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“Grading the ‘Boys”: Preseason Week Two, Cowboys vs. Raiders

Jonathan Bales

My film study of the Oakland game is complete.  Thus far, I have posted my initial game reactions, things we learned from the contest, and final film study observations.

In my first “Grading the ‘Boys” from the Bengals game, I explained that it would be impossible for me to study every player as closely as I deem necessary for grading.  Instead, I watch a select group of players in great detail and report back to you on their performance.

WR Miles Austin:  A

Made a highlight catch and even got action on an end-around

NT Josh Brent: A-

Motor is second to none; I personally guarantee he makes this team

OT Robert Brewster: D-

Yielded another sack and looks over-matched at both left and right tackle

OG Travis Bright: D

Play must make Dallas extremely nervous about backup guard situation

LB Keith Brooking: A-

Lined up on tight end Zach Miller out wide and blanketed him

K David Buehler: A+

Looked sensational on field goals and kickoffs; struck the ball really well on all kicks

OLB Victor Butler: B

A small dip in production from Cincy game, but still solid outing

RT Marc Colombo: F

Gave up two sacks and didn’t dominate in run game

RB Herb Donaldson: C

Didn’t do much “wrong,” but lacks explosiveness

TE DajLeon Farr: B

Signed two days prior to game and no noticeable mental errors

LT Doug Free: C

Let Jon Kitna get sacked (although Kitna could have stepped up); must be more consistent

DE Jason Hatcher: B+

Really nice game after Stephen Bowen stood out against the Bengals

WR Jesse Holley: B

Stood out on special teams; always near the ball-carrier

LB Bradie James: A

All over the field, particularly against the pass

WR Manuel Johnson: D

Dropped pass led to pick-six in crucial situation

QB Jon Kitna: B

Getting flack, but did a fine job; made great audible to hit Sam Hurd on 32-yard pass

P Mat McBriar: A

So under-appreciated

CB Bryan McCann: B

Still shows poor technique at times, but looks natural in coverage; solid job on returns

QB Stephen McGee: C-

Leaves pocket too early; fails to hit check down in time; looks to be “thinking” too much

WR Kevin Ogletree: D

Two drops and poor field awareness once again

QB Tony Romo: C

Poor outing for Romo; held onto ball too long and missed a few open receivers

CB Orlando Scandrick: A

Has been Cowboys’ best cornerback through two games

NT Junior Siavii: B+

Showed toughness and plays the run nicely

CB Jamar Wall: C-

Can only play certain routes well; no way he makes 53-man roster in my opinion

LB Jason Williams: B+

Ironically flourishing in run support, but played pass better than Week One

LB Leon Williams: B+

Outplaying Steve Octavien and Curtis Johnson right now for roster spot

WR Roy Williams: C

Blanketed all night, but did face Nnamdi Asomugha

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Preseason Week Two, Cowboys vs. Raiders: Final Film Study Observations

  • The Cowboys lined up in “Double Tight Strong” (or a slight variation of it) four times, running a strong side dive on two of those plays.  The ability to use the formation was obviously limited by the lack of depth at tight end.  In the first two preseason games, the Cowboys have now lined up in the formation seven times and run five strong side dives.  That rate of 71.4 percent is nearly identical to the 71.6 percent clip at which the team ran a strong side dive out of the formation last season.
  • The Cowboys lined up in “Gun Spread” or “Gun Tight End Spread” on 28 total plays.  Again, this was likely due to the lack of tight ends (and being behind at the end of the game).
  • As I noted in my article on what we learned from the Raiders game, the Cowboys ran just seven two-tight end sets of a possible 67 plays (10.5 percent), compared to 44 plays with three or more receivers on the field (65.7 percent)–including 23 plays with four receivers.  In comparison, the Cowboys ran a two-tight end set 15.9 percent of the time against the Bengals and just 39.1 percent of plays implemented three receivers (and none with four).

  • The Cowboys’ offensive line obviously need to perform better.  The first-teamers allowed four sacks in limited action, which is simply unacceptable.  Marc Colombo in particular really struggled.  He gave up two of the sacks and was beat on a few other plays.  I also credited Doug Free, Robert Brewster, and Travis Bright with sacks (and one I put on Romo for holding the ball too long).
  • Five of the Cowboys 19 called runs (26.3 percent) were to the weak side. They ran weak side on 19.5 percent of all runs last season.
  • Dallas ran nine draws for 23 yards (2.56 yards-per-carry) against Oakland.  That brings their preseason draw total to 47 yards on 15 carries (3.13 yards-per-carry).  In my Ultimate Guide to Dallas Cowboys Draws, I explained why they should use the draw less often.
  • The Raiders blitzed just five times on Thursday night.  The Cowboys completed three of five passes for 35 yards and an interception in these situations.  Dallas has struggled mightily against the blitz in the first two games, throwing for just 48 yards on 12 passes and rushing for 15 yards on five carries.
  • Roy Williams looked sharp in limited action on Sunday night, but he was blanketed by the Raiders’ cornerbacks.  He did a nice job of breaking up a would-be interception by Nnamdi Asomugha, but that wouldn’t be a necessity if Asomugha wasn’t in better position to catch the football than Williams.
  • Jon Kitna checked out of a play and hit Sam Hurd down the sideline for a 32-yard gain.  I’ve watched the play multiple times and still can’t figure out what he saw in the defense, but I guess that’s why he’s in the NFL and I’m spending my time writing about him.  Boo ya.

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Preseason Week Two, Cowboys vs. Raiders: What We Learned

Jonathan Bales

Early this morning, I published my initial reactions and game notes from the Cowboys vs. Raiders contest last night.  Since then, I spent about six hours dissecting the game film.  Below are the answers to the 13 pre-game questions I proposed a few days ago.  Pardon any typos, as I am running on three hours of sleep.

1. How much will the starters play and will they erupt against Oakland’s second-team defense?

Wade Phillips said the initial goal was to have the starting offense play 15 snaps (about two series).  Tony Romo and the skill position players ended up on the field for 17 plays, scoring just three points.  Meanwhile, the starting offensive line stayed in the game for another series to block for backup Jon Kitna.

On defense, a few players were on the field well into the second quarter.  After the first two series, Orlando Scandrick and Bryan McCann were in with the first-team defense, but starter Mike Jenkins was the nickel cornerback.

2. Will the first-team offense score a red zone touchdown?

No.  They got their once, but failed to get the ball into the end zone.  I’ve heard some criticism about Jason Garrett’s decision to run a Shotgun pass on first down at the Raiders’ 16-yard line, but I have no problem with the call.  Remember, in a previous article I showed that passing is strategically superior to running on first down anywhere on the field except inside the opposition’s 10-yard line.  At the 16, Garrett was right to pass.

3. What will the Cowboys do at tight end?  Will they run more three-receiver sets and unbalanced lines?

They certainly ran more three and four-receiver sets.  According to my film study, the Cowboys ran just seven two-tight end sets of a possible 67 plays (10.5 percent), compared to 44 plays with three or more receivers on the field (65.7 percent)–including 23 plays with four receivers.  In comparison, the Cowboys ran a two-tight end set 15.9 percent of the time against the Bengals and just 39.1 percent of plays implemented three receivers (and none with four).

The Cowboys didn’t run an unbalanced line per se, but they did line Pat McQuistan up at tight end for about a dozen plays.  He was never an option in the passing game, of course, so this could be thought of as an unbalanced line.

4. Will Doug Free come out on fire as he did in Week One?  Can Alex Barron rebound after a disappointing start to his Cowboys career?

Free played okay, but not great.  He allowed quarterback Jon Kitna to get sacked at the one-yard line and wasn’t particularly devastating in the run game.  Consistency will be key for him.

Alex Barron did not play due to an injured ankle.

5.  How will the starting receivers do against Raiders cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha?

Not great.  Tony Romo tested Asomugha once on a comeback to Roy Williams, but it was unsuccessful.  In fact, Asomugha nearly intercepted the pass.  Luckily for the ‘Boys wide outs, Asomugha isn’t on the schedule this season.

6. Will the second-string offensive line perform better on Thursday?

Yes, but not by much.  They allowed two sacks (Robert Brewster and Travis Bright) after yielding four in the Hall of Fame game, but the running game is still dragging.  Robert Brewster is really struggling and has given the coaches no signs that he is ready to even be a reliable backup.  They better hope Alex Barron comes back on fire.

7.  Will Robert Brewster get flagged for illegal formation?

After reviewing film of the Bengals game, I noticed that Robert Brewster was dangerously close to lining up in the backfield on a few plays.  I am fairly certain the coaches noticed this as well and corrected him on it, as he was much closer to the line of scrimmage last night.  In fact, there were a few plays where it appeared he may have lined up too close to the ball.

8. Can Stephen Bowen continue the success he had in Sunday’s game?  How about Victor Butler and Brandon Williams?

Bowen was quiet last night.  After Bowen dominated on Sunday night, it was Jason Hatcher’s turn against Oakland.  Hatcher looked quick on his feet and could be pushing for a starting job.

Butler played well again, particularly in the run game.  We all know he can get to the passer, but his improvement in the run game is one of the largest jumps in ability I have seen from any player this season.

Williams had an average night.  He is explosive off of the ball, but sometimes he runs himself out of plays.  Ironically, I see Butler as the better run-stopper (and overall player) right now.

9. Jamar Wall has struggled all preseason.  How will he play against a less-intimidating Raiders receiver corps?

Wall had an up-and-down night, although probably more down than up.  He allows too big of a cushion in coverage to make up for his lack of speed.  He’s particularly poor at covering out-breaking and deep routes, although he does well defending slants.  In fact, the Cowboys had a chance at a probable game-winning interception that was the result of a deflection by Wall on a slant route.

10.  How will rookies Sean Lee and Akwasi Owusu-Ansah perform in their first live game action?

To be determined in Week Three versus San Diego

11. Will the starting defense contain Raiders running back Michael Bush?

The Cowboys did fairly well in containing Bush.  He had seven carries for 31 yards.  The Cowboys tend to struggle against small, shifty backs.

12. How will David Buehler respond after a shaky start to his NFL field goal kicking career?

Magnificently.  Buehler was one of the lone bright spots for Dallas, as he was three-for-three on field goals and drove the ball near the back of the end zone on all of his kickoffs.  More importantly, he struck the ball really well–something he didn’t do against the Bengals.

13. Can the Cowboys fix the problems that plagued their punt coverage unit against Cincy?

The coverage units didn’t get an overwhelming number of opportunities (due to a lack of scoring and a lot of touchbacks), but they did well.  Jesse Holley seems to always be the first guy down on punt coverage.

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Preseason Week Two, Cowboys vs. Raiders: Initial Post-Game Notes


Offense

  • I need to break down the film, but the Cowboys didn’t seem to run “Double Tight Strong” much tonight.  That is probably due to the lack of tight end depth.  They did line up in the formation on the first play of the game, however, once again running a strong side dive.
  • Tony Romo actually struggled a little bit tonight.  He definitely held into the ball too long on a few occasions, which he admitted in a fourth quarter interview.  That probably stems from knowing he has limited opportunities in the second preseason game and wanting to make some plays.  There’s no reason to worry.
  • Deon Anderson blocked well again tonight and even caught two passes.  The latter won’t happen much, but the former has become a regularity.
  • Doug Free wasn’t nearly as dominant as he was against Cincy.  He allowed a sack of Jon Kitna and a few pressures.  I will watch him more closely on film and report back to you tomorrow.
  • Kevin Ogletree is having a poor preseason.  He dropped at least one pass tonight (two others he could have possibly caught in traffic) and he isn’t performing particularly well on special teams.  I don’t know if he thinks his roster spot is guaranteed, but it isn’t.
  • Stephen McGee is really having trouble throwing underneath routes.  He is late on check downs and simply doesn’t appear to have great touch even when he is on time.

Defense

  • Bradie James was all over the field.  He looked particularly impressive in pass coverage, which is good news for a Dallas defense that currently sees a struggling second-year player (Jason Williams) and a rookie (Sean Lee) fighting for nickel duties.
  • Orlando Scandrick has really impressed me thus far this preseason.  He was all over Jordan Shipley last week and played well again tonight.  He seems to be more willing throw his body around to make tackles too, which is important since he struggled a bit in run support last season (he missed 12.3 percent of tackles).
  • Bryan McCann continues to impress me.  He has great speed and play-making ability at cornerback and he nearly broke a punt return for a touchdown tonight.  He showed some poor technique at times tonight, but he’s probably the most naturally talented of the three cornerbacks vying for that fourth spot at the position.
  • Leon Williams had an up and down night.  He is tremendous in tight areas, utilizing his strength to be dominant (at times) against the run.  He struggled in space, however, missing a few tackles in the open field and dropping a potentially game-winning interception.
  • I like what I saw from both Junior Siavii and Josh Brent tonight.  Siavii showed some toughness and held up well against the run.  Brent is like the energizer bunny.  He made what was perhaps the play of the night when he chased down Raiders running back Michael Bennett to make a tackle about 20 yards downfield.  I doubt the Cowboys can sneak him on the practice squad at this point.
  • Jason Hatcher looked really good tonight.  He could eventually unseat Marcus Spears as the starting defensive end opposite Igor Olshansky.
  • Keith Brooking looked solid in coverage, staying step for step with Raiders tight end Zach Miller.  He shows you don’t have to possess the natural athleticism of a player like Jason Williams to be a Pro Bowl-type player.
  • Speaking of Jason Williams, he played much better tonight.  Ironically, he is excelling against the run, not the pass.  He did look more comfortable in coverage tonight, though, and his improvement will at least make it somewhat difficult for Sean Lee to secure the nickel linebacker spot.
  • I can’t say enough about how much Victor Butler has improved his run defense.  He is becoming an all-around player, and he has outplayed Brandon Williams in my opinion.  He gives the Cowboys some confidence should Anthony Spencer ever go down.
  • Jamar Wall struggled again at cornerback, but not as much as on Sunday night.  He made a nice drive on a slant route late in the game, breaking up the pass for what should have been an interception.  He has trouble covering out-breaking routes and deep balls, however.

Special Teams

  • David Buehler really looked sensational.  He made all three of his field goal attempts, but more importantly, he struck every ball very well.  That wasn’t the case against the Bengals on Sunday night.  He was also incredible on kickoffs, as expected.  It is nice to see his extra duties aren’t hindering his power on kickoffs.
  • Mat McBriar must be one of the most under-appreciate players in the league.  He punted a ball nearly 70 yards while standing inches from the back of the end zone.  His ability to not only punt powerfully, but also directionally, is so important to Dallas.


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Preseason Week Two, Cowboys vs. Raiders: 13 Things to Watch

Before reading the Cowboys vs. Raiders preview below, take a look at our initial game notes from the Hall of Fame game, what we learned about the Cowboys, and our final player grades from Sunday night.

1. How much will the starters play and will they erupt against Oakland’s second-team defense?

The playing time for the starters will really be a situation to monitor in every preseason game.  Coach Wade Phillips said the starters’ overall playing time will remain steady despite an additional preseason game.  When you combine that with the fact the Cowboys will be coming off of just three days rest, you probably won’t see the starters too long.  A full quarter is standard for the second preseason game, although it wouldn’t surprise us to see the No.1 guys leave a little earlier than that.

Don’t forget that this is Oakland’s first preseason game, meaning their starters will be out of the game before you know it.  It is very possible the Cowboys’ first team offense (and defense) will still be in the game against Oakland’s second-team defense (and offense).  Expect domination.

2. Will the first-team offense score a red zone touchdown?

They didn’t on Sunday night despite four plays inside the five-yard line.  Roy Williams was targeted on two of the team’s three pass attempts in that area.  Tight end Jason Witten didn’t get a look, although Dallas is sure to use very bland plays in preseason.  In fact, look at some of the trends we noticed from the Bengals game.

3. What will the Cowboys do at tight end?  Will they run more three-receiver sets and offbalance lines?

Sicko probably won’t suit up (concussion), but he hasn’t been ruled out just yet.  If he plays, he will probably get a lot of work. Whether it is this week or next, it will be interesting to see how Sicko performs knowing his chances of making the squad just skyrocketed with John Phillips out for the season.

With John Phillips out for the season, Scott Sicko will need to prove he is a capable blocker to make the 53-man roster.

Backup tight end Martellus Bennett is expected to miss his second straight game with an ankle injury.  Bennett could theoretically more value to the team now than ever, but not so if he is on the bench.

The Cowboys recently signed tight end DajLeon Farr to fill a vacancy at the position.  Farr and Jason Witten are the only tight ends on the roster available to play Thursday.

The big questions is, with Farr having just been signed, how much will Witten play?  It is unlikely the Cowboys will force Witten to play due to a simple lack of depth, so Farr is going to have to learn the offense quickly.  Fullback Chris Gronkowski could also see some time at tight end.

No matter who plays tight end (and how much), expect the Cowboys to run a lot of three-receiver sets and offbalance lines to combat the tight end depth issue.

4. Will Doug Free come out on fire as he did in Week One?  Can Alex Barron rebound after a disappointing start to his Cowboys career?

Free looked sensational in pass protection and strong in run blocking against a worthy adversary in the Bengals’ Antwan Odom. Meanwhile, Barron gave up a sack and struggled on a bunch of other plays.  If Barron plays (he tweaked an ankle on Sunday night), how will he do after losing a ton of ground on Free?

5.  How will the starting receivers do against Raiders cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha?

We think Asomugha is the best cornerback in the game.  We even listed him as the fourth-best player in the NFL in our list of the league’s top 105 players.

Asomugha generally mans one side of the field, so Miles Austin, Roy Williams, and Patrick Crayton could all get cracks at him.  Austin played fairly well against Asomugha on Thanksgiving last season.

6. Will the second-string offensive line perform better on Thursday?

Other than Barron, the rest of the second-string linemen were below average as well.  Robert Brewster struggled at both left and right tackle and Pat McQuistan was awful at guard.  Quarterbacks Jon Kitna and Stephen McGee were running for their lives, meaning an injury to any of the starting linemen could spell disaster for Dallas.

In our first “Grading the ‘Boys” segment of the season, we gave Barron, Brewster, Travis Bright, Pat McQuistan, and Mike Tepper grades of D, D, C-, D-, and D, respectively.  Wow.

7.  Will Robert Brewster get flagged for illegal formation?

We noted in our post-film study observations that right tackle Robert Brewster was very close to lining up in the backfield on a few occasions.  Let’s see if the coaches noticed it and correct his alignment by Thursday.

8. Can Stephen Bowen continue the success he had in Sunday’s game?  How about Victor Butler and Brandon Williams?

Bowen was a monster against the Bengals.  He displayed incredible burst and really gave the Cowboys a lot of confidence about their defensive end situation.

The same can be said for outside linebackers Victor Butler and Brandon Williams.  The Cowboys didn’t address the position in this year’s draft because of their confidence in these two players, and it appears to be paying off.  We were particularly impressed with Butler, whose run defense looks much improved.  He made multiple tackles after running across the backfield from the weak side of the formation.  He really had a tremendous night.

Consistency will be key for all three of these players, so let’s hope they carry their success into Thursday night’s match-up.

9. Jamar Wall has struggled all preseason.  How will he play against a less-intimidating Raiders receiver corps?

We would now label Wall a longshot to make the roster.  He hasn’t played particularly well during any phase of the offseason or preseason.  He made poor decisions in coverage, looked less-than-stellar on punt returns, and badly missed a tackle on Jordan Shipley’s long punt return.

He needs to pick up his play immediately to have a chance at cracking the 53-man roster (and perhaps even the practice squad at this point).

10.  How will rookies Sean Lee and Akwasi Owusu-Ansah perform in their first live game action?

Both players will probably suit up after returning to practice.  Pay close to attention to Sean Lee’s coverage, as his primary role this season figures to be as a nickel linebacker.

Meanwhile, ‘Kwasi could return kicks and should see some time at free safety.  Let’s see if the small-school product has NFL-caliber game.

And just because we can’t get enough AOA. . .


11. Will the starting defense contain Raiders running back Michael Bush?

This is important because a few of the starting running backs the Cowboys will face this season are somewhat similar to Bush.  Brandon Jacobs and Larry Johnson are both big, bruising backs who still have decent speed.  The Cowboys’ big 3-4 defense usually comes out on top against those types of backs.

It is small, shifty backs that typically trouble the Dallas defense.  Raiders running back Darren McFadden is out due to a hamstring injury, though, so the ‘Boys might see a bit more of Michael Bush.

12. How will David Buehler respond after a shaky start to his NFL field goal kicking career?

We have predicted Buehler will win all kicking duties and discussed why we think this would be the right move, but Buehler didn’t do much to help his case in Week One.  His kickoffs were again sensational, but his accuracy on field goals (and even his extra point) left much to be desired.  He will get another shot to prove himself Thursday night, but a similar performance would probably force the Cowboys to add a veteran.

13. Can the Cowboys fix the problems that plagued their punt coverage unit against Cincy?

Jordan Shipley’s punt return to the Cowboys’ two-yard line was the result of poor punt coverage and a few missed tackles.  The play of the special teams was a major reason for Dallas’ 2009 success, so that problem has to get fixed this week.