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Preseason Week Five, Cowboys vs. Dolphins: 12 Things to Watch

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Jonathan Bales

The Cowboys’ preseason hasn’t exactly gone as planned, but there is still time to get thing right before the regular season.  Although most of the starters probably won’t play, the game is an opportunity for fringe players to show they talents and for the team as a whole to display more passion than in the previous two contests.  Here are 12 things in particular for you to watch tomorrow night. . .

1.  How long will Dez Bryant play?

This is the big one.  Of course we all want to see Bryant in a game, and it appears this may be our first opportunity.  You know Bryant is going to be fired up to face the team that he feels disrespected him before the draft.

I personally don’t think Bryant should play much, if at all.  Perhaps a quick screen pass or slant and then get him out of there.  The Cowboys have 11 days until their first regular season game–11 days which could be important in Bryant’s healing process.  A setback would be a devastating to this team, both from a personnel standpoint and a mental one.

2.  Which starters will get playing time?

It appeared earlier in the week that all of the starters might get some reps, including Tony Romo, but that won’t be the case.  Only selected starters will see the field on Thursday night, which is the right move.  We’ll see which starters Wade Phillips believes don’t need a rest.  My guess is it will be the “starters” who are actually backups to injured players–Montrae Holland, Alex Barron, and so on.

3.  How will Stephen McGee perform as a starter?

McGee could very well be playing for his job tomorrow night.  He’s done some good things this preseason, but he doesn’t seem to have that “it” factor which Romo displayed when he was in McGee’s situation.

If the Cowboys don’t think McGee has a long-term future in Dallas, they should cut him.  The team could keep one of the talented players who is on the roster bubble right now–a guy like Bryan McCann or Danny McCray, perhaps.  To me, that is more valuable than a third-string quarterback who has virtually zero chance of seeing the field.

4.  Will Jason Garrett call plays differently in an attempt to get the Cowboys’ offense on a roll?

So far, the offense has been extremely, extremely basic.  They’ve run the same plays again and again.  I’ve detailed particular plays from “Double Tight Strong” (and “I”) and “Double Tight Left Twins Right Ace” which the Cowboys have dialed up numerous times in each game.

It is obvious that the team doesn’t want to show anything for the regular season, but at what cost?  Could the predictable play-calling and subsequent inability to execute be affecting the confidence of the players?  While I don’t think you’ll see anything too unique against Miami, I do think Garrett will be slightly more innovative in his play-calling to gain some measure of offensive success, even if it is with the second-team.

5.  Will Dallas line up in “Double Tight Left Twins Right Ace” and which plays will they call from it?

This question is of course related to the previous one, but I will be particularly interested to see if the Cowboys continue to call the same play (below) from this formation.  If you are watching at home and see the Cowboys line up in it, key the tight end who is on the line of scrimmage.  If he runs a hitch and is the first read, it’s likely the same play.

Having said that, I want to make it clear that I’m not criticizing Garrett’s play-calling. . .yet.  If I continue to be able to predict multiple Cowboys plays pre-snap during the regular season, though, that might change.

6.  Will Danny McCray or Michael Hamlin get reps at nickel linebacker?

I was a little shocking to hear the Cowboys are considering two safeties–McCray and Hamlin–as nickel linebackers.  They’ve already told rookie Sean Lee’s he’s basically out of the running for the position (for now anyway).  That was more than a little surprising and leaves Jason Williams as the favorite to win the job now.

McCray and Hamlin should both get an excellent opportunity to show they are able to handle nickel linebacker.  This is such an interesting battle because both players could be fighting for a roster spot. . .and it might be the same one.  Strangely, they’ll face off at a position completely separate from the one at which they hope to eventually contribute.

7.  How will the Cowboys’ defense, which has struggled against the run of late, hold up against Miami’s rushing attack?

The Cowboys were gashed by both San Diego and Houston in the run game.  They looked uninspired in both games, but particularly on Saturday in Houston. 

You certainly have to have the right personnel to stop the run, but just as often it is about a willingness to get the job done.  Perhaps some of the players are making “business decisions” by steering clear of some tackles this preseason, but players such as Mike Jenkins and, in particular, Alan Ball need to become more aggressive in run support for Dallas to improve.

8.  Can Sean Lee rebound from an awful performance on Saturday night?

Lee really struggled in Houston.  He was consistently blown backwards and didn’t show instincts which I know he possesses.  It is quite possible that his early injury has set him back mentally to the point that he is thinking too much on the field–and not simply playing football.  I do think he’ll come around, and tomorrow night is a tremendous chance for him to show he is capable of learning from his mistakes.

9.  How will fringe players Bryan McCann, Chris Gronkowski, and Travis Bright perform?

I see these three players as the most “iffy” to make the final roster.  It could really go either way.  I personally love McCann and really hope he makes the team, but he could fall victim to a numbers game at his position.  Cletis Gordon is all but assured the No. 4 cornerback job, and with two safeties who are capable of playing cornerback, there might not be room for a fifth guy at the position.

Gronkowski will have to convince Dallas that he is worthy of the team keeping two fullbacks (assuming they retain Deon Anderson).  He hasn’t impressed me with his lead blocking, although he did improve last week.  He’s skilled as a receiver, but I don’t think that’s of much worth to Dallas.

Like Gronkowski, Bright picked up his play last week.  It was by no means a dominating performance, but with the lack of depth the Cowboys have at the guard position, he at least put himself in contention for a roster spot.  This is a big game for him.

10.  Will Cletis Gordon continue to push Orlando Scandrick for possible playing time in nickel packages?

In the last two or three games, Gordon has outplayed Scandrick.  He’s shown true play-making ability and if he keeps it up, there’s a chance he could get some time with the nickel package this season.

Of course, Gordon didn’t line up against Andre Johnson this preseason either.  I’d love to see coach Phillips match Gordon up against Brandon Marshall (assuming the Dolphins do indeed play their starters).

11.  Will David Buehler finally get a chance to attempt some field goals and how will he do?

Zero field goal attempts in the last two games is good for Buehler (as far as his job is concerned), but not particularly useful for Dallas.  As long as Buehler doesn’t choke he’ll begin the season as the placekicker, but the Cowboys still want to see him make some semi-long field goals, particularly in pressure situations.

12.  Will the team play with more passion?

The “vanilla” play-calling on both offense and defense is certainly part of the reason the Cowboys have struggled this preseason, but it isn’t the only reason.  The team has looked tired, bored, and uninspired.  It would be one thing if it was veteran players who are simply sick of yet another training camp, but even the fringe players have appeared to play without much passion.

Let’s see if the Cowboys treat this game more like one that “counts” than an exhibition, not from a personnel standpoint, but by getting fired up and doing more to actually win the game.

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4 Responses to Preseason Week Five, Cowboys vs. Dolphins: 12 Things to Watch

  1. john coleman says:

    I’m not sure I want to see Dez and don’t know how it will help him. Maybe just a few plays so he has the feel of playing against a NFL player who isn’t his teammate. Nothing over the middle until it counts. He may want to field a punt which I think would be really insane. I find it interesting that the this could be it for McGhee stuff has come up out of nowhere. However, I definitely agree, if he shows nothing it’s time to go. There was a time earlier this year when the Nichols kid actually looked more poised than McGhee. He muffed a snap and still made a play. The big issue is if you keep him, you let another good player go. The safety battle will be interesting as well. How unlikely is it that we end up with two UDFAs and a draft pick who is essentially a rookie battling? People were screaming safety and now we have too many. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Hamlin as the odd man out. I hope they start Church at SS and lets see. He’s the best tackler of the bunch, including the starters. It’s time to go or blow.

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