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By Jonathan Bales

Preseason Week Three, Cowboys vs. Texans: 12 Things to Watch

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Jonathan Bales

As the fourth game on their five-game preseason schedule, Saturday night’s match-up against Houston will be the closest to a “real game” that Dallas will encounter until September 12 in Washington.  The starters will get significant playing time and will be able to go into the game with nearly the same mentality as that of a regular season game.  In addition to watching if the team comes out with that same regular season-type fire, here are 12 other things to watch. . .

1.  Can Tony Romo get back on track?  Will he be able to play better against the blitz?

By my count, Romo has been off-target on 10 of 28 passes this preseason.  That rate of 35.7 percent is nearly double that of last season, as you can see in my 2009 breakdown of Romo’s off-target passes.

He’s also just three-for-nine against the blitz, with only 36 yards passing and an interception.  That’s a passer rating of 6.9.

Romo is one of the top quarterbacks in the league when facing pressure, though, so these numbers are simply the result of a small sample size.  Romo will be fine, starting this weekend against the Texans.

2.  Will any of the Cowboys’ quarterbacks throw the ball downfield?

With Robert Brewster and Montrae Holland starting on the offensive line against San Diego, it seemed as though the Cowboys made it a priority for the quarterbacks to unleash the ball quickly.  They threw just six passes over 10 yards all game, and only two traveled 15+ yards.  An incredible 18 of the passes were five yards or less.

With added confidence in both Brewster and Holland, the Cowboys may feel more comfortable taking some shots down the field.  That’s especially true against a weak Houston secondary.

3.  Who will start at right tackle, Robert Brewster or Alex Barron?  How will each player perform?

Barron took some reps at right tackle in practice this week and reportedly looked pretty shaky.  Brewster played well against San Diego and will probably get the nod to start.  Still, expect Barron to get some reps at right tackle.  The Cowboys want to see if he will be their swing tackle (once Marc Colombo returns) or just a backup left tackle.

4.  Will left tackle Doug Free hold his own against Mario Williams?

Doug Free has exceeded expectations thus far this preseason.  He played tremendously against the Bengals and Chargers and, although he yielded a sack, decently against the Raiders.

He hasn’t faced a pass-rusher of the quality of Mario Williams, though.  Williams will test Free like nobody he’s faced (outside of DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer in practice).  Let’s see if Free is up to the challenge.

5.  As always, will the offense keep running strong side dives out of “Double Tight Strong”?

Seven times lining up in the formation against San Diego, and seven strong side dives.  That raises the rate of strong side dives from “Double Tight Strong” to 85.7 percent–even more than that which I found in my analysis of the Cowboys’ 2009 usage of the formation.

It is only preseason, of course, so let’s hope Jason Garrett is simply setting up teams for the regular season.

6.  Will the offense continue to run weak side out of “Double Tight I”?

Last season, the Cowboys ran a strong side dive out of both the “Strong” and “I” variations of the “Double Tight Left or Right formation.

This preseason, they are running weak side out of the latter variation (I-formation).   The reason is simple: the weak side lead block for the fullback is easier if he lines up behind the center as compared to lining up between the strong side guard and tackle.  On Saturday night, they lined up in Double Tight Right I Right twice, running weak side both times and losing four total yards.


7.  How about a toss to the two-tight end side of “Double Tight Left Twins Right Ace?”

As I explained in my final film observations from the Chargers game, the Cowboys have lined up in a new formation this year called “Double Tight Left Twins Right Ace” (or vice versa).  The play-calling out of this formation is by no means as predictable as that from “Double Tight Strong,” but I’ve noticed that Dallas has frequently lined up in “Double Tight Right Ace” and motioned the receiver on the Double Tight side of the formation over into a twins set, running a toss to the two-tight end side.  The play, which I (and not the Cowboys) have titled “Double Tight Right Ace Liz 28 Toss” is shown to the left.

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 is behind the curve mentally, so he will have to show he’s picked up the offense.  If he can do that, he’ll have a chance to make the 53-man roster, as his competition, Gronkowski and Sicko, haven’t been stellar.

Gronkowski is a fullback but, because I can’t see Dallas cutting starter Deon Anderson, he’ll probably have to take the spot of a tight end to make the roster.  I can’t see that happening, as he’s been absolutely awful as a blocker.

Sicko played well in the Hall of Fame game but, like Gronkowski, needs to improve his blocking.

9.  Will center/guard Phil Costa continue to outperform guard Travis Bright?

Costa holds a big-time advantage over Bright right now because, not only has he been superior on the football field, but he is also more versatile.  Costa will likely be Dallas’ backup center this season (even once Kyle Kosier returns), while Bright, unless he steps up in a hurry, will probably be relegated to the practice squad once again.

10.  Will rookie Sean Lee show why the Cowboys traded up to draft him in his first NFL start?

This may be the most interesting aspect of Saturday night’s game.  Lee had an up-and-down night last week, but showed that he is capable of learning (quickly) from his mistakes.  That’s an important characteristic for any football player.

With starter Keith Brooking nursing a sprained AC joint, Lee will have an opportunity to prove he’s the future for the Cowboys at inside linebacker.  Watch to see how Lee performs in coverage, in particular, as he will almost certainly be Dallas’ nickel linebacker this season.

11.  How will the Cowboys’ secondary match up against one of the league’s premiere passing attacks?

The starters will get significant playing time, so let’s see how Terence Newman and Mike Jenkins take on the challenge of the No. 1 WR on my 2010 All-Pro offense, Andre Johnson.  Jenkins got beat a few times last week, losing his leverage and failing to press receivers, while Newman played superbly.

As always, the success of the cornerbacks will be dependent on that of their teammates–a strong pass rush will allow the ‘Boys to provide safety help over the top, making Jenkins’ and Newman’s jobs much easier.

12.  Safeties Barry Church and Danny McCray may be fighting for the same roster spot.  Who will step up?

I’ve been really impressed with Church.  He’s been okay in coverage, but outstanding in run support.  I think he has the leg up on McCray and Pat Watkins for the final safety spot on the roster.

McCray’s saving grace has been his special teams play, but I don’t think it’s been enough so far.  He blew a coverage last week and hasn’t performed nearly as well on defense as Church to this point.

The battle is still up in the air, though, so a couple of strong performances from McCray in the final two preseason games could win him the job.

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9 Responses to Preseason Week Three, Cowboys vs. Texans: 12 Things to Watch

  1. john coleman says:

    Offensively we need to make people pay for blitzing. I don’t thinkthat is just a preseason problem. By paying I mean we need to get some big plays. Not just completions, but 20 to 30 yard completions. I also think we need to do whatever is necessary to get the ball deep. So many things open up if you have the downfield threat. I hope to see more positive out of the OTs. We need Barron to play well and hopefully Brewster does too. It’s Free’s chance to silence the critics for good. I think Sean Lee will build on last week and look good. The safety battle gets better each week. The TE situation is also a mind bender. I’m not sure what they looking for here. My guess is they are not comfortable with blocking depth. That makes it a huge deal in this offense. As you mentioned all of the two tight sets makes depth a priority. I mean we are the Dallas TEs. We have to be the most TE crazy team in the league. I actually think It hurts our offense sometimes. It seems like the TE is the 1st option. The Superbowl teams of the 90′s used the TE as the safety valve. Hum!

  2. John–I am doing my “DOs and DON’Ts” for the game right now, and one of them is DO use max protection to allow the quarterbacks to throw downfield, so we are on the same page there.

    As far as the tight ends, I think (hope) you’ll see less two-tight end sets once Dez Bryant returns. As long as Witten/Bennett are healthy they are fine, but if one would get injured, the number of two-tight end sets would plummet and Dallas should be able to not miss a beat with their three-receiver sets.

  3. john coleman says:

    I think Dez is the key to the whole offense this year. He can be the playmaker opposite Miles, that opens things up for everybody. I think most teams are comfortable singling up on the other guys. Witten/Bennett stand to benefit also with more room underneath. I would definitely expect more three wides if Dez can stay healthy. I think if teams choose to go man on him they will pay. I hear he is running routes today.

  4. Pingback: DOs and DON’Ts for Cowboys vs. Houston Texans - NFL Super Bowl Live Online

  5. Brett says:

    Jonathan, Great site. //// I have a question for you. You watch tons of film and like me are a huge cowboys fan. I think romo IS an elite QB but it seems when i watch other QB’s play they throw difficult balls that float over the WR shoulders or put a ball on a reciever where only he can get it – even though he may look covered. ///// My question is, After watching so much film do you see Romo attempting an adeqate number of those passes or does he tend to throw to a reciver that is “obviously” open only. Example is a curl route or crossing pattern that is either open/not open. I could be wrong but it feels like he doesn’t attempt the same passes as other elite QB’s. What does the film say? __ Hope that makes sense.

  6. Brett–great question. I agree that Romo has tended to move around in the pocket to buy time for receivers to get wide open instead of fitting the ball into a tight window. Is one method better than another? I’m not sure, but with Romo’s improvisation skills I think he should stick with what works.

    Now, if you’ve noticed, he is attempting a lot more back shoulder passes this season. I think you can expect to see a few of these every game, whereas before he only threw one, maybe two per game, usually by the goal line.

    Off-hand, I can think of four attempts already this preseason. If I remember correctly, he’s only attempted 28 passes.

    Even if the routes Romo throws are different than those of other elite QBs, that doesn’t mean he should change. What he does works. He isn’t a Peyton Manning-type quarterback who can excel throwing comebacks and deep ins. But hey, Manning isn’t a Romo-type QB who can scramble around and buy time for receivers to make something happen.

  7. Pingback: Cowboys vs. Texans Live In-Game Blog, Game Updates | Dallas Cowboys Times

  8. Brett says:

    Thanks Jonathon, Thats why I come here. For your detailed analysis. I wish I would have thought of this site before you!

  9. Haha thanks Brett. Appreciate you coming.

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