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Preseason Week Five, Cowboys vs. Dolphins: What We Learned About Dallas

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Jonathan Bales

Answers to my pre-game article on what to watch in last night’s Cowboys-Dolphins game. . .

1.  How long will Dez Bryant play?

I asked this questions when it appeared as though Bryant was going to get some reps.  Thankfully, he didn’t get any.  I wrote a blog post about why this was a good idea.  See you in Washington, Dez.

2.  Which starters will get playing time?

My pre-game prediction that only “starters” who are actually backups but are on the first-team due to injuries ahead of them–Montrae Holland, Alex Barron, etc.–came to fruition.  I think this was the smart move by Dallas.  The team will be well-rested and generally healthy heading into the first regular season game.

3.  How will Stephen McGee perform as a starter?

Tremendously.  The kid earned himself a roster spot last night.  He showed off a wide range of physical tools and looked much more comfortable mentally.  From my initial post-game notes:

  • The most impressive player on offense was undoubtedly Stephen McGee.  He played sensationally tonight and locked up a roster spot.  His arm strength and athleticism were never in question, but tonight he made good reads and got the ball downfield.  He stood tall in the pocket in the face of pressure–something he had yet to do on a consistent basis.  His 43-yard touchdown pass to Sam Hurd was a thing of beauty.
  • I also loved the passion McGee displayed tonight.  He got in Jesse Holley’s face when the receiver didn’t run the right route in one play, letting everyone know who was in charge.

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

Actually, yes.  While he didn’t fully open up the playbook, the Cowboys were undoubtedly a bit less conservative in their play-calling.  They ran their first counter in two games, attempted some playaction passes, and most importantly, aired the ball out downfield on a handful of occasions.

Garrett’s choice to be slightly less conservative was probably not only about getting on a roll, but also seeing what Stephen McGee is made of.  This makes me think McGee’s job really was on the line tonight.  Otherwise, why not give Jon Kitna at least a few reps?

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

I have yet to complete my film study, but I do not recall the Cowboys lining up in the formation at all last night.  I will let you know for sure in my final film observations.

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

Both players got some reps there.  Hamlin looked the best of the two, as he is more natural in coverage.  McCray didn’t make many plays last night, but luckily for him, neither did Barry Church.

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

With the exception of a 42-yard Ricky Williams run, the Cowboys have to be happy about the way their second-team defense performed against Miami.  They did yield an unimpressive 6.4 yards-per-carry, but only 4.0 if you take out the Williams run.

I know you can’t just make one run disappear to improve an average, but the point is that the Cowboys didn’t get consistently gashed by the running game as they did in the past two contests.  Instead, they performed relatively well with only one hiccup.

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

Lee certainly played better.  He still needs to work on shedding blocks and not getting trapped inside on outside runs, but he looked improved in pass coverage.  He also showed some really good instincts on a third quarter sack of Tyler Thigpen, initially dropping into coverage, seeing no one threaten his zone, then flying up to nail the quarterback.  He seems to play well when he isn’t “thinking” and just reacting to what he sees.

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

McCann was terrible.  I wrote in my post-game notes:

Bryan McCann really struggled tonight.  He got beat continually in man and zone coverage, frequently staying in his backpedal too long. His tackling was also horrendous.  He never wraps up and leads with his head.  Miami knew it and three quick screens at him on one drive.

Gronkowski and Bright, on the other hand, both played their best games of the preseason.  I’ve criticized Gronkowski’s lead blocking a lot, but he really looked pretty good tonight.  Dallas has a tough decision on their hands regarding the status of Deon Anderson, although I do think they’ll keep him.

Gronkowski also adds value to Dallas as a short-yardage runner.  He may be a better option than Marion Barber or Felix Jones on 3rd and 1.

Bright, who was overpowered early in the preseason, showed some explosiveness and better technique tonight.  I still like Phil Costa much more, but Bright may have earned himself a roster spot at a guard position which is rather thin for the Cowboys.

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

Probably not, at least for a little while.  Gordon had his worst game of the preseason last night (although it still wasn’t that bad).  He needs to be more physical in press coverage and, when he does play off, he is giving up way too large of a cushion.  That’s giving him problems when he has to drive on the football.

Gordon’s ball skills and athleticism are tremendous, so there’s no reason for him to be playing so far off receivers at times.  If he lets receiver eat away his cushion a bit more, he can use his coverage ability and athleticism to defend deep routes, while also then being able to more easily drive on routes such as comebacks, outs, and so on.

Man Coverage with Off Technique

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

Yes, and incredibly.  To me, Buehler’s play is the most positive sign of the preseason for the Cowboys.  He was four-of-four on field goals last night, including a 51-yarder and a game-winner.  More importantly, he struck every ball really well and his kickoffs are still stellar.  He will open the season as Dallas’ placekicker.

12. Will the team play with more passion?

Yes.  I think a lot of this had to do with who was playing–second and third-string players whose jobs were on the line.  There’s quite a difference between a veteran going through the motions and an undrafted rookie whose only shot at the NFL rides perhaps on just one game, one quarter, or one play.

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