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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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Cowboys vs. Raiders Live In-Game Updates, Observations

For the 95 percent of Cowboys fans who will be unable to watch the Cowboys game tonight, I will be posting live updates on our Twitter account (widget embedded below).  These will include specific bits about what I observe regarding play-calls, specific formations, and certain players.

In particular, I will focus on the 10 players I listed as under the most pressure this preseason.  Go Cowboys!