin is “1b.” In 1,010 pass-blocking snaps his first two seasons, Martin only gave up 27 pressures. How often do you see a six-man pressure (and a linebacker-defensive tackle stunt) picked up so flawlessly?


Their effectiveness as a whole comes from keeping it simple. Let’s start with the outside zone run, one that every single team in the NFL has in their playbook. This is the Cowboys’ bread-and-butter play, one that they ran on 47.7 percent of their handoffs a year ago—the fifth-highest rate in the NFL. The beauty of the run is that any single dominant block from an offensive lineman can result in a big run.

If you could boil down the goal of offensive linemen on outside zone runs to one word, it would be control. The line isn’t trying to take defenders off the ball (although that’s a plus) as much as they are trying to overtake gaps, create horizontal space, and make sure defenders can’t separate laterally to finish tackles. The responsibilities will differ playside (where ideally they create width) to backside (where ideally they cut off), but both ultimately want to “lock in” on their respective defenders. It puts a ton of stress on the defense, because they have to maintain gap control while sprinting sideways. If a defender gets reached or cut out of his respective gap, and the running back is able to find it, then there will be a crease to the second level.

The key, though, is the running back reading it correctly and concisely. Any hesitation or delay in the backfield can spell disaster for the play. Once a decision is made by the running back, he needs to make one cut and get upfield. On the play below, the initial read is the edge man on the line of scrimmage. The left tackle/guard combo wants to make that a quick read and take the defender fully whichever way they can. Since the defensive end dives inside to take the B-gap, the left guard, Ronald Leary, continues to take him inside. Leary seals the end all the way into the A-gap, meaning the defense has lost gap control. Because of that, and a perfectly-executed lead block from fullback Tyler Clutts, Darren McFadden has acres of green grass to work with. What the running game was missing from the year before was the guy who could make DeAngelo Hall miss there and turn it into a huge gain.


The interesting dichotomy of the Cowboys’ running scheme is that their second-most-utilized run concept is nothing like outside zone. It’s also the simplest of run plays: the blast. It’s characterized by hard, straightforward double teams on the interior players, with single blocking on the edge. The offensive linemen on the double-teams each eye a linebacker, and if they do start coming downhill, the lineman peels off to seal. It’s far from a home-run threat. Only three of their 60 attempts went for 10-plus yards, but at the same time, it’s also a consistent line-of-scrimmage mover, with only two such plays going for negative yardage.

The goal of the play is simple: walk the defensive tackles backward into the linebackers. That essentially puts the linebackers on an island where they can’t commit to a gap. The one thing it does have in common with outside zone, though, is there is no set path for the running back. He’ll have to read where the blocking wins and where the linebackers fill, and then chose the ideal gap.


As you can see in the above run, the running back can make a well-blocked play look worse than it is. McFadden cuts completely across the leverage of Smith and Frederick, even though every lineman is locked in on their blocks.

The more I reviewed the Cowboys’ 2015 performance, the more I understood why they were willing to eschew conventional wisdom by taking a running back—Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott—in the top five of the draft. They gave their backs a clean run to the safety-level far too often to only average 4.7 yards per carry as a team. Getting a running back who combines vision with elusiveness and power will be a huge boon for the Cowboys’ offense. The scary thing is that, with four starters at 25 years of age or younger, the unit could realistically be even better in 2016.

| Senior Analyst

Mike is a Senior Analyst at Pro Football Focus. His work has also been featured on The Washington Post, ESPN Insider, and 120 Sports.

  • crosseyedlemon

    I know that the PFF staff have already awarded Elliot rookie of the year honors but if the Cowboys defense can’t keep games close won’t Zeke be a non factor in the 4th quarter of games no matter how well the OL plays?

    P.S. 5 videos and no glitches….can that really be possible?

    • Frank Yi

      Todd Gurley won Offensive RoY last season, and it’s hard to say how much of an impact he really made with the Rams. At the end of the season, the committee will only end up at looking at the aggregate season stats. So, with this offensive line, Elliott could end up with 1,200 yards (250 carries @ 5 YPA = 1250) and 10+ TDs, even though the Cowboys could end up with a negative point differential. And he’s a solid pass catcher (92.9% catch rate in 2015), so he could contribute another 400 yards there. 1600+ yards makes him a solid RoY candidate no matter his impact on wins

      • crosseyedlemon

        Your speaking about the NFL selection committee and I agree they won’t look beyond gross numbers. PFF on the other hand are suppose to do a more thorough analysis. I don’t see Elliot being nearly as productive as you suggest – a 4 YPA is more realistic – and we will have to see how he grades out in other areas.

        • Majick

          McFadden just had 4.6 YPA, and he was a 28 year old washed up back, who awful in using what the Offensive line gave him. So awful, the team had to entirely change their blocking scheme mid-season to make McFadden work.

          Elliot is a prototypical Zone Runner. 4.7 YPA is not asking for anything, Rookie or not. Rookie Zone Runners typically have high YPAs anyway… see Shanahan, Mike.

    • Hawgfan100

      “… but if the Cowboys defense can’t keep games close won’t Zeke be a non factor in the 4th quarter of games no matter how well the OL plays?”

      It’s what the offense does earlier in the game which will greatly help the defense ‘keep games close’ and Elliot will play a large part in that then as well as later in the game.

      See this bit of excellent analysis by Bob Sturm to get a terrific illustration of what I mean:


      • crosseyedlemon

        I’m not saying Elliot couldn’t be rookie of the year but he’s not the lock PFF would have you think. PFF are obviously assuming Romo won’t rebound and that Elliot is now the catalyst to success for Dallas but I think Romo could very well be a candidate for comeback player of the year. If the Cowboys QB situation remains as dire as last year then the team has no choice but to put all the load on Elliot but opposing defenses will overload against him making it difficult for him to bang of runs at a 5 yard clip.

        • Sean Essary

          I don’t know about that. Tony Romo had a close to MVP caliber season when Demarco Murray was the Offensive Player of the Year. Having Romo play well will only help Elliot because defenses can’t routinely stack the box and not respect the pass like they were able to this past year.

    • Majick

      Why are we pretending like the Cowboys defense was being blown out routinely? They lost 6 one possession games, and it was really offensive failures that lead to losses to the Falcons and Redskins. No, they’re not a particularly good unit, they don’t force nearly enough turnovers (hell, a lot of that was pure bad luck, 3 fumble recoveries is an anomaly, and no real skill goes into forcing or recovering fumbles) and the pass rush is suspect… but the unit was an average 16th in Points allowed last year (23.4 a game), and they did make small improvements. Rod Marinelli will make any defense at least play disciplined enough to force enough key 3 and outs.

      And Dallas will run the football, even if they’re down 21 points. They did against the Rams in 2014, and they ended up winning the game because of it.

  • Mikel

    I still don’t understand why they didn’t even attempt to get Lamar Miller or Doug Martin, considering they would be paid the same as Elliott. Or Paul Perkins, etc in the draft. They got their running back, but could have had similar results and still improved the defense.

    • bud914

      no it would not be similar results.

    • Tiago Azevedo

      EzE is better in pass protection, is a great route runner and catcher, is a great ZBS running back and he is much younger than said players. EzE is a great pick to grow with this line!

      • carrie2514

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    • crosseyedlemon

      They correctly concluded that going after Martin would be a waste of time as the Buc were certain to put the tag on him.

      • codered5

        I’m confused. The bucs didn’t tag martin. He made it to free agency and was up for bids. The Cowboys could have paid him and saved the pick.

        • Fred Kruse

          How is their cap situation?

    • Majick

      Actually, no, Elliot will be payed about half of what they make.

    • Brian

      Bc miller and Martin have both been in the league several years and are older thus having more wear and tear. Plus elliot has a higher ceiling than both.

  • Daniel

    Love this kind of in-depth analysis, awesome stuff Mike!

  • mrman215

    funny how this team has the “best” offensive line and cant keep there quarterback healthy for the last 4 YEARS. funny how this is the “best” offensive line and they was a bottom feeder in the nfc east. excuses for this piss poor of a team.

    • Snarkasterous1

      There’s thoughtful, fact-based, insightful, balanced commentary…..

      ….alternatively, there’s your post.

      And it’s “their.”

      Run along now……

      • mrman215

        fact is, they’re not the best line. and thank you for the grammar lesson. It was well worth it for you

        • Snarkasterous1

          Thanks for sharing – always fascinating to hear (or “here,” as you’d say) from the ignorant.

          Run along now……

          • mrman215

            yikes….stop the presses!! You won 1….1…..let me say it again……1 playoff game in years. those cowbitches, cant do anything right. and again did romo stay healthy…..nope. that line is the most overrated line since…..well since dallas.
            and by the way….dallas was 8-8 in 2013 and 12-4 in 2014. instead of you being that annoying English teacher who is the weirdo, learn your facts fuckboy

          • Snarkasterous1

            In other words, you’re (or “your” as the uneducated, like you, say) wrong about the “…last Four Years.”

            Are you ever right, about anything at all?

          • mrman215

            you refuse to take the loss. you have nothing else to do but hope I slip on words lol. pathetic keyboard person you are

          • Snarkasterous1

            Pro Football Focus documents, in detail, why the Cowboys’ OL is dominant.

            You, semi literate babbler, make ignorant, patently untrue, imbecilic statements (e.g., “last FOUR years”)

            Look, bozo – if ever you complete that GED which has had you stymied for years, be sure to make that known.

            Until then, I’ll simply enjoy warching that dominant Cowboys’ OL, as well enjoying the way I’ve made an utter fool of you.

            P.S. Hope your pubescent acne clears up soon!

          • mrman215

            you think your intelligent cause you say words that aren’t commonly used. I know cowards like you. they like to act like they’re smart, but deep down, they are lonely and have no life. that’s you! your the type of white boy who is so quiet in person, people think your a pure weirdo! but anyway…..the last 4 years of pathetic dallas….has gotten them no where. they had a fluky 2014 season, but followed up with a horrific 2015 season. but you wanna know how mediocre this team is…..they’re consistently a .500 team…..in the last 4 years. matter of fact they been the same team since 97.

          • Snarkasterous1


            Uncommon words like “you’re.”

            Is it your pathetic uncertainty about your (not you’re) masculinity that led to your (again, NOT you’re) embarrassing screen name?

            Still hoping that at some point in the future, others will perceive you to be a man?

            Don’t hold your breath (NOT “breathe.”)

            LOL at you, semi literate pimple faced teen that you are.

          • mrman215

            lol. you have nothing to say anymore. it hurts you so bad that you have to go off topic.

          • Snarkasterous1

            You, on the other hand, NEVER had anything to say.

            And it’s “….hurts so badly,” illiterate boy.

          • mrman215

            lol! Hey fuck boy…..get the fuck off this sports site. Your boring me now! Learn about sports first!

          • Snarkasterous1

            It’s “you’re” boring…..

            Clearly, you’re (not “your”) incapable of constructing a single sentence without errors.

            Illiterate boy.

            That’s OK, though. People like you are needed for the menial tasks.

            Want to make $10? I’ll let you mow my lawn….

          • mrman215

            yea I can tell you are a white terrorist

          • Snarkasterous1

            It’s spelled “yeah.”

            Apparently, you’re (not your) too dumb to cut my grass.

            Offer rescinded.

          • mrman215

            see you didn’t deny the white terrorist

          • mrman215

            stop being a damn molester too. you fucking creep. you probably have dad jeans on, with your dad sneakers, looking at little kids

          • Snarkasterous1

            Warning – I’m going to use what you doubtless consider “one of those big words.”

            You’re (not your) projecting.

            Run along, child. I’ve decided not to hire you to mow my lawn, so you’ll need find other menial labor.

          • mrman215

            now I get it…your a trump flunky lol. figured!!!!!

          • Snarkasterous1

            “You’re” – you imbecile.

            Sad that you’ve demonstrated not only your illiteracy, but also your (not “you’re”) utter inability to learn.

            You may be the most ignorant pimple faced teenage clown on the entire internet.

          • mrman215

            shut up bigot

          • Snarkasterous1


            Your (not “you’re”) very first post without errors.

            Of course, I’m giving you a pass on capitalization and punctuation – just as I would any other individual with the third grade education you possess.

            Well done, illiterate boy!

          • mrman215

            hey bigot…..

  • jasonp

    With Zeke Elliott, do you even need a QB anymore?