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Lions tackle Cowboys' line that can 'do it all'

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News
Zack Martin (70)

Allen Park – With two weeks remaining in the season, the NFL MVP is up for grabs. As usual, there are a handful of quarterbacks in the discussion, from New England’s Tom Brady to Atlanta’s Matt Ryan to Detroit's Matthew Stafford. Dallas rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott is also making a strong case, leading the NFL with 1,551 rushing yards.

But a cliché that’s been popular among fans and media alike is the true MVP of the league is the Cowboys’ offensive line.

“You don’t see many better than that,” Lions coach Jim Caldwell said. “They are collectively strong, physical, athletic, you name it. Run game, pass game, they can do it all. Really fine group.”

Of course the idea is ridiculous. They don’t give individual awards to units, but the sentiment speaks volumes for the respect the Cowboys’ line commands. The group has helped the unquestionably talented Elliott maximize his potential, as they did with Darren McFadden and DeMarco Murray in recent years.

“I mean, definitely makes my job I wouldn’t say easy, but it makes it a lot better just being able to have the best line in football,” Elliott said. “I thank those guys every day for what they do, I’m very appreciative.”

And it’s not just Elliott who has been able to flourish this season thanks to the Dallas line. Rookie quarterback Dak Prescott, a fourth-round draft pick out of Mississippi State, made the Pro Bowl after steering the Cowboys to a 12-2 mark. He’s completing 67.7 percent of his passes for 3,418 yards, 20 touchdowns and four interceptions.

“This game is about winning the line of scrimmage first,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. “We believe in that, regardless of who’s playing quarterback, running back or receiver for us. We want to control the line of scrimmage. The better you do that, the better the opportunity you get for your skill guys to have some success.

Dallas’ line is a prime example of return on investment. The team is starting three first-rounders, all added in the past five years.

Left tackle Tyron Smith, selected ninth overall in 2011, is a four-time Pro Bowler. Center Travis Frederick, tabbed from Wisconsin in 2013, has been named to the Pro Bowl three straight years and has been a first-team All-Pro the past two. And versatile guard Zach Martin, who came aboard in 2014, has been named to the Pro Bowl each year.

“That’s something we learned, we understand and that’s how we wanted to build this team,” Garrett said. “So we allocated a lot of resources to do that and each of the guys that we drafted high and the guys that are playing for us, we believe we’re playing the right way, the way we want to play.”

The Lions have attempted to follow the blueprint. Riley Reiff, Laken Tomlinson and Taylor Decker are first-round selections. Third-round choices Travis Swanson, Larry Warford and Graham Glasgow round out the group. But despite the efforts, the results haven’t been anywhere near the same.

Detroit has finished in the bottom five in rushing the past two years, and is trending toward making it three straight. Plus, Stafford was sacked 89 times the past two seasons and is on pace to get dropped behind the line 41 times this year, only a modest improvement.

Individual talent will only get you so far. An offensive line truly succeeds when they play together cohesively and no one has better chemistry up front than the Cowboys. Finding a crack in the armor is goal of Detroit’s defense when they travel to Dallas for a Monday showdown.

“They’re all good, individually, but they play really well together,” defensive end Kerry Hyder said. “We have to be physical. It’s going to be a physical game. We’ll bring our lunch pails. It’s not going to be easy, but we have the guys to do it.”

Stopping Elliott will be priority one.

“This guy has top-end speed and he’s quick and he has power and he can jump over you,” Caldwell said. “He’s athletic and there’s not anything really that he can’t do, that’s what makes him so unusual. Pretty special talent.”

Elliott has topped 100 yards seven times this season and been held under 80 once. Prior to allowing the Giants to top the century mark last week, the Lions held their previous five opponents under the threshold. The defense still hasn’t allowed an individual to top 100.

“It’s going to take team effort to slow (Elliott) down,” Hyder said. “It’s going to be all hands on deck. We’re going to need everybody to come in play well, all 11 guys have to show up every play.”

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

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