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Preseason Week Three, Cowboys at Chargers: 12 Things to Watch

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Jonathan Bales

1.  How much will the starters play?

This would typically be the Cowboys’ second preseason game.  Combining that with the fact that Coach Phillips has said the overall playing time for starters will remain steady despite an extra game and I’d estimate the starters will play a full quarter (or perhaps a bit longer).  The goal was 15 plays last week, so this week you might see the No. 1’s in there for 25 or so plays.

2.  How will the offense execute against a 3-4 defense?

After a stint with just a few 3-4 teams in the entire league, more and more squads are transitioning to the 3-4 defense.  This is good for the Dallas offense, as they face one of the best 3-4 defenses (their own) in practice every day.

San Diego will be an excellent test for the ‘Boys after they struggled against Cincinnati and Oakland.  A quick back like Felix Jones can often flourish against a 3-4 defense which typically implements bigger (and often slow) linebackers.

3.  Will Robert Brewster, starting in place of the injured Marc Colombo, step up after a lackluster start to the 2010 preseason?  Can he contain Shawne Merriman and Shaun Phillips?

Brewster is the primary player I will have my eyes on during this contest.  He has been running with the first team during Colombo’s absence, despite struggling mightily in the first two preseason games.

He will have his hands full on Saturday with the Chargers’ dynamic Shawne and Shaun outside linebacker duo.  Perhaps blocking players who are in a stand-up position will make Brewster more comfortable.  He should already be a bit more at ease on the right side of the line.

4.  With his roster spot possibly on the line, how will receiver Kevin Ogletree respond after two poor games?

Ogletree had two drops last week and has exhibited poor field awareness (and sometimes seemingly poor effort) in both games.  His roster spot is certainly not guaranteed, particularly with a better special teams player in Jesse Holley breathing down his neck.  Ogletree is a more naturally gifted pass-catcher, but that doesn’t really mean anything without production.

5.  Will the offense continue to use so much Shotgun?

Last week, the Cowboys lined up in two formations–“Gun Spread” and “Gun Tight End Spread”–on 28 plays.  That probably had a lot to do with the lack of tight end depth, but Dallas may continue to implement more Shotgun formations once rookie Dez Bryant returns.

6.  Will Dallas be more effective on their draw plays?

They’ve averaged just 3.13 yards-per-carry on draws this preseason.  In my Ultimate Guide to Dallas Cowboys Draws, I explained why running less draws would allow the Cowboys to become more efficient when they do run them.

7.  Will we see the debuts of rookies Sean Lee and Akwasi Owusu-Ansah?  If so, how will Lee perform in coverage and will AOA show something special on returns?

I’m ecstatic to be able to watch these guys suit up and play.  Sean Lee is in a battle with Jason Williams for the nickel linebacker job.  He outperformed him in the offseason, but we have yet to see how he plays in full pads at game-speed.  Here was my initial reaction to the Lee selection.

‘Kwasi was one of about five guys I desperately wanted the Cowboys to draft.  I even had him on my list of 10 “sleeper” draft picks for Dallas.  He has the potential to be an All-Pro return man.

In my opinion, AOA will eventually become the starting free safety in Dallas as well.  He is very cerebral and has outstanding size and athleticism, but there are still some questions about how he will hold up against the big boys after coming out of Indiana of Pennsylvania.

8.  How will the linebackers and safeties perform against one of the league’s premiere tight ends?

The Dallas defense is notorious for struggling against athletic tight ends.  They improved some last season with the additions of Keith Brooking (who is surprisingly effective in coverageI gave him a “B” in my 2009 Inside Linebacker Grades) and Gerald Sensabaugh.

The Chargers’ Antonio Gates is obviously a top-tier pass-catching tight end, so the Cowboys will have an excellent opportunity to prove their linebackers and safeties won’t be a weak spot in coverage.

9.  Will nose tackles Junior Siavii and Josh Brent continue to play well enough to force the coaches to contemplate keeping both players?

I predicted that both players will make the team in my last 53-man roster projection.  Siavii performed well against the run last season (6.52 percent tackle rate) and looks good again so far in 2010.  He could help himself by getting to the passer this weekend.

I’ve personally gone out on a limb and guaranteed that Brent makes the squad.  His motor and athleticism are Ratliff-esque.

10.  It is a make-or-break game for rookie cornerback Jamar Wall.  Will he show something?

Personally, I don’t see Wall as anything more than a cover-two cornerback.  He gives up too much of a cushion due to a lack of straight-line speed and has demonstrated poor footwork and hips, particularly on out-breaking routes.

He’s been heavily outplayed by Cletis Gordon, Bryan McCann, and even Teddy Williams.  He needs to come up big in the next few games to even have a shot at cracking the 53-man roster.

11.  Will Leon Williams continue to show he deserves a roster spot?

Although he’s shown to be a little over-matched in pass coverage, Williams is a strong, physical player who can dominate in tight areas.  He’s competing with guys like Curtis Johnson for a roster spot.  His play on special teams will be critical.

12.  Can David Buehler continue the success he had against the Raiders?

Buehler looked sensational on his field goals against Oakland after struggling somewhat in the Hall of Fame game.  He has kicked the ball quite well in practice since the last game, and right now he’s got to be considered the favorite to win all kicking duties in Dallas.  If Buehler can do that, it will give the ‘Boys a lot of flexibility in their roster decisions, but he must first show consistency.  That starts Saturday in San Diego.

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