Pass protection has been a concern for the Dallas Cowboys all season long, but after Tony Romo was sacked seven times in a too-close-for-comfort victory over the Cleveland Browns Sunday, it's officially code red for the Cowboys' offense.
Romo was pressured 17 times on 59 dropbacks against an average-at-best Browns pass rush (according to Pro Football Focus), and now it looks as though his blind-side-protecting left tackle, Tyron Smith, will be forced to miss time due to a high-ankle sprain.
Credit Romo for not throwing an interception and turning the ball over just once, but at least Smith played 16 snaps before backup Jermey Parnell took over and struggled. With Doug Free again a disaster and stronger pass rushes (Philadelphia, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh) lying ahead on the schedule, I have a hard time envisioning a scenario in which Romo can hold up and continue to carry a team that is otherwise quite flawed.
It actually could have been a whole lot worse against the Browns. Dallas offensive linemen were flagged four times. Romo would have been creamed by John Hughes had it not been for a blatant hold from Derrick Dockery in the first quarter...
Romo wasn't actually sacked until Smith had left the game and we were approaching the midway point of the second quarter. From that point forward, he was sacked—not pressured or hurried or hit, but sacked—on nearly 15 percent of his dropbacks.
Sack No. 1: Parnell can't hang on to Juqua Parker long enough to keep him off of Romo, but blaming him wouldn't be fair because the Browns' coverage was fantastic. Romo had over four seconds to make something happen, which is plenty of time.
Sack No. 2: Romo is taken down on the very next offensive play from scrimmage. This time, both tackles let the pocket collapse too quickly, forcing Romo to step forward despite the fact Hughes had already beaten Dockery inside. Remember, Dockery was only in this game because both Phil Costa and Ryan Cook were hurt.
Sack No. 3: Later on the same drive, Free, who makes $8 million a year, is beaten directly off the snap by Jabaal Sheard. PFF assigned three of the seven sacks to the veteran, who's been one of the worst tackles in the league all season.
Sack No. 4: Felix Jones is too slow coming over to help as safety Usama Young blitzes as part of an overload on the right side. Instead of just taking care of Kaluka Maiava, Free tries to do too much by picking up Young, too, and he loses both players quickly.
Sack No. 5: Sheard takes on both Free and Dockett at the same time, freeing up Ahtyba Rubin to come around the edge to sack Romo.
Sack No. 6: Parnell is beaten at the outset by Frostee Rucker. No blitz necessary, and the play would result in Dallas' only turnover.
Sack No. 7: Free holds Robertson on a stunt blitz but still gets beat easily. Romo stands little chance.
Will the offensive line prevent the Cowboys from winning the NFC East?
The major culprits are Free, Parnell and Dockery, so hopefully the Cowboys can get Smith and Costa and/or Cook back soon so that Parnell and Dockery can take a seat. Mackenzy Bernadeau hasn't been good either, but the Cowboys are in much worse shape when he's forced to move over to the center spot to cover Cook and Costa.
Of course, it also doesn't help that the running game has been inconsistent, especially with DeMarco Murray injured. Felix Jones and Lance Dunbar had just 53 yards on 19 carries Sunday.
In the meantime, it's up to Jason Garrett to give this line extra support by offering extra blockers and ensuring that the offensive game plan contains a slew of quick passes.