Gain one thing, lose another—the balance of life. Left tackle Tyron Smith has been practicing with the team and is planning to return to the field. That celebratory feeling was dimmed as the Dallas Cowboys simultaneously lost right tackle Terence Steele to a season-ending injury last Sunday.
Sources: #Cowboys OT Terence Steele tore his ACL and is out for the season. He was one of the team’s best linemen and is a big part of their future. A normal tear and should be good to go for camp next season.
— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) December 12, 2022
Smith’s return to the lineup will undoubtedly be a great thing, but the loss of Steele is significant. The left tackle position dominated conversation since August while Steele’s strong play eased any concerns about right tackle. Now, it’s one of biggest questions surrounding the Dallas Cowboys going into their pre-playoff stretch.
How Will the Dallas Cowboys Adjust to the Loss of Terence Steele?
The coaching staff has a few options to consider with regards to replacing Steele, but none are perfect. Time is running out before a crucial rematch with the Philadelphia Eagles and, of course, the postseason. This week’s game against the Jacksonville Jaguars should provide an opportunity for the team to find out which option works best—assuming a “best” option exists at all.
Smith for Steele?
Tyron Smith returned to practice last week with all intentions to play football this season. After going down with an avulsion fracture during training camp, offensive line problems were an immediate worry. Rookie first-round pick Tyler Smith was thrust from a competition for left guard to the team’s only hope at tackle. No pressure, kid.
Entering Week 15, it’s safe to say Tyler Smith has performed up to his draft selection. To be sure, there have been rookie mistakes and inexperience exposed, especially early on. Yet considering the circumstances, it has been better than many could have hoped for. Even as Dallas scrambled to sign veteran Jason Peters, Tyler Smith held down the starting job. It’s a testament not only to the performance of Smith, but also the continuity being built within the unit. Tyron Smith, however, is a hall-of-fame player.
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones on @1053thefan on LT Tyron Smith: “As I see it right now, he’ll be playing Sunday.”
— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) December 13, 2022
While the younger Smith has performed admirably over the season, the spot belongs to the elder Smith as long as he decides to play the game. Fans can quibble, but that’s how both the front office and coaching staff see it—and they’re not wrong. Undoubtedly, Tyler Smith would be placed at right tackle before Tyron saw any other spot. Though not necessarily the answer, it is one of the many options now on the table for the Dallas Cowboys.
Difficult to Replace
Much like Tyler Smith, Terence Steele defied all criticism to quickly become a quality player for the Dallas Cowboys. Because of injuries, Steele was thrust into starting duty during his 2020 rookie season despite being undrafted. It’s a remarkably similar situation to what Smith faced this year. Steele continued to start in 2021 while longtime tackle La’el Collins faced suspension. Both stints came with mixed results for Steele as he struggled early on. Because of this, the decision to release Collins to Cincinnati and move Steele to full-time starter was met with many a raised eyebrow. However, Steele only allowed one sack this season and has meshed well with future Hall-of-Famer Zack Martin. One of the many atypical decisions by the team that has worked out surprisingly well as of late.
With his exit from the game on Sunday, the Cowboys tried to fill in with Josh Ball. Things went poorly to say the least. Ball struggled during fill-in duty, allowing numerous pressures on Dak Prescott. Ball’s whiff of Obo Okoronkwo resulted in Prescott’s arm being hit and the interception that nearly cost Dallas the game.
Dak Prescott throws ANOTHER interception.
The #Cowboys are down by 3.#NFL pic.twitter.com/66NapXVFQZ
— Full Press NFL (@FullPressNFL) December 11, 2022
A play before, another whiff of the same player led to a fumble that nearly was recovered by the Texans. In desperation, the Cowboys put Jason Peters in at right tackle—a position he hasn’t played since 2006. It just so happened to coincide with the lone, and winning, touchdown drive of the second half. With Tyron Smith returning, there is some moving around that can be done. Will the Cowboys keep Peters at right tackle if he is still willing? Another option to be considered moving into Week 15.
The Dallas offense line has only allowed 16 sacks all season, which leads the league. Keeping the quarterback upright is one of the offensive line’s main jobs, and Dallas does it exceptionally well. Another focus for an offensive line is the rushing game, which can be difficult to quantify. The running backs themselves play a huge part in statistics, but the holes must be there. The Cowboys rank 7th in rushing yards, 2nd in rushing touchdowns—impressive any way you slice it. While there have been bumps along the way, this offensive line was growing into a cohesive unit once again.
Continuity is often hailed as one of the greatest assets an offensive line can have. The Cowboys have been fortunate to have that nearly all the season. The return of Smith and loss of Steele both disrupt continuity. The trick the coaching staff must pull off is plugging these holes with the least amount of disruption as possible.
The Best Five
The mantra of “best five on the field” seems to ring heavy in this situation. One would assume that would be the Smiths, Jason Peters, Tyler Biadasz, and Zack Martin. In all reality, Josh Ball cannot be on the field if the mantra holds true. His struggles go further than just last week, and the offense immediately looked different when Peters came in. Peters also has seen play over the season and contributed effectively. There are concerns of playing a full game’s worth of snaps at 40 years old, and it’s not guaranteed Peters wants the job. Alternatively, the Cowboys could opt to move Tyler Smith, but that’s a third positional change in one season. That’s a lot to take in for a rookie, and completely switching sides could do more harm than good. It’s a conundrum with no easy solutions.
If nothing else, the coaching staff in Dallas has proven they’re willing to try unconventional methods to make things work. They may need to do it again. Whether Tyler Smith, Peters, or Ball (gulp) takes over for Terence Steele on Sunday, the Dallas Cowboys will need to figure out a solution and quick. The road to the playoffs will be bumpy and the journey into the postseason brief if the offense plays like they did last Sunday.