Raiding The Cowboys: What We Learned From Dallas' Latest Matchup
As the NFL preseason unfolds at its painfully slow rate, each game reveals a little more than the one before it. For the Dallas Cowboys, who aired out the majority of their starters in Friday’s 19-17 loss to the Oakland Raiders, some of the popular preconceptions are starting to be fulfilled, and we’re slowly getting a picture of this team’s true strengths and weaknesses.
From broader standpoints, the Cowboys’ second preseason game picked up where the first one left off: an obvious focus on running the ball, an aggressive defensive style as evidenced by numerous blitz packages and an emphasis on preventing big plays.
Along more specific dimensions, however, the ‘Boys had some good and bad developments to showcase. Keeping in mind that preseason games are worthless indicators, here are some observations from the game that could reasonably be construed as legit problems and advantages come September.
Problem: Controlling The Ground And Pound
The Cowboys’ defense came out blazing. From DeMarcus Ware penetrating the backfield on the first play to Sean Lee’s perfectly-timed, fumble-forcing inside blitz, that series embodied the philosophies and executions of the defense we expect to see from Monte Kiffin.
When the D-line reserves came in, though, the 1-2 rushing attack of Darren McFadden and Rashad Jennings outmuscled them over the next two drives, slowly opening up the underneath passing game. Though the Raiders got only three points, the drives ultimately spanned 25 plays, ate up more than 15 minutes of clock and saw them convert all six third-down chances. That can’t happen during the regular season; careless errors like Terrelle Pryor’s drive-ending, across-the-body interception won’t abound from better quarterbacks.
True, Jay Ratliff and Anthony Spencer were missing up front. But even with those two, the front four’s bread-and-butter is speed and athleticism, not size and strength. Against teams with powerful duos of running backs, the Cowboys are going to need a lot of help from their inside linebackers and strong safeties.
Advantage: Having A Solid Backup Quarterback
Tony Romo has proved his toughness and ability to play hurt on numerous occasions. But should he go down, the Cowboys have an able backup in Kyle Orton. The former Bears’ and Bronco’s touchdown pass to Cole Beasley was a beautiful lob with the perfect amount of touch; overall, his throws showed zip and his reads displayed quickness. He would finish six-for-six for 52 yards and a touchdown.
Save tight end, no position has had its perceived importance skyrocket in recent years like backup quarterback. Look at Chicago’s 2010 playoff collapse, Indianapolis’ entire 2011 season and San Francisco’s 2012 success with Colin Kaepernick. Then there’s Green Bay: a competitive team saddled with offensive line problems that has gone as far as to bring Vince Young out of retirement.
When you consider how many teams are facing quarterback uncertainty and how NFC competitors like Atlanta, New Orleans and New York are so bound to and utterly helpless without their starting quarterbacks, having a guy like Orton as your No. 2 starts to sound pretty nice.
Toss-Up: The Ever-Embattled Offensive Line
After months of having its reputation sullied, the starting O-line looked superb in its pass protection against the Raiders. Despite a false start penalty, LG Ronald Leary had another nice game. His run blocking with the first-teamers, who played the entire first half, was again starter-worthy. Between pass protection and penalties, fans undoubtedly got both an unexpected surprise and a deja-vu feeling of malaise after seeing their 2013 offense unveiled.
RT Doug Free also has a lot to prove, and the preseason will go a long way in determining if he’s ready to resume the starting job. Travis Frederick is thus far making everyone who questioned his draft selection look amateurish. We didn’t see much to scream about from RG Mackenzy Bernadeau, but if the rushing numbers are improving, there’s not much to complain about at this point.