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Cowboys continue to shuffle lineup after benching Brandon Weeden

The underwhelming performance of the Cowboys' highly touted offensive line deserves some blame for the team's three-game losing streak.

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The Dallas Cowboys' offense declined in each week before a Week 6 bye, slowly dropping off from 436 yards in a Week 1 win to just 264 yards and six points in Week 5. While injuries are the most obvious cause for the drop-off for Dallas, the issues go beyond missing Tony Romo and Dez Bryant, and now the Cowboys are making some changes.

First was the replacement of Brandon Weeden with Matt Cassel, after Weeden started in each of the team's three losses. Next is the replacement of left guard Ron Leary with rookie La'El Collins and last will be more snaps for running back Christine Michael, who may even start ahead of Joseph Randle.

With Romo still recovering from a broken collarbone that will keep him out until at least Week 11, the Cowboys are doing whatever patchwork possible to generate some offense and keep the team within striking distance.

Week Opponent Total Yards Pass Yards Rush Yards
1 New York Giants 436 356 80
2 Philadelphia Eagles 359 250 109
3 Atlanta Falcons 347 220 127
4 New Orleans Saints 335 220 115
5 New England Patriots 264 164 100

The impending return of Bryant will help, but the Cowboys' issues go beyond the loss of the team's two biggest stars. The underwhelming play of its prized offensive line has also kept the team in neutral.

Cowboys' offensive line is playing average football

The hype surrounding the Cowboys' offensive line was high even before the team managed to sign a first-round talent in undrafted free agency. When La'El Collins joined the group he boldly proclaimed that the team would boast the "best offensive line in NFL history."

Pro Bowl center Travis Frederick quickly dismissed that and said the Cowboys were "not even close" to earning that designation, but the hype remained and there was a thought that the loss of DeMarco Murray wouldn't matter considering the line's ability to bulldoze holes for any running back.

Instead the Cowboys have been nothing more than decent on the offensive line and Collins is now being asked to step in and help the team establish a bully mentality up front.

Through the first five weeks of the season, the Cowboys are No. 15 in run blocking and No. 20 in pass protection, according to the metrics at Football Outsiders. Eleven sacks allowed puts the Cowboys in the bottom half of the NFL and Dallas running backs are averaging 4.1 yards per carry after finishing with 4.6 in 2014. That 0.5 yards per carry is the difference between an elite rushing attack and an average one in the NFL.

According to Pro Football Focus, it isn't the fault of the three first-round picks starting. Left tackle Tyron Smith is one of the highest rated tackles in the NFL and Zack Martin has been similarly successful at right guard. And while Frederick hasn't earned the same high marks he did in 2014, he has still graded positively for the Cowboys.

Instead it's right tackle Doug Free and left guard Ron Leary who have earned negative grades so far in 2015. Replacing Leary with Collins could be a start to fixing that, but the rookie replaced the veteran due to injury earlier in the season and wasn't significantly better, by any means. If anything, the rookie was only marginally better, although a 22-year-old rookie could certainly improve as the season goes on.


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Yes, Weeden hasn't been good

Make no mistake, it's certainly not all the offensive line's fault. Playing average football up front should draw average results and just 264 yards of offense in a 30-6 loss isn't that.

After starting his time as the replacement starter with a strong first half against the Atlanta Falcons, Weeden couldn't keep the offensive rhythm going for the Cowboys, who were outscored 22-0 in the second half. While he managed to stay efficient and mostly mistake-free, Weeden's inability to push the ball downfield kept the offense from putting points on the scoreboard once opposing defenses started keying on stopping the run.

In three starts, Weeden managed to throw just two touchdowns, despite completing 72.4 percent of his passes. A late touchdown against the New Orleans Saints saved him from becoming the goat in that game, despite Drew Brees immediately dealing the Cowboys a loss in overtime.

In three starts, Weeden attempted just 10 passes of 20 or more yards. Per PFF, 33 other quarterbacks have attempted more than 10 deep passes so far this season, with Blake Bortles leading the NFL with 36 passes of 20 or more yards.

Cassel, who was acquired via trade shortly after Romo's injury, hasn't earned a reputation for striking downfield, but if he can at least threaten opposing defenses, it could free up room for the team's skill players to make things happen.

Someone make a play

The playmakers for the Cowboys in 2014 were DeMarco Murray and Dez Bryant. With Murray gone to the Philadelphia Eagles and Bryant out with an injury, production in their place has been hard to find.

Lance Dunbar was the only running back averaging more than 4 yards per carry, but is done for the year after tearing his ACL. While Randle hasn't been bad as the replacement starter for Murray, he hasn't been good enough to keep Christine Michael on the bench.

The problems at receiver have been even worse. Terrance Williams has underachieved as a starter, hauling in just 14 passes in the 33 times he has been targeted with two drops. Jason Witten and Cole Beasley have combined for 52 receptions, but don't even combine for 500 yards with almost all of their 485 combined yards coming from underneath passes.

With the big names on the Cowboys' offense watching from the sideline, nobody is making the game-breaking, highlight plays necessary to translate efficient offense into points on the scoreboard.

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All is not lost for the Cowboys. At 2-3, they are still very much in the NFC East race which is led by the 3-2 New York Giants. No team is running away with the division and as long as the Cowboys can keep things close into late November, Romo will have a chance to lead Dallas to another NFC East title.

While a Week 8 game against the Seattle Seahawks is daunting for the struggling offense, games against the Giants, Eagles, Buccaneers and Dolphins are against some of the NFL's lesser-rated defenses. If offensive shuffling provides any spark at all, the Cowboys could find some wins and stay right in the postseason hunt.

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