Dallas Cowboys: Can the offensive line keep Dak Prescott safe?

: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports
: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports /

After allowing 13 pressures and five sacks in the preseason dress rehearsal, some around the league are questioning the Dallas Cowboys offensive line’s ability to protect Dak Prescott. Prescott, unquestionably Dallas’ most valuable player, hasn’t played a game (preseason or otherwise) since last October, and isn’t expected to debut until Week 1 this season.

Once considered the most dominant in the NFL, the Dallas Cowboys offensive line has been in shambles as of late. Injuries, illnesses, and a premature retirement have wreaked havoc on the unit over the past four seasons. Last year, all three of their top offensive linemen ended the season on injured reserve, and in all, only one starter was able to stay healthy throughout (the maligned Connor Williams).

So it’s not just Dak Prescott trying to make a triumphant return this season, it’s also the Dallas Cowboys once-dominant offensive line. But since the continued health of one, depends on the success of the other, we ask the question:

Is the Dallas Cowboys offensive line good enough to protect Dak Prescott?

After seeing the pedestrian Texans have their way with the Cowboys last weekend, concern is understandable. As we broke down Monday morning, it wasn’t just the scrubs struggling, but starters and key depth guys who have been giving up pressures.

In all, the Dallas Cowboys offensive line gave up 13 pressures and five sacks. That’s not a situation that bodes well for a quarterback coming off a significant injury, is it?

But I’m going to tell you something that should ease your minds – sacks are a quarterback stat.

Even though the offensive line is specifically tasked with not letting their signal-caller get hit, it’s really the signal-caller himself who’s most accountable for his own sack rate.

I can see the raised eyebrow from here. Let me explain…

when a QB switches teams in the NFL, he typically brings his sack rate with him. It doesn’t matter how much better or worse the new offensive line is

Quarterbacks have certain ways in which they play: Tendencies and techniques that make each one different and directly impact how often they get sacked. Time in pocket, patience for developing plays, consistency of the drop-back, ability to navigate in the pocket, and elusiveness all play a key part in how often a QB is sacked.

A fun case in point is tracking QB movement around the league. Jason Lisk at the Big Lead studied years of NFL data and found when a QB switches teams in the NFL, he typically brings his sack rate with him. It doesn’t matter how much better or worse the new offensive line is, the QB generally gets sacked at the same frequency as before.

In same way a team that keeps the same offensive line but brings in a new passer sees big swings in sack rate. That’s because it’s more about the passer than it is about the O-line. That’s not to say all sacks are on the QB. We see protection breakdowns all the time where the blame falls solely on the linemen. But it’s no coincidence sacks tend to follow QBs throughout their careers.

Dak Prescott is someone who’s improved and stabilized as a passer in the pocket. Initially he had one of the highest sack rates in the league. But as he gained experience he brought down his sack rate and has been sitting stable, regardless of how the blockers are doing in front.

Look no further than last season: The Dallas Cowboys had one of the most disastrous O-lines in the NFL. They lost four of five starters (the three best ending up on IR) and had to start undrafted rookies to fill holes. Based on O-line play, both of Dallas’ top QBs should lave had the worst sack rates in the league. Yet we saw very little change in Dak Prescott and Andy Dalton’s respective sack rates.

Dalton, playing behind his O-line in Cincinnati saw his sack rate largely stay the same (6.5 to 6.7). Prescott saw his go from 3.7 in 2019 to 4.3 in 2020. It was a slightly larger increase but still fairly stable especially when you consider how poor his O-line was in 2020 compared to the season before.

once a QB is standing in the pocket longer than 2.5 seconds, it’s on the QB – not the O-line.

To be fair, there’s shared accountability in sacks. While QBs are more often to blame, they aren’t exclusively to blame. Film review will show each situation is unique and we can’t state anything with 100 percent certainty until we’ve reviewed it.

But as a general rule of thumb, we can track the time in the pocket and make a fairly safe conclusion. Basically once a QB is standing in the pocket longer than 2.5 seconds, it’s on the QB – not the O-line.

On Saturday against the Texans, the Dallas O-line allowed Garrett Gilbert and Ben DiNucci an average time to throw of over 2.5 seconds. Only Cooper Rush was given below that threshold. But unlike the other two, Rush altered his approach and profited. According to PFF, Cooper Rush averaged just 1.7 seconds to throw. He controlled the narrative.

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In the same way Dak Prescott can control his fortune in 2021. If the starting unit struggles in pass protection this season, Dak Prescott can just do what he did last year. He can move in the pocket, go through progressions quicker, play on the move, release the ball sooner, etc… He can adapt.

None of this even matters if…

If the Dallas Cowboys offensive line plays up to their potential, none of this even matters. Despite the questionable performance last week, they are expected to be a top-5 starting unit once again. I’d even argue a top-3 unit.

And there’s no reason to think the injury issues across the line will persist.

But even if the Dallas Cowboys O-line struggles in 2021, it’s not likely to be worse than they were in 2020. And remember, even then Dak Prescott was setting the league on fire with his passing numbers while staying relatively stable in sack rate. It’s also important to point out Dak was injured scrambling and not standing in the pocket.

Dallas Cowboys fans should feel confident in this O-line’s ability to protect Dak Prescott. They’re not only an elite unit but Dak Prescott has an elite clock and pocket presence that keeps his sack numbers stable regardless of their play up front.

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How do you think the Dallas Cowboys O-line will do this season? Will Dak stay healthy?

  • Published on 08/26/2021 at 12:01 PM
  • Last updated at 08/26/2021 at 12:19 PM