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What We Learned About The Cowboys With Week 1 Approaching

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Tony Romo piqued fans' memory of what he can really bring to the table. His supporting cast did much of the same against Cincinnati. Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images.
Tony Romo piqued fans' memory of what he can really bring to the table. His supporting cast did much of the same against Cincinnati. Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images.

Week 3 of the NFL preseason represents a faint glimmer in the dark: a rare showcasing of a team’s starting talent before the real thing gets going — the Dallas Cowboys made the most of it.

With a 24-18 win over the Cincinnati Bengals this past Saturday, the ‘Boys made sure the first extended taste of this year’s talent was sweet, encouraging and, most importantly, telling. The Cincinnati game proved semi-indicative because its key takeaways — those that meshed with ideas and notions propagated all offseason — grounded themselves in stats.

We’ve been told the Cowboys are committed to the run: They carried the ball 43 times against the Bengals, including 17 rushes on 25 first-down situations. We’ve heard talk of Monte Kiffin instituting a bend-but-don’t-break defense: It produced four turnovers and allowed only 11 points against a playoff offense. Sure, those stats that don’t tell the whole story of a game, but they’re in line with what we’re looking for from this year’s team.

Saturday showed us swarming helmets, balanced attacks, vicious ball strips and improved offensive line play — all billed ingredients in the publicized call for change. It revealed front-office promises being made good on. It evinced longevity in strategy. And it gave us action that, finally, can be called useful. Let’s break it down by unit.

Offense

This group is straight polished. Tony Romo piled up 137 yards on 13-for-18 passing, while looking decisively smart with his throws and reminding us how competent a scrambler he is. Dez Bryant gave the Bengals’ corners fits: His six catches for 54 yards and a touchdown do minimal justice to the fact that he looked un-guardable, whether on a quick out or longer inside slant. Phillip Tanner has assuaged the fear of repercussion from losing DeMarco Murray to injury again.

Considering OT Doug Free took reps at right guard, David Arkin got the call at left guard and Jermey Parnell made his starting debut against formidable DT Geno Atkins, the Cowboys’ front five didn’t look abysmal. The run blocking remained particularly effective. While undersized and under-experienced, these guys will be plenty serviceable; mainly because of their downfield, second-level blocking. And their red-zone protection on the last drive of the first half was outstanding.

Defense

The Dallas defense, epitomized by MLB Sean Lee, now has an identity based on a few essentials: sound open-field tackling, swarming to induce turnovers and prevention of big plays. The group relies on range and smarts — a rare tandem for building a defense at this level — but its style is consistent. The Bengals game proved it’s a viable approach.

Teams get their yards against this group. Corners give cushions on short passing plays, and there’s less speed at outside linebacker with DeMarcus Ware’s shift. Consequently, this defense lives and dies on third downs. Against Cincy, the Cowboys got off the field on seven of nine third-down opportunities, ultimately allowing the offense to dominate the possession battle by more than 19 minutes.

Of all stats, those two will go the furthest in measuring just how effective this group’s contributions really are.

Special Teams

Each game had its own brand of special teams’ gaffes, but the latest round is especially troubling. From a holding penalty on Dwayne Harris’ opening return to Chris Jones’ punt being too high and the ensuing 75-yard touchdown scamper, bad blocking, bad designing and bad coverage melded into an ugly trifecta of special teams problems.

At this point, special teams play has the Cowboys poised to be a reincarnation of the 2010 Chargers — the league’s top offensive and defensive team (in terms of yards) that couldn’t buy a playoff berth. Luckily for them, it’s still the preseason. But if you need a football fix that will tell you something meaningful between now and Sept. 8, this is the game to look to.