IRVING, Texas –The Cowboys went almost all of training camp without their entire line playing together, then had a brand new center thrown into the fire early in the first quarter of the season opener at New York.
With all that working against them, they still managed to pave the way for a 130-yard rusher and a 300-yard passer. Despite a slew of pre-snap penalties, attributable in large part to a pumped-up MetLife Stadium crowd, they only allowed two sacks against the Giants' outstanding pass rush. Get the false starts fixed, and there would be no looking back for the line, it seemed. Well, not so fast, it's turned out.
The line has been perhaps the biggest reason for the struggles of the offense over the past two weeks. The Cowboys have scored only 23 combined points against the Seahawks and Buccaneers, rushed for just 87 yards in the two games and have left Tony Romo either running for his life or being drilled in the pocket.
Different faces than last year have filled all five positions, but over the last two weeks, the rebuilt line is looking like one that needs to be … re-rebuilt.
"There's no question," line coach and offensive coordinator Bill Callahan said. "I'm not going to sugarcoat this. We're not playing well right now. But, there're a lot of individual plays on the film that give you great hope because you see guys playing with effort, you see guys playing hard.
"I think we're not far. We're really not that far. We've got a clear-cut identity. We know who we are; we know what we want to be. It hasn't manifested itself yet, but it certainly can if we do the things we need to do to get it fixed."
Encouraging for Callahan has been the observation that the line's problems have been the result of individual technique mistakes or communication breakdowns, not utter dominance on the part of the defensive front as a whole. In any event, the performance hasn't been good enough, not only in pass protection and run blocking, put in the overabundance of pre-snap penalties.
The Cowboys had five false start flags playing at New York in Week 1, then just one in one of the league's loudest road venues, at Seattle, but regressed at home against Tampa Bay in Week 3, committing six. Tyron Smith leads the league in false starts with five, while Doug Free is tied for second with four. Tight end Jason Witten isn't far behind, with three. Callahan explained that the issue on Sunday involved changes to the cadence from week to week. Apart from focus before the snap, organization was an issue for the offense as a whole, which led not only to penalties, but to assignment miscues.
"I think a couple times we kind of got limited on the play clock," center Ryan Cook said, "so it kind of sped some things up and we had to make some protection adjustments here and there. It's something we addressed in the film session, and we'll get it fixed and continue to get better at it."
As a result of the line's protection issues, Romo was brutalized by the Buccaneers, sacked four times and hit four more.
"We've got to do a better job keeping Tony clean," Callahan said. "Those were some hellacious hits. There's nobody that takes more pride in protecting the passer than this group of guys, so they're hurt."
The running game, which Callahan also coordinates, has been sluggish the last couple weeks as well. With the Cowboys unable to consistently execute in the passing game, teams have loaded up the box to make things difficult for DeMarco Murray, who was tackled for a loss seven times against the Buccaneers, the most he or Callahan can remember. The deficiency of the running game has been due to poor blocking by the line, in large part, but fullback Lawrence Vickers has been less than perfect, and Murray acknowledges he could've been better against Tampa Bay, too.
"There were some times where I should have stretched it and I cut up too early," Murray said. 'It works hand in hand, me and the offensive line. We'll get on the same page this week and we'll get things back rolling."
While the Cowboys have changed some schematics in their first year under Callahan, who took over from Hudson Houck, the new line coach doesn't doubt a system that has worked for him a long time.
"I've sent four kids to college on that zone running game," Callahan said. "It's paid a lot of tuition, it's paid a lot of bills in my family, so I'm really confident about it."
The coach feels just as good about his front five, but acknowledges their task won't be easy moving forward, beginning with Monday's game, when they'll meet a solid pass rush fronted by one of the best defensive ends in the game, Julius Peppers.
" We think we've got it corrected, so we'll see," Callahan said. "Talk is cheap. We've got to go out there Monday and show people that we've got it right."