FRISCO, Texas -- The Dallas Cowboys have the thanks to the Pro Bowl-caliber partnership of eight-time Pro Bowl left tackle Tyron Smith and 2022 first-round pick left guard Tyler Smith. For as great as those two have been for the Cowboys' offensive line in 2023, right tackle Terence Steele has struggled to the same degree in his first season back from a torn ACL he suffered on Dec. 12, Week 14 of the 2022 season against the Houston Texans. Dallas bet big on his eventual recovery from the knee injury, signing him to a five-year, $82.5 million contract with $49.3 million guaranteed. He hasn't missed a single game in 2023, returning to action for Week 1 against the New York Giants on "Sunday Night Football" on Sept. 10, just under nine months (eight months and 29 days) from suffering the ligament tear.
"My goal was to be back as soon as possible," Steele said Thursday. "I didn't really want to miss any time. As far as [having] limitations, no not really. Just getting back into the groove of things."
So far, Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones isn't getting what he paid for early on. Steele's 45.4 PFF grade this season is 73rd out of 77 qualified offensive tackles, and his 8.6% quarterback pressure rate allowed this season is the highest pressure rate allowed by any offensive lineman this season among the 68 with at least 300 pass-blocking snaps in 2023.
"I think clearly anybody that's coming off a major joint injury whether it's [running back] Tony Pollard [this year] or [wide receiver] Michael Gallup last year, there's always things you have to go through the first time," McCarthy said Wednesday. "The knee is different, it's not the same. He's done a great job. He's going to go through some things. That's part of that first year back."
Steele admitted he doesn't quite feel fully himself quite yet, which is clear when looking at his production from the last two seasons.
"A little bit," Steele said when asked if his knee is bothering him. "I definitely have ups and downs. It's been good overall. Some days are better than others. Trust your fundamentals and just stay neutral through the good and the bed. [The trust in the knee] takes reps and stacking good days on top of each other."
Terence Steele last two seasons
QB Pressures Allowed
QB Pressure Rate Allowed
* Highest pressure rate allowed by any OL this season among 68 OL with 300+ pass block snaps
** Tied for the fourth-most quarterback pressures allowed this season
Coming off a significant knee injury like Steele is means his lateral movement and cutting are the last key attributes to come back, two crucial elements of pass protection. His issues with his lateral movement in pass protection were evident against the Eagles on Sunday as he surrendered 11 quarterback pressures, the second most allowed in a game this season ahead of only Carolina Panthers guard Chandler Zavala's 14 at the Seahawks in Week 3, and four sacks, tied for the most allowed in a single game across the entire league in 2023.
"Like anything, any time anyone has a major joint injury, that first year back, it's a challenge," McCarthy said of Steele on Monday. …There are things he has to continue to work on because of the injury and the surgery. He is working through it. He won't make any excuses, but that's part of coming that first year. … But yes, it wasn't his best game. … He'll definitely learn from it. He is definitely still fighting back a little bit from the injury. ... I think we did give him help [chipping with a tight end or running back], but I think if you look at the end of the game situation there are some formations and things you have to get through, particularly with the coverages you are going to get."
Steele's coaches aren't as down on him even though he was shredded consistently on Sunday because of the caliber of who was lining up across from him: Pro Bowl edge rushers Haason Reddick and Brandon Graham, whose 72.0 sacks rank as the fourth most in Eagles history. As much as it would make sense to have more running backs and tight ends stay back in the formation to help Smith in pass protection, it simply isn't feasible without sacrificing the necessary options in quarterback Dak Prescott's route progressions when he drops back to pass.
"Terence knows he can play better, and I think he will play better," Dallas Cowboys offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said Monday. "If you watch the game, he had some really great sets. That [Eagles'] front four, Reddick is an elite rusher. Brandon Graham, elite rusher. You watch Terence, there's some beautiful sets on there it's not like he needs help. Again, you mix those [chipping blocks from the running back or tight end] in, you do send help. We help both sides, you'll see if we get some double edge helps . ... So, No. 1, total confidence in Terence.
"The answer to your question is how many guys you want to get out [as pass-catchers]. So if they're playing a lot of zone defense and you're only getting three guys out if you're chipping or two guys out, if you're chipping both sides, you now are a little bit out-manned versus certain coverages. So, based on what the defense wants to do and what we game plan, we've always got the ability to help, but again, we have zero doubts on Terence. It's just keep working on his fundamentals, keep working on his punch. Those guys give lots of guys fits and he'll bounce back this week, have a hell of a week and be ready to roll on Sunday [at home against the New York Giants]."
Prescott refuses to be shaken by Steele's league-worst performance at the Eagles, pointing back to Steele's climb from being an undrafted free agent during the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020, to earning his current contract.
"Terence would be the first to tell you he wants to play better, and I know he is going to play better," Prescott said Tuesday, via The Athletic. "He is a guy that has faced adversity before. Talk about everything in his career when he came in [as an] undrafted free agent, and he had to step in and play for guys immediately. He didn't have the success or maybe didn't play to his standards early, but he got it going. He has some great years under him. He is not going to allow one game to put him down in the dump, and he is not going to let one game dictate how he is going to play the rest of the season. I think something that we'll talk about is trusting in each other. Obviously, I'm using my feet and getting out of the pocket. Use your athleticism, and he'll do that moving forward and things will be fine."
Fortunately for Steele, Dallas gets to return home to AT&T Stadium in Week 10, a building in which the Cowboys have 11 home games in a row, the longest active home winning streak in the entire NFL. Their opponent this week is the 2-7 New York Giants, a team they are favored over by 17 points as of this writing, the largest spread in a game this season. Dallas clobbered the G-Men 40-0 on "Sunday Night Football" on the road, and Prescott has won his last 11 starts against the Cowboys' NFC East rival, tied with Pro Football Hall of Famer and Dallas legend Roger Staubach for the longest such streak against the Giants since at least 1950.