Heading into the 2011 season, the Cowboys had a lot to worry about concerning the interior of their offensive line, but no one could have anticipated left tackle Doug Free struggling as much as has been the case. Free played well in his first season at left tackle in 2010, receiving a C+ in run blocking and a B+ in pass protection in my 2010 Offensive Line Grades. Here is what I had to say about his play last year:
Run Blocking: C+
Others have commended Free on his run blocking in 2010, and while it wasn’t horrific, I think people are simply pleased with average play due to low expectations. In reality, the Cowboys averaged just 3.97 yards-per-carry when running behind Free–much, much too low for an offensive tackle. In comparison, the Cowboys averaged 4.54 yards-per-rush when running behind Free in ’09, and 4.98 behind Flozell Adams the same season.
The fact that 6.6 percent of runs behind Free went for 20+ yards is outstanding, but the ‘Boys need more consistency from their left tackle. Garrett could aid Free by allowing him to get in space on counters and tosses.
Pass Protection: B+
I originally planned on giving Free an “A” for his pass protection, but the nine penalties killed him. There were times when Free was out of position, but I think it is obvious to anyone who watched the ‘Boys that Free was generally doing his job in pass protection.
He yielded one-third as many sacks as Adams in 2009 and half the pressures. Allowing just three sacks when facing the opposition’s top pass-rushers (especially in the NFC East–Trent Cole, Justin Tuck, Brian Orakpo) is quite impressive.
Below, you can see Free’s pass protection numbers from 2010.
Although struggling with penalties, Free’s three sacks yielded was awesome. The 19 pressures were less than half of right tackle Marc Colombo, even though Free’s left tackle position is more difficult to play.
In 2011, though, something has changed in Free. Check out a few of his numbers thus far. . .
No matter how you slice it, Free is performing worse than in 2010. The yards-per-carry when running behind him is down 4.8% despite a far, far more efficient running game from Dallas this season as compared to last. Free’s run blocking has actually been better than his pass protection, though, where he has yielded way too much pressure. A sack rate 2.57 times as high as last year. Nearly 1.5 times as many pressures. A penalty rate almost double that of 2010–a year in which it was already much too high.
So what’s wrong with Free? One theory is that he injured his shoulder in Week 2 against the Niners and simply hasn’t recovered. There is some credibility to that idea, as we wouldn’t expect such a decline in production from Free, even if he outperformed his skill level in 2010.
But what about his false starts? Free committed three false starts last week alone, suggesting he isn’t where he needs to be mentally, regardless of his physical condition. It’s possible that Free’s play is affecting his mindset, causing a lack of concentration.
Whatever the reason for Free’s struggles, you can expect improvement. This is an athletic, talented left tackle who should excel on the types of plays Jason Garrett is calling in 2011–more counters, screens, and “finesse” plays which allow Free to get out into space where he can utilize his quickness.
My best guess is that Free was injured and the subsequent poor play got to his head, affecting his production. Eventually, though, you can bet that Free’s effectiveness will “regress to the mean.” In other words, the “true” Doug Free will shine through at some point, and I imagine the Real Free Shady is closer to the 2010 version than the one we are seeing in 2011.