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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