FRISCO, Texas – Offensive line, front and center.
Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of the Dallas Cowboys, and this Sunday, 3:25 p.m., AT&T Stadium, that especially means you guys. Every one of yah.
Doug Free. Travis Frederick. Ron Leary. Zack Martin. Chaz Green, if you can. And especially you Tyron Smith, despite those troubling back spasms causing you to miss the past two games. Man if you can, that would be fantastic.
See, here is the deal. Yep, the Cowboys have won the past two games with a beat-up offensive line. Smith out. La'el Collins now out, maybe for good, having gutted out the Chicago game with what turned out to be a torn ligament in his right big toe that required potentially season-ending surgery this week. Then Green, the backup swing tackle playing for Smith. He suffered a sprained ankle/foot early in the San Francisco game, yet he, too, gutted through to the finish. He's been walking around all week in the biggest protective boot you've ever seen. Says he is determined to play, yet hasn't practiced all week. Admire his courage, but they don't let 'em play with one of those big, clunking things on.
But the Cowboys aren't facing the 1-4 Niners on Sunday. They aren't playing the 1-3 Chicago Bears on Sunday.
These are the Cincinnati Bengals, and granted they are but 2-2. And granted they don't score a lot of points – 23, 16, 17 and 22 so far, coming to 19.5 points per game. That's even with quarterback Andy Dalton averaging 308.5 yards passing a game, the majority (468) to wide receiver supreme A.J. Green, the NFL's leader in receptions with 32.
And granted that defense hasn't exactly been The Great Wall of Ohio or something. Denver put 28 on them. Pittsburgh 24. Even the now discombobulated Jets offense put 22 on them. That was nearly 25 points a game until the meekly Dolphins could only manage seven.
But it's that veteran defensive front that catches your attention: seven-year veteran end Carlos Dunlop; 11-year veteran tackle Domata Peko; seven-year veteran tackle Geno Atkins; eight-year veteran end Michael Johnson. And those linebackers – Karlos Dansby, Rey Maualuga and the return of Vontaze Burfict – compound the difficulty.
"Getting the ball in the end zone on these guys is hard to do," admits Cowboys offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, leading a group now averaging 25.25 points a game.
Yards are difficult to come against these guys, 322.8 per, ranked ninth in the NFL. So are third-down conversions, 36.5 percent, ranked 11th. And no one has been able to run the ball into the end zone on the Bengals, either.
"They're certainly a physical team, and they pride themselves on that throughout their team" says Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett. "They're very good on their defensive line, their front seven is outstanding, and that's the style of defense they want to play.
"They believe in their guys, and they believe in a very physical style of play."
The Bengals are physical for sure, and their numbers reflect their style, but not they're all not necessarily great numbers. Look at what Denver did at Cincinnati in its 29-17 victory. First-time starting quarterback Trevor Siemian threw for 312 yards and four touchdowns. And Pittsburgh totaled 374 yards, 124 rushing, and 24 points.
The Cowboys only need look up the degree of difficulty the last time the two teams played. An amazing 20-19 Dallas win after the emotional gut-punch of the fatal car crash early in the morning before they left for Cincinnati, when Josh Brent lost control of his car and teammate Jerry Brown in the passenger seat failing to survive the crash. The Cowboys only managed 288 totals yards in that game. They only ran for 49. And that was with Tony and Dez and DeMo playing.
They won't be playing this time. This will be the Dak and Zeke Show. This will be the Terrance, Brice, Cole and Witten Show.
But here is what needs to be the difference in this game. This Cowboys offensive line – and with Tyron, assuming the big guy makes it – is so, so much better than the one that started in 2012 against five-sevenths of the Bengals' current front: Smith, Nate Livings, Ryan Cook, Mackenzy Bernadeau and Doug Free, only two-fifths of this current front.
Those inside guys now, Leary, Frederick, Martin, are light years better than them others. Go ask San Francisco, where the Cowboys O-Line led this team to 428 total yards, including 187 rushing, hogging the ball for 36 minutes, 27 seconds. Go ask Romo. Heck, go ask Dak, and he doesn't even know who those other three guys were.
But he darn well knows those five protecting him now.
"I don't know if I can say enough good things, give them enough compliments, just how great they've been protecting, just being nasty, keeping guys off of me, opening holes for Zeke," Prescott says. "They are really the strength of this offense."
So does Garrett, who had a direct hand in rebuilding this unit, starting with drafting Smith with their first-round pick in 2011.
"It starts with the guys. You know Tyron Smith, just an outstanding person, more than anything else. Doesn't say a whole lot to anybody. He comes to work every day; he sets the standard. He was the first guy here of the group we drafted, and Doug was already in place" Garrett says. "But the leadership from those two guys at tackle, the longest-tenured guys, has been outstanding.
"Then when you add guys like Travis and Zack, guys who that's what they're all about. They're about football, they're about professionalism, they're about living up to that standard each and every day. Ron Leary has been a part of that, and then when you add guys like (La'el Collins) and some of the other guys, they see how we do it. … How important the team is to them, how important football is to them."
Now, this will be the best defense the Cowboys have faced all season long, or at least for the past three games. The Giants were good, but face it, the Cowboys were starting a raw rookie at quarterback making his NFL debut and same at running back. How much better is Prescott and Elliott today than they were on 9/11? Immensely, right.
Plus, despite their youth, the Cowboys were one possession away from beating the Giants – maybe one get-out-of-bounds away from beating the Giants.
So no matter the perceived goodness of this Cincinnati defense, the great equalizer must be the Cowboys offensive line. Give Dak time to process in the pocket. Give Zeke a crease. Give him an inch, he just might take it a mile, now leading the league with 412 yards rushing, and on pace for a 1,600-yard rookie season. In fact, the way he's been rushing, even when the Cowboys can't seem to give him more than an inch of space, he normally plows ahead for 108 inches (do the math).
Here are the other numbers somewhat incredible for an offense that's missing its presumptive top two quarterbacks for the first four games and Dez Bryant for the last game, and likely this one, too: The Cowboys lead the league not only in total first downs (99), but do so because they also lead the league converting 50 percent of their third downs. The league average is 40.3. Consequently, they are second in time of possession, 35:20, to only Philadelphia (36:47).
You just don't do this type of stuff, along with ranking second overall in total offense, averaging 395.8 yards a game, with a raw rookie starting at quarterback and running back, and your star receiver missing one game and basically limited in another, without a mighty hearty offensive line.
And believe me, these guys are hearty. I'll say it again, go ask San Francisco. Go ask the Bears.
So time to muscle up, time to be physical with the like-minded Bengals. Maybe time to find out just where this Cowboys team (without Romo, without Dez) really is. While winning three straight has created excitement, there seems to be this qualifier hanging over their heads. Like, hey, nice win, but those were the Redskins or those were da Bears or those were the 49ers.
Well, now it's, hey, these are the Bengals.
And if the needle is pointing up around 6:30 Sunday night, my guess is this "Oh-Line" will have imposed its immense will.
See photos from the Cowboys' Thursday practice at Ford Center.