Preseason Week Four, Cowboys vs. Texans: What We Learned
I gave you 12 things to watch in the Cowboys vs. Texans game. Here is what we learned. . .
1. Can Tony Romo get back on track? Will he be able to play better against the blitz?
While the Cowboys played a very basic, “vanilla” offense, the Texans blitzed more than any team I have ever seen in a preseason game. Romo was in the contest for 30 plays and Houston brought extra pressure on an insane 20 of them (66.7 percent). That would be a large percentage for a regular season game, much less an exhibition against a team you face “for real” in a few weeks.
Of those 20 Houston blitzes, Romo threw 12 times, completing eight (66.7 percent) for 80 yards (6.67 yards-per-attempt). Romo missed a few open receivers, although I credited him with only two passes that were truly “off-target.”
Romo will be the first to tell you the entire offense must improve, and that starts with him.
2. Will any of the Cowboys’ quarterbacks throw the ball downfield?
The Cowboys attempted 11 passes of 10+ yards after throwing just six last week. However, they still threw a lot of underneath routes, including 17 passes of five yards or less (although a lot of those came on check downs from McGee late in the game).
I thought Dallas might max-protect a few times to allow Romo & Co. to take a few shots downfield. They did actually keep Jason Witten in to block on 10 of 20 pass plays. That’s quite a lot more than the rate at which Witten blocked last season, but only one of those 10 passes traveled more than 20 yards.
3. Who will start at right tackle, Robert Brewster or Alex Barron? How will each player perform?
After Brewster’s strong performance at right tackle last week, Barron got the nod this week. He played decently, but he was by no means outstanding. He didn’t give up any sacks but did yield some pressure, and he wasn’t particularly intimidating in the run game. He was a “point-of-attack” blocker on two Cowboys runs that went for a total of zero yards.
I thought Brewster played pretty well at left tackle. He didn’t get in until late in the third quarter and by that time Dallas was down big, so we really only got to see him in pass protection. He did a fine job, though, although Houston was no longer bringing much heat.
4. Will left tackle Doug Free hold his own against Mario Williams?
Williams got to Romo a few times, but it came primarily on stunts. The Texans were calling plays as if this was a regular season game, twisting their defensive linemen on a number of occasions. Thus, Williams actually got a lot of his pressure up the middle.
Free did a pretty god job in pass protection, but he still has to work on his technique on power runs (as opposed to tosses, counters, and so on).
5. As always, will the offense keep running strong side dives out of “Double Tight Strong”?
Yes, although they only lined up in the formation once. It was the predictable strong side dive, and it went for two yards.
6. Will the offense continue to run weak side out of “Double Tight I”?
The offense also lined up in “Double Tight I” once, running (as I predicted pre-snap) a weak side run. Last week, I explained why they do this. Maybe this week I’ll explain why they need to stop doing it.
7. How about a toss to the two-tight end side of “Double Tight Left Twins Right Ace?”
Nope. Dallas lined up in the formation five times, but all five plays were passes. However, the play was the same each time, and I have drawn a diagram of it below.
As you can see, the inside tight end runs a five-yard hitch while the outside tight end runs a flat. The inside tight end (usually Martellus Bennett) is the first read on the play.
On the opposite side, the slot receiver runs a little hook, sitting down in a weak spot in the defense, while the outside (Z) receiver has an option route. Depending on coverage, he either runs a 15-yard dig or a fade. If he beats his man off of the line (as Roy Williams did on the second quarter pass on which Romo overthrew him), the quarterback can hit him deep. If the defense is in a “safe” coverage, such as cover 3 or 4, the receiver turns his route into a dig.
The running back runs a swing to the double-tight side of the formation.
This was the play on which Jon Kitna threw a 24-yard touchdown to Kevin Ogletree.
8. Will newly-acquired tight end Martin Rucker get playing time, and can he make a case for a roster spot over the under-performing Chris Gronkowski and Scott Sicko?
Rucker did get some action and hauled in one pass. At this point, it will be hard for Rucker to make the roster without putting much on game tape. Obviously Dallas likes something about him since they claimed him off of waivers. Next week will be his big opportunity to prove he deserves a roster spot.
9. Will center/guard Phil Costa continue to outperform guard Travis Bright?
Well, there wasn’t much action for either player. Both players came into the game late in the third quarter, and Dallas only ran the ball twice the rest of the contest. All Shotgun snaps from Costa appeared on target, though, and both players did well in pass protection (although by that point Houston was no longer blitzing or stunting).
10. Will rookie Sean Lee show why the Cowboys traded up to draft him in his first NFL start?
Not at all. Lee got blown off of the ball all night. He looked hesitant on his reads and just looked over-matched. He even showed poor hustle on a screen pass–something I thought I’d never see from him. He needs to work on shedding blocks, diagnosing the play, and using his athleticism to make something happen.
11. How will the Cowboys’ secondary match up against one of the league’s premiere passing attacks?
Not good. Starting cornerbacks Terence Newman and Mike Jenkins were schooled by Andre Johnson, while Orlando Scandrick struggled in the slot.
Scandrick yielded a touchdown to Jacoby Jones, although, as I mentioned in my Cowboys/Texans post-game notes, the Cowboys were in Cover 1. That means safety Alan Ball was deep and his only responsibility was to not allow anyone to get behind him. He was fooled by a unique play design in which Matt Schaub rolled out to the right and Jones came back across the middle of the field. Teams rarely throw across the field on a rollout, but both Scandrick and Ball have no excuse for getting beat.
12. Safeties Barry Church and Danny McCray may be fighting for the same roster spot. Who will step up?
It was a quiet night for both players, although I did see McCray overrun a few plays. I still think Church has the slight advantage right now. He’s been better on defense, while McCray has stood out on special teams.