Preseason Week 1, Cowboys vs. Bengals: What We Learned
Last week, I published 19 things for you to watch in Sunday night’s Hall of Fame game. Well, here is what we learned regarding each of those issues.
Note: Let’s remember this is just one preseason game. Some things we learned are useful (such as the fact that John Phillips, before he tore his ACL, may have been the Cowboys’ most improved player), while some things we think we learned are meaningless (such as notes about playcalling, which tends to be very basic this time of the year).
1. How much will the starters play?
The Cowboys starters, as predicted, stayed in the game for one series. The lone exception was fullback Deon Anderson, although he isn’t a starter per se, just the No. 1 guy at his position. I though left tackle Doug Free might get a little extra work, but he was sensational in his limited action and came out with the rest of the ones.
2. Will the first-string offense score on their first drive?
They scored, but it was just a field goal. The red zone offense stalled again, though Tony Romo said they used very “vanilla” stuff down there. Tight end Jason Witten was not targeted in four plays inside the five-yard line (although one was negated due to a defensive penalty and one was actually a designed run).
3. How will new Bengal Terrell Owens be treated by his former Dallas teammates?
Pretty well, in fact. Owens spent a good amount of time with many of his former Cowboys teammates on Saturday, including Roy Williams, Tashard Choice, Terence Newman, Jay Ratliff, Patrick Crayton, and Martellus Bennett.
On the other hand, it doesn’t look like Owens and Romo will be exchanging gifts at Christmas.
4. How will Terence Newman and Mike Jenkins perform against “Batman” (T.O.) and “Robin” (Chad Ochocinco)?
There really wasn’t a large enough sample size of plays to draw any conclusions about this one. T.O. caught a ball on Jenkins on a short ‘out’ route, but that’s about it. Overall, the Cowboys’ first-team defense looked good against a potent Cincy offense.
5. Who will step up in the tight race for the fourth cornerback job?
No one particularly stepped up, although rookie Jamar Wall struggled badly. He gave up a plethora of receptions to Matt Jones and looked lost in coverage. He has an uphill battle ahead of him to make the roster.
Undrafted rookie Bryan McCann was back deep on a couple punts but never got a chance to return one. Veteran Cletis Gordon appears to have the early lead for the fourth cornerback spot.
6. How will Alan Ball tackle?
Well, he didn’t really have an opportunity. Ball didn’t make a tackle on the night, but the Bengals never really moved the ball too close to him.
7. Will Anthony Spencer, who has a bruised Achilles tendon, receive any reps?
Surprisingly, yes. Spencer started and played the first series.
8. If Spencer doesn’t start, who will replace him: Victor Butler or Brandon Williams?
Spencer’s start meant we couldn’t determine whether Butler or Williams would have been his primary backup, although Butler is listed as the second-string strong side outside linebacker. Williams initially figured to be superior against the run, but Butler showed marked improvement over last year’s poor missed tackle rate. He chased down ball-carriers from the weak side multiple times, displaying tremendous pursuit. Butler also appears to have added some muscle.
9. Will either Robert Brewster or Sam Young, both of whom have played well at offensive tackle during training camp, step up in their first game action?
Neither player shined, although Brewster really played poorly. He got dominated at both right tackle and left tackle (he moved to the left side after Alex Barron’s injury), although he did appear to be more natural on the right side. There is a possibility the Cowboys kick Brewster inside to guard if they plan to keep him on the 53-man roster.
10. Will left tackle Alex Barron limit his false starts and outperform starter Doug Free?
Barron didn’t false start, but he was heavily outperformed by Free. Barron yielded a sack and some pressure at left tackle, while starter Doug Free looked magnificent. He stoned Bengals defensive end Antwan Odom a few times and even looked comfortable in run blocking.
11. Will we see left guard Kyle Kosier play any center?
No, but his time is coming.
12. Is Titus Ryan really the No. 1 kick and punt returner?
As of now, yes. That will change once rookie Dez Bryant returns from his high ankle sprain, but right now Ryan is the guy. He had a solid return of the opening kickoff, showing some burst and “wiggle,” but he looked uneasy fielding punts.
13. How will David Buehler perform on both field goals and kickoffs?
Despite going three-of-four on field goals, Buehler struggled. He missed a 49-yard attempt by a mile and even his made field goals didn’t look great. None of them were longer than 34 yards and a couple just snuck in the uprights. He also almost missed an extra point.
On kickoffs, Buehler looked phenomenal once again. His five kickoffs traveled to the six-yard line, two yards deep, five yards deep, six yards deep, and out of the back of the end zone.
14. How will offensive coordinator Jason Garrett use tight end/H-Back John Phillips?
Early and often. Phillips was the Cowboys’ offensive MVP before going down with a torn ACL. It is really unfortunate for a player who was coming on so strong to begin the preseason.
15. Will the Cowboys run more to the weak side?
Yes! The Cowboys ran to the weak side 19.5 percent of plays last season, averaging 5.2 yards-per-carry (as opposed to just 4.7 on strong side runs).
Dallas ran to the weak side seven times for 37 yards (5.29 yards-per-carry) on Sunday night. They ran to the strong side 14 times for 30 yards (2.14 yards-per-carry). The rest of the runs came in balanced formations, and thus there was no strong or weak side.
The sample size is obviously small, but a weak side run rate of 33.3 percent is a huge jump from last season. We will see how much the Cowboys continue to run to the weak side the rest of the preseason.
Note: I am not counting a scramble by Stephen McGee for six yards into these totals.
16. How many plays will the Cowboys run out of “Double Tight Right Strong Right”?
The good news is the Cowboys only ran three plays out of “Double Tight Strong.” Last season, they lined up in the formation over seven times a game.
The bad news is the playcalling from the formation has not yet changed. The Cowboys ran a strong side dive on all three plays from “Double Tight Strong.” Here is my in-depth analysis of Dallas’ 2009 usage of the formation. Last season, they ran that same strong side dive on 71.6 percent of all plays from “Double Tight Strong.”
17. How often (and when) will Dallas run playaction passes?
Dallas ran six playaction passes on Sunday night out of 44 total pass plays (13.6 percent). That fits well with the 15.1 percent rate from last season.
Two of the six playaction passes were screens. If you remember from my study on the Cowboys’ 2009 playaction passes, the screen rate more than tripled following a play-fake (from 7.1 percent on non-playaction passes to 22.9 percent on playaction passes). That trend may be here to stay.
Dallas also yielded one sack on a playaction pass against the Bengals.
18. What will the Cowboys do in the red zone to improve?
Well, not much, but it is only one game. I completed a study detailing why teams should run more inside the 10-yard line, but the Cowboys passed three straight times while inside the five during their first drive.
However, the Cowboys did have one 1st and Goal run play nullified due to a defensive penalty (and a Felix Jones fumbled), and they actually called a pass play on the subsequent 1st and Goal from the two-yard line. Romo attempted a back shoulder fade to Roy Williams, though, and overthrew him.
Jason Witten was also not out in a route on two of the three ‘Goal-To-Go’ pass plays, although the first one was a designed run, so we obviously wouldn’t expect him to be in a route. He stayed in to block on 2nd and Goal, then went out into a route on 3rd and Goal.
19. Will the ‘Boys run more on 3rd down?
These statistics are of course very situational with the limited sample size, but Dallas ran three times on 3rd down–twice with a single yard-to-go and once on 3rd and 6. The Cowboys converted only one of the three plays for a first down.
Despite their failures against Cincy, I still think the ‘Boys should run more on third down.
Note: I have just finished breaking down Sunday’s game film and I will be posting final observations and player grades tonight/tomorrow.